I’m still surprised by the number of people I work with, people in positions where strategy is clearly in their job description (if not their job title) who confuse strategy and tactics.

First, you have a goal. A goal should be tangible and measurable. Hitting a sales target is a goal. Being the #1 whatever (based on market share) is a goal. To be the most dominant force in the XYZ industry is a goal. Starbucks goal is to be the dominant coffee seller in the world (with a sales number attached to it, I would expect). Apple’s goal is to be the dominant seller of high-end personal technology products (and a sales number). Notice that neither of those goals has anything to do with anything. There’s no discussion of product lines, branding, corporate structure, etc. It’s the star that the company sails towards.

Strategy is the way in which you are going to attack those strategies in the broadest of strokes. It’s a focus on an audience, market, demographic, or region. It’s a focus on a new line of products that focus on a new audience. There can be multiple strategies, especially if the company is big. Some of Starbucks’ strategies would be: Getting the consumer to spend more outside retail stores or getting each customer to spend more per visit. Some of Apple’s strategies would be: Fill the niche between smartphone and laptop, or become the number one music retailer online.

Tactics are the actions, projects, programs, product families that support the strategy. For Starbucks, if the goal is to have a customer spend more money at each visit, the tactics might involve new non-coffee products.

If it helps, here’s a breakdown in outline form:

  1. Goal
    1. Strategy
      1. Tactic
      2. Tactic
    2. Strategy
      1. Tactic


  1. Goal: Become the world largest coffee seller (and sales target)
    1. Strategy: Get the customer to spend money on Starbucks outside of the retail outlet.
      1. Tactic: VIA instant coffee
      2. Tactic: Sell bulk coffee at more retail outlets (grocery stores, et al)
    2. Get each customer to spend more per visit
      1. Tactic: Introduce new egg sandwiches
      2. Tactic: New flavors of coffee
      3. Tactic: More types of mugs and coffee makers


  1. Goal: Become the largest seller of high-end personal technology products
    1. Strategy: Focus on the niche between iPhone and laptop
      1. Tactic: Apple Air
      2. Tactic: iPad
    2. Strategy: become the largest seller of music online
      1. Tactic: Get the Beatles’ catalog on iTunes
      2. Introduce Ping

If you look at these lists, any of these tactics could become a series of projects, each with their own goals, strategies and tactics. Also, these strategies can support other strategies. For example: To support the strategy of becoming the largest online music distributer, the tactic is to get the Beatles. But what you may not know is that Apple doesn’t make much money on selling songs. They sell songs because having access to the world’s largest library of legal music means that more people will choose iPods over Zunes (which is a tactic inside a strategy that’s probably called something like “focus on non-computer products” which is in itself a tactic of a strategy called “How to get people who won’t buy Apple computers because they are too expensive to get a taste of Apple technology”).

In a nutshell, as a rule of thumb, on the back of a napkin, at the end of the day, I would just say that strategies are obvious (meaning, that anyone outside the company can see them and that they don’t surprise anyone) but tactics are where the surprise is. Anyone could have seen a niche between phones and laptops (strategy), but the surprise was a product called iPad.