Strategy vs. Tactics: Nobody told me I needed both
July 26, 2006 9:13 AM   Subscribe

Strategic thinking vs. Tactical thinking. Help me understand the difference and improve my abilities

I noticed that this post mentions "strategic play" and "tactical play" in the game Go. And last year, I took a personality test as part of a job interview in which I scored low in "strategic thinking" and even lower in "tactical thinking." I'm afraid I've always used tactics and strategy interchangably, and don't really understand the distinction. Improve my understanding, logic gurus of Metafilter, and suggest ways a right-brained creative type can develop mad Machiavellian skillz.
posted by junkbox to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
"Tactics" tends to be towards short-term goals, and "strategy" implies long-term thinking. In chess, for example, a knight fork (moving a knight so it attacks two valuable enemy pieces at the same time, such that only one of the two can be saved) is a tactic. Creating a weakness in your opponent's pawn structure--something you may not be able to take advantage of right away, but may provide you with opportunities and your opponent with difficulties throughout the course of the game--is a strategic move.

Chess and Go both require understanding of both tactics and strategy, but on the whole, chess is a more tactical game and Go more strategic.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:22 AM on July 26, 2006 [1 favorite]

The way I think of distinguishing the two is that tactical thinking is generally short-term, while strategic thinking is generally long-term. In the case of go, tactical thinking involves small, localized areas of the board; strategic thinking involves placing pieces that will eventually allow you to control larger areas.

Or in terms of war and wargames--tactical thinking involves skirmishes between platoons, while strategic thinking involves the placement of divisions.

One can have good tactical thinking, but bad strategic thinking--think of the saying, "He won the battle, but lost the war."
posted by Prospero at 9:23 AM on July 26, 2006

Strategy is long term, and implies a larger goal or purpose. Tactic is short term, and lighter on the philosophy.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:23 AM on July 26, 2006

A great theoretical take on strategy and tactic from a sociological perspective can be found in Michel de Certeau's book "The Practice of Everyday Life."
posted by mrmojoflying at 9:42 AM on July 26, 2006

Best answer: I like to think of strategy as "where you want to go" and tactics as "how you're going to get there".
posted by grex at 10:01 AM on July 26, 2006 [2 favorites]

Strategy is the goal, tactics are the steps
posted by Mick at 10:04 AM on July 26, 2006

Perhaps, if you've played both chess and go, you can understand it in those terms.

I am very fond of the saying that, "Chess is a battle. Go is a war."

There are elements of strategy and tactics in both -- but chess, on the whole is more of a tactical struggle -- there is hardly a moment when the entire board isn't all part of some immediate struggle.

On the other hand, a game of go often has many individual "battles" one after the other, at times alternating between several. You can think of it, perhaps, as numerous games of chess, all being played on a larger board, and all interactive with each other.

Each chess game, or individual "front" in a go game, is a battle, and you use tactics to win it.

The go game, on a whole, is a war, consisting of multiple battles. Each battle may have its own tactics, some of which may involve accepting a loss in one area so you can win in another, but they are all tied together under one larger plan -- your strategy.

Another way to look at it:

You can only have tactics when your struggle has a goal. The default goal for any struggle is "win". It is only through strategy that this goal can change -- perhaps to "win without killing the aggressor", or even "lose, so I can win elsewhere where it's more important."

If you were held up on the street by a gun-wielding mugger, you would have a wide range of options, or tactics, available to you. You could run. You could try to disarm him. You could curl up in a ball and cry. You could give him your wallet, because you realize that it is no where near as important as your life, get away, and contact the police.

It is only your strategy -- "get this bastard", "give up completely", "live and do the right thing later" -- that gives you the goal upon which you can abse your tactics.

Does that help any?
posted by jammer at 10:16 AM on July 26, 2006

I think politics provides a great simple example.

GOAL: Win the election.
STRATEGY: Paint our opponant as soft on crime.
TACTICS: Run a commercial about his opposition to the death penalty; force him to go on record opposing the death penalty in a state senate vote; release summaries of criminals he defended as an attorney.

(This should go without saying, but this is just an example. It doesn't refer to a specific campaign/candidate or my views about an issue.)

Not coincidentlaly, one of the best discussions of the differences between strategy and tactics is in the Carville/Begala book, "Buck Up, Suck Up, and Come Back When You Foul Up."
posted by j-dawg at 10:16 AM on July 26, 2006

Put most simply:

Tactics = Winning the battle.
Strategy = Winning the war.
posted by dersins at 10:34 AM on July 26, 2006

Tactics = kicking over the bucket of milk
Strategy = killing the cow
posted by lunchbox at 10:59 AM on July 26, 2006

As for attaining strategic or tactical skill--well, you could read one of the classical works, like The Art of War. But much of Sun Tsu's advice--things like "Appear at points which the enemy will be hard-pressed to defend"--is often a) kinda obvious, and b) not particularly helpful to someone who's not an ancient Chinese general.

