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During the deliver of one of our Product Strategy workshops during a recent quarterfinal rounds of the World Cup, some of the participants got into a heated debate regarding a match between Netherlands-Costa Rica. During that game, the coach of the Netherlands team, anticipating that they would likely be forced into a penalty shootout, decided to substitute their current goaltender for one who had a better track record in these types of situations. Knowing that only one more substitution would be allowed, it was this last minute decision that ultimately won the game for the Netherlands.
As the debate in the room unfolded, the passion grew as more participants started to join the discussion. The issue at hand, however, had nothing to do with the validity of the move or the strength of the teams or even soccer at all for that matter. Instead, what was being discussed was whether or not this particular move was a strategy or a tactic.
On the one hand, approximately half of the room adamantly argued that the coach’s decision was a clear-cut strategy. Their basis for this position was the fact that the coach had an objective in mind, he analyzed the variables that he had to work with, he anticipated what might happen, and he quickly implemented a plan that allowed him to achieve his objective.
On the other hand, the rest of the room felt that this move was much more tactical in nature. Their reasoning was that the coach made an on-the-fly decision without (they assumed) doing any real long-range planning. In their minds, this was no different than any number of other tactical “playbook” moves that the coach had been executing dynamically throughout the game.
After the group talked through their arguments for perhaps a little longer than necessary, they asked us to mediate. In summary, this is what we had to say…
Sometimes in business (and perhaps in life), we get more caught up in definitions than we do in meanings. Technically speaking, a strategy is a plan to achieve a desired goal, while a tactic is an action you take to carry out a strategy. If you are tasked with writing out a formal strategic plan, you might be inclined to try to fit some type of written statements into these neat little buckets. But, in real life, when you are actually trying to make something happen in the world, the line between strategies and tactics is really quite blurry.
Sometimes, whether you call something a strategy or a tactic doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that all of your actions are strategic in nature. That is; every action needs to be taken within the context of some overall goal and some analysis (however instantaneous) of what you think is going to happen next.
Equally important is the fact that your strategies must be carried out through real actions.
Tactics without strategies are merely random acts.
Strategies without tactics are nothing more than dreams. What you call them is unimportant, as long as they both exist together, in harmony, and balanced in a way that will allow you to achieve your overall goals.
So how do you know if your actions are, indeed, strategic? For us, the litmus test is whether or not you can explain not only what you’re doing, but also why you’re doing it. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have an effective strategy; but you do have a strategy nonetheless!
In the case of the Netherlands team, clearly their winning was not a result of random acts. Changing out the goalie was an action that was driven by a meaningful strategy designed to achieve a specific goal based on what the coach anticipated was likely to happen next. The confusion in terminology was probably due to the fact that both conditions – strategy and tactic – existed together, perhaps even instantaneously. So it was a strategy and an action all rolled into one. Call it what you will; but it was that combination that allowed Netherlands to win the game.
And if we spend too much time arguing over the semantics, especially in business, we may just miss that critical point.