The three words in the title above are well-understood but often misused. When it comes to business and the web specifically, there is a lot of confusion about these three little words and how they relate. Let me try to clear it up.

Goals are the top of the pyramid and are few and largely static.

Goals shouldn’t change very often and the number of goals should be manageable. Goals tend to be big, sweeping things that serve the primary function of the organization. They shouldn’t be too vague (“increase sales”) or too specific (“get on Facebook”). A goal should be something like “grow market share in the education sector”. This is telling us what we desire and where we desire it. It implies a benchmark (current market share) and a tangible way to measure success. Another example goal might be “issue a new release of our software every quarter.” Again, it tells us what to do, when to do it and implies that we are not doing it now.

Strategies are conceptual, nonspecific ways to achieve the goals.

There are generally several strategies per goal and they tell us what to do, not how to do it. The strategies may change depending on their success or failure. A strategy for our first example goal above might be “inspire students to talk to their parents about our products.” Another strategy might be “draw attention to our products via social media sites.” For our second example goal we might have a strategy “create better information on project status and progress” or “keep the team delivery-focused.”

Tactics are experiments.

They are things we are going to try to enact our strategy. There are a lot of them and they all serve a specific strategy. We throw out the ineffective ones and reinforce the effective ones on an iterative basis. We mentioned “get on Facebook” above. It’s a horrible goal and not a well-articulated strategy but it is a perfectly good tactic. Maybe Facebook can draw attention to our products and inspire kids to talk to their parents about it. For our second example, tactics include daily re-estimation sessions, nightly builds or a shared whiteboard with today’s deliverables. With every tactic you should be able to state the strategy it is supporting. In retrospect you should be able to¬†prove¬†whether a tactic helped, hurt or was neutral to the strategy.

Said another way, goals are why, strategies are what and tactics are how.

I will close with a seafaring analogy. The Queen says, “Go get gold from America.” This is a goal. The Admiral says “We shall avoid the pirates by taking the northern route.” This is a strategy. The Captain says, “Raise the mainsail and trim the jib!” These are tactics. The Queen wants something done. The Admiral sets the course, the Captain takes care of the million little details to sail the course.

This is not pedantic. The meanings behind these words are a guide to our thinking. If you create tactics instead of strategies, you have no star to steer by, no Admiral focused on the big picture. I never denigrate tactics. They are where the rubber meets the road. But the key to success is understanding how, and if, they are serving your strategic goals.

About Michael
Michael is the Chief Scientist at Clockwork. He is a tech dork, musician, astrophysicist, and former CFO. He likes data and good ideas. He blogs at lolife.com and podcasts at Slacker Astronomy.
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