But that's sort of the way with strategic or tactical competence--it's usually specific to a single field. Napoleon's genius for large-scale conflict didn't really carry over into his personal or political life; similarly, a modern-day Starcraft phenom is not necessarily suitable to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. (I'm not even going to get into Bobby Fischer.) That's because, in addition to some natural flair for the creative or unexpected, real strategic or tactical brilliance comes from deep experience and familiarity with your particular field of endeavor.

So, Junkbox, I would avoid trying to be a master tactician in all things, and concentrate on a single arena. Do you want to be a genius in business? Read a shitload of CEO memoirs and business success stories. Do the same for Go, or chess, or Magic: the Gathering. Figure out what set the masters apart--how they intuited future developments, how they rallied their followers, how they outmaneuvered their enemies, and most, of all, how they themselves started. Show me a master strategist or tactician, and I'll show you someone who learned from somebody else with more experience.
posted by Iridic at 11:00 AM on July 26, 2006

I'd say the difference between strategy and tactics is even more pronounced, even for game play, than is suggested in this thread so far. Strategy is not merely maintaining sight of the long term options for realizing a goal of the game, but in the best players, also includes an appreciation and study of the opponent's thinking and response to challenge. As such, strategy is a willingness to abstract and employ observations about people and game situations inductively. "He's aggressive." and "She's tired." and "He has superior board position." are strategic statements. Generally, strategic statements create a hierarchy, from the most general "I want to win." down to the most specific, "I need to control the end game." without encapsulating methods of realizing that hierarchy.

Tactics are the deductive counterpart to strategy, which encapsulate situation specific observations and methods for strategic statements. "Stalling aggravates him." and "Confusing her with annoying chit chat is easier when she's tired." and "I must avoid exchanging any more pieces in the center of the board." are tactical responses to the strategic statements offered above. The more specific the tactical statement, the greater its utility. There are generally many tactical alternatives for every strategic choice, which is one reason that tactical considerations rapidly overwhelm human reasoning, and why the ability to command in conflict is so rare.

Tactics fail strategy more often than strategy fails tactics.
posted by paulsc at 11:02 AM on July 26, 2006 [3 favorites]

I once heard that strategy was the plan put in place before a battle and that tactics were what you did during it.
posted by bitdamaged at 11:21 AM on July 26, 2006

I'd certainly go with bitdamaged's perspective in the field of sport. I'd go into a race (speaking as a cox here) with a strategy which is a plan we have for how the team is going to acheive its goals (coming first for example).

Tactics are what I employ on the spot to deal with how things actually turn out and what the other teams do as we're racing.
posted by edd at 11:52 AM on July 26, 2006

I think there is a little more depth to the relationship between strategy and tactics than has thusfar been presented.

Using the example of a political campaign where your goal is to win using a strategy of dis/misinformation to associate your opponent with those who are soft on crime while deflecting the same idea way from yourself, your tactics aren't just random actions that align with that strategy, they are calculated activities that are influenced by your strategy.

For example, a commercial that conflates a vote made by your opponent with a vote that favors crime (or in current terms, terrorism) provides you with a strawman to turn to when you're faced with criticism of your own policies.

On the other hand, someone might propose that you send a couple of local thugs to your opponents campaign office, have them break in and plant drugs, and then make an anoymous tip. How soft on crime is someone who is themselves a criminal? It might advance your progress towards your goal, but it certainly doesn't align with your strategy.

A similar connection can be seen when you look at the differences between tactical and strategic war planning.

Napoleon, after his return from Elba, devised a strategy to re-expand France's sphere of influence to include most of western Europe. As any student of history knows, military conquest is frequently unsucessful in meeting such goals. Napoleon's tactical failure in the battle of Waterloo was not necessarily a failure of the tactics he employed in the battle, but it was certainly a tactical failure to fight the battle in the first place. It can be argued ad infiitum whether Napoleon would've had any success expanding France's influence via diplomacy, but it's hard to imagine such a spectacular failure as Waterloo if he had made an attempt.

