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I recently read this sentence:

It was a strategic move rather than a tactical one.

I have trouble interpreting it. Can someone help?

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10 Answers

up vote 48 down vote accepted

Tactics address immediate needs; strategy addresses long-term ones. Somtimes it is worth taking a loss in the short term (what would seem like bad tactics) for long-term strategic advantage.

The terms are used with regard to the military but are broader: business, games, financial planning, etc:

  • A chess player makes the strategic decision to sacrifice a rook in order to consolidate control over the center of the board and maintain a strong pawn structure (this example suggested in comments).

  • A business makes the tactical decision to hire temps for the current push or the strategic decision to hire and train permanent employees for the long term.

  • An investor makes the strategic decision to accept risk of short-term loss for possible gains because he doesn't need the money for another decade anyway.

  • And back to the military: a commander may sacrifice a unit (or put it at risk) to achieve a strategic goal of gaining territory.

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@Kit: really? (not knowing) I would have thought 'operational' is even more tactical/immediate than 'tactical. –  Mitch Jun 10 '11 at 18:27
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I would not describe sacking a rook to immediately gain a queen as "strategic"; that's a classic example of short-term tactical thinking. A better example would be "a chess player sacrifices a rook in order to consolidate control over the center of the board and maintain a strong pawn structure". In chess tactics are things like forks, skewers, pins, trades, and so on. Strategies are things like "control the long diagonals" or "maintain tempo by way of constant threats to exposed pieces", or such. –  Eric Lippert Jun 10 '11 at 20:15
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"operations" in military terms is "doing stuff", and would be contrasted with "planning" (deciding what to do next) "logistics" and "training" (getting ready to do stuff). Operations can be tactical or strategic. For example "capturing that hill" is operational, but also tactical. –  DJClayworth Jun 10 '11 at 20:45
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In the wargaming context I grew up in, strategic > operational > tactical. These words were used in the context of scale, both in space and time. A tactical scale example would be the Battle of Jutland: from start to end, resupply was not an option, so the battle had to be finished with no more than your starting resources. An Operational example is the Battle of the Bulge, which was an extended campaign that lasted long enough for resupply and production to be a factor. Strategic would be the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific, where economic war is dominant. –  Mike DeSimone Jun 11 '11 at 4:00
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Just a chess nitpick, but that much material is rarely worth position unless it leads to a forced mate or an immediate commensurate recapture. Sacrificing a pawn is more realistic, albeit less romantic. –  hyperslug Jun 11 '11 at 8:26
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strategic = what
tactical = how

What do we want to achieve?
How do we achieve something?

This is a cite from the Wikipedia article "Strategy":

How a battle is fought is a matter of tactics: the terms and conditions that it is fought on and whether it should be fought at all is a matter of strategy[...]

The explanation at the beginning of this article is a little bit confusing and uses the words how and what in other meanings as well.

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I always liked this expression, it's concise and gets the difference across:

Strategy tells you which hill to take. Tactics tells you how to take it.

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Lieutenants act "Tactically", they respond to the situation in front of them, with a short term objective. They have direct control of all the pawns around them (in theory...).

Generals act "Strategically", they decide where all the lieutenants go, in order to accomplish a greater mission.

Everybody in between, acts "Logistically", they facilitate the lieutenants getting to where the generals want them, at the right time and with the right supplies.

yes, there are many examples of corner cases where people have acted "out of turn". Often to grand effect, as a sergeant stepping in when a lieutenant has been disabled, or a captain fulfilling a tactical role. Such vicarious action does not negate the overall structure.

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Strategic has to do with strategy, and tactical has to do with tactics. Strategic refers to the science or art of planning and directing military movements, tactical refers to the process of achieving the objectives set out by the strategy.
This is strategy:

–noun, plural -gies. 1. Also, strategics. the science or art of combining and employing the means of war in planning and directing large military movements and operations.

This is tactics:

The military science that deals with achieving the objectives set by strategy.

Manoeuvres used against an enemy.

So strategy actually refers to the thinking out, and tactics refers to the doing it. Does this change in "tactical" and "strategic"?

This is tactical:

of or pertaining to tactics, especially military or naval tactics.

This is strategic:

pertaining to, characterized by, or of the nature of strategy: strategic movements.

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  • Strategy is how to achieve a goal (or mission)

  • Tactic is what actions that will meet a strategy (which ultimately will meet a goal).

Another way to differentiate between them, strategy is more about thinking but tactics are more practical.

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Ironic that you and @powtac have opposite answers in terms of "what" and "how". Can you cite a source? –  LarsH Jun 11 '11 at 3:25
    
Well, I am flattered about the fact that you asked me to support my answer and not @powtac. It's an information that I learned in management courses, and I found a website that agrees with my answer. Mission vs. Goals vs. Objectives vs. Strategy vs. Executions vs. Tactics –  Jamie Jun 11 '11 at 9:35
    
I updated my answer, I think the article "Mission vs. Goals ..." uses a bad explanation of the words. –  powtac Jun 11 '11 at 12:18
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A strategic move is generally a more important move that matters in the long term, while a tactical move is less important and matters in a shorter term.

Strategy comes from Greek στρᾰτηγός (stratêgos), "general", which comes from στρᾰτός (stratos), "army", and ἄγω (agô), "to lead". It is used for the kind of decisions a general makes, ones that matter on a large scale.

Tactics comes from Greek τακτικός (taktikos), "fit for arranging", which comