Strategy & tactics | what & how

Tactics and strategy are easy to confuse. Andy Grove summarizes the difference well:

As you formulate in words what you plan to do, the most abstract and general summary of those actions meaningful to you is your strategy. What you’ll do to implement the strategy is your tactics. (High Output Management)

In other words, the strategy is the what, and the tactics are the how.

Top-level alignment on strategy is critical at a company — the few people in charge need to ensure that they agree on direction of travel. This can often be accomplished through a regularly scheduled leadership meeting. If the leadership team is distributed globally, meeting in-person at an offsite every 6–12 months is also an efficient way to hammer out strategy.

However, the ‘what’ is often easy to align on, and boils down to specific initiatives to either grow (increase basket sizes, expand to new markets, make more product) or reduce costs (lower CAC, reducing fulfillment costs, insource vs outsource decisions). Measurement of the what is critical, and frameworks such as OKRs can help do this.

However, the ‘how’ can be much harder to align on. In a startup environment without a well-oiled business model, there are always various ways of pursuing the same strategy. But not all methods have the same likelihood of success or the same cost & resourcing requirements, and as initiatives unfold information asymmetry means tradeoffs on the how are constantly being made. It may turn out that the strategy that was agreed initially looks very different as it makes its way through implementation — or was misunderstood even to begin with.

So, make sure you regularly put in the extra effort — after the offsite or the weekly management meeting — to ensure there’s alignment not just on what to do, but how to do it.