It seems everyone and everything these days is strategic. We have strategic plans, enter into strategic partnerships, undertake strategic marketing, make strategic hires, and even, according to one State Department official, practice “strategic patience” in the Middle East. Tactical is out, strategic is in. The label gets tacked onto everything. After all, who in their right mind would say they are un-strategic?
In communications, strategic refers to the ability to assess the business environment, refine messages, target audiences, and, most importantly, anticipate future needs. In this case, as in others, strategic involves long-term and sometimes bigger picture thinking. Tactical work is more task-oriented and achieves important but shorter-term goals.
The reality is that just by saying we are strategic does not make it so. Like so many other good words, strategic has become so overused that it seems to have lost its meaning. According to Webster’s Dictionary, strategic means “of or relating to a general plan that is created to achieve a goal in war, politics, etc., usually over a long period of time.” In finance, keeping the books is tactical; deciding where to make investments is strategic. Hiring someone to write press releases and marketing copy helps you carry forward some basic operations. But bringing on board someone who can help you get into a new market is a strategic hire.
Tactics without strategy is like loading the car with a full tank of gas, suitcases packed with summer and winter clothes and then hitting the road only to realize that you want to go to Europe and you still can’t get there, even with all your preparations. Strategy without tactics is trying to ski without putting on the skis. Smart companies and organizations understand the difference. How can you tell for sure? Ask yourself these two questions:
- Is this effort about achieving long-term goals (strategic) or accomplishing something here and now (tactical)?
- Is the effort big picture (strategic) or more specific to a particular task (tactical)
Strategy and tactics are equally important. To succeed against a profoundly changing backdrop, you need both. The trick is to achieve a smart balance between the two. And if you are going to label yourself or an initiative, avoid the meaningless designation. Make sure you can demonstrate what it means to be strategic.