The most overused word in business today is "strategy." If you have ever sat through a business meeting before, you know what I'm talking about. People use the term to describe everything from, "We need a strategy for this meeting" to "What's our strategy to get out of here on time by 5:00?" I've even heard someone say, "What's our strategy for getting lunch today?" and "What's our bathroom break strategy?"
The problem is that people have overused the term to such a degree, it doesn't even have the correct meaning anymore. When people point to "strategies" they are actually referring to "tactics" - which is a critical difference in how you think about your business.
Let me explain.
Let's start by defining our terms. A strategy is where your business is going over the longer term - anywhere from two to five years from now. And knowing where your business is going is critical to how you make decisions in the short-term, which is what tactics are.
A great way to think about this distinction is to recall the story from Alice In Wonderland where Alice reaches a crossroads where the Cheshire cat is sitting. Alice asks the cat: "Which road should I take?" In reply, the cat says: "Where are you going?" To that, Alice says: "I don't know." "Then it doesn't matter which road you take," the cat says in response.
The point is that if you don't know where you are going as an organization, you won't know what decisions to take when you reach a fork in the road. If your strategy is known, then it makes it easier to decide which tactics you need to use to reach your long-term destination.
Let's say, for example, that your strategy for your organization is to reach $100 million in annual revenue through new product introductions and globalizing the business. To get there, you might employ a series of tactics like introducing the version 2.0 of the current product and increasing pricing and finding an excellent partner in Japan to address that market. Both of these tactics are consistent with the overall strategy.
Just for the record, the goal of selling more than last year isn't a strategy.
Another way to distinguish between strategy and tactics is time-frame. While it is somewhat arbitrary, I use a rule of thumb that anything that involves a timeline of less than a year should be considered a tactic; anything longer than a year becomes a strategy.
The good news is that most people are exceptional at tackling tactics. Once you give them a clear direction and a strategy, they are great at boiling things down to their critical issues and coming up with a plan to accomplish the goal at hand. It's easy to act on something that you can execute on in the short-term. At the same time, people have a much harder time with strategy, as it's harder to get your head around issues that are so far out in the distance. Strategies are much more ephemeral than tactics, which not everyone can deal with equally. Lots of people claim they are excellent at strategy and my experience is there are far more that are excellent at tactics.
That's why, when you're in a meeting to discuss tactics, avoid any talk of plans or actions that extend beyond a year's time-frame. If it's not something you're going to do in the next 12 months, don't talk about it. Leave those discussions for those meetings that are specifically designed to talk about your strategic vision. In those meetings, resist the urge to get pulled into the present and keep the time horizon greater than a year.
So let's learn from Alice in Wonderland - where we are going is strategy and which fork in the road we take is tactics.