Another militarily-oriented way of thinking about the two is to take a look at the difference between a tactical nuclear weapon and a strategic nuclear weapon. An attack submarine may be equipped with nuclear tipped torpedoes, or a fighter with nuclear air-to-air missiles, but these are nowhere near the same standard conception of nuclear weapons as giant Minuteman III missile silos in the middle of Wyoming that can destroy Moscow in a single hit.
posted by feloniousmonk at 12:19 PM on July 26, 2006 [2 favorites]

Historically speaking, when you're talking about really big struggles, there are often gradations and more tiers. Take WWII for instance for the Allies after Pearl Harbor:

Objective: win the war
Grand Strategy: Germany first, Japan later
Strategy: open as many fronts as possible against Germany so as to force Germany to be weak somewhere
Grand Tactics: Invasion of Africa, Invasion of Sicily, Invasion of Italy, Invasion of France, moving corps around and assigning them where they'll do the most good
Tactics: pretty much everything done by divisional commanders or below. More or less, "How do we capture that bridge over there?"
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:13 PM on July 26, 2006

There's no clean dividing line between strategy and tactics, and that may be part of the confusion here. And in fact it isn't easy or straightforward to explain strategy.

There was a motto coined for Reversi (Othello): "a minute to learn, a lifetime to master" but that applies even more to Go. There's no random element to the game and no hidden information. So how was a 4 Dan able to whip me even though I had a nine stone handicap?

It was his superior understanding of strategy. And if it could easily be explained, the game wouldn't be as fascinating as it is.

Historically there have been great generals who clearly showed their understanding of strategy and tactics, but you won't find too much of that in the period between the American Civil War and about 1985, because war in that period is almost totally dominated by logistics.

Earlier, though, there are cases of tactical and strategic brilliance which shine brightly. I think the Battle of Cowpens in the American Revolutionary War is one of the very best examples of brilliant tactics in the history of warfare, because the rebel commander actually used a perceived weakness of some of his own forces and made it a strength in his battle plan.

Some of his men were well trained and reliable, and some of them were militia who could be considered unsteady. He put the militia out front with orders to get off two volleys and then to retreat -- which is what they would have done even if he hadn't given them that order.

It was a tactical masterpiece which opened up strategic possibilities, and led eventually to the British giving up entirely on trying to fight in the Carolinas, a major victory for the rebellion.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 1:40 PM on July 26, 2006

There's no clean dividing line between strategy and tactics

Que? Pretty much every text I've ever read makes a clear distinction between the two. Even the OED has it sorted:

strategy: The art of a commander-in-chief; the art of projecting and directing the larger military movements and operations of a campaign. Usually distinguished from tactics, which is the art of handling forces in battle or in the immediate presence of the enemy.

In particular, the OED cites Mahan 1889:

Before hostile armies or fleets are brought into contact (a word which perhaps better than any other indicates the dividing line between tactics and strategy).

In the workplace, strategic thinking involves identifying a need to be met, or a problem to be solved; determining which resources you will marshal to meet that need or solve that problem; and setting the criteria for success. The need, or the problem, lies at the centre of your thinking. You are focussed on a desired state that lies in an uncertain future.

And uncertainty is where the tactical thinker comes to the fore, in the fog that lies between the strategist's mind and reality. The role of a tactical thinker is to know the criteria for success; quickly assess the current reality; identify obstacles to meeting the criteria for success; and to direct resources to overcoming those obstacles, or circumventing them. Reality constantly shifts as the tactical thinker's actions have an effect; he or she must constantly review the situation, identify which obstacles have been overcome, how the situation has changed in the meantime, consider whether the criteria are still achievable, and so on.

Unfortunately, many modern managers, especially middle or line managers, are expected to do both. The main problem with this is that strategic thinking becomes tainted by tactical thinking, and vice versa. For some reason, this is perceived as a good thing, and this "discipline" has a name - "strategic planning". The result is an irrational attachment to a plan, rather than a focus on an objective and a flexible approach to achieving it. People believe that that plan offers certain victory - stick to the plan, and the objective will be achieved, as sure as day follows night. In the absence of a clear separation between strategy and tactics, however, emotion, doubt and confusion reign.

Operation Eagle Claw (see also) was a great example of strategic planning in action - a hodgepodge of strategic and tactical thinking and an irrational attachment to the plan rather than the objective and the changing reality. The result was a total clusterfuck. The absence of tactical thinking was demonstrated by confusion and chaos on the ground, with arguments about whether to proceed even though the criteria for success could not possibly be met. The absence of strategic thinking is evidenced by muddy thinking about the desired state. "Rescue the hostages" - then what? Watch the Iranians grab another group of Westerners off the street, and go through the whole thing all over again? Strategic thinkers look beyond success to consider how the world will be different if they succeed - including perverse outcomes.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:40 PM on July 26, 2006 [2 favorites]

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