CS Sealey

Sydney-based sub-editor, writer and author

The difference between tactics and strategy

TLDR: Good tactics win the day, but a good strategy will see the overall campaign succeed.

As a writer of fantasy, there comes the inevitable time where forces collide and a war breaks out. Soldiers vie for space in close-quarters melee, cavalry make sweeps across the battlefield and archers rain down hell from above. The general is either in the thick of it all, leading from the front, or sitting astride his horse on a conveniently nearby hill, watching as his plans unfold.

But what is the difference between these two words: tactics and strategy? When it comes to war, these words are often mistakenly used interchangeably, so let’s pick them apart.

tactics (noun)—the placement of troops on a battlefield and their orders during combat; the specific method in which someone or something goes about achieving a goal, often in business or politics

While the army had won a major victory, the general knew that he could not rely on the same tactics should he meet the barbarians again.

Winning the local election would require that he pay greater attention to the political tactics employed by his opponent.

Tactics can often change on the fly. For example, if the general notices that one flank of his army is beginning to deteriorate, he can move his units around to better strengthen that area. Likewise, if he notices that the enemy has a weak spot, he might order his forces to concentrate their arrows or advance to that spot. In a political debate, a candidate may realise that their strong stance towards a certain topic is producing a negative response from their audience, so they might switch up to a more compassionate approach.

strategy (noun)—a plan of action with a larger goal in mind

It was an ambitious strategy—to move from township to township across the country, engaging everyone in their path until they reached the capital city.

While his many in Mr Smith’s constituency spoke out about Mr Jones’ bad policies, Smith knew that his opponent was as gifted as he when it came to political strategy.

It’s all to do with scale, really. In a campaign, the overall strategy might be to invade a country by going along a certain route, lay siege to its capital and overthrow the monarch. But what happens on the battlefield itself each day comes down to tactics—where to put your soldiers, how many of your reserves you call upon, keep the terrain in mind and the weather conditions. In politics, you try to get yourself elected to parliament and then get your party elected to government; but how you go about doing all that comes down to tactics.

The fluidity that is explained above with regards to tactics isn’t as readily available for strategy, as that would require changing the end goal to some extent. Perhaps the general had hoped to take a shorter route through the mountains in order to reach the capital city, but the defending force has blockaded that route. Despite trying many different tactics, the general might be unable to break through the blockade in order to continue on his way. This might result in a change of strategy—to instead march his forces around the mountains. The plan has now changed. They still mean to head towards the city, but their route is vastly different.

These two words can also be applied to many other things, too. In sport, your coach may have a game plan to win the match, so he puts players on the field, makes interchanges and moves people around as necessary (tactics). Your overall goal as a team might be to win the league or to get through as many knockout stages as possible. Where the strategy comes in is when the coach decides to make you all train twice a week instead of once to make you all fitter, or decides against playing in a knockout competition to focus your attention on winning the league.

So whether you’re on a battlefield (unlikely), in an office or playing your sport under the blazing sun, there’s still a difference between tactics and strategy.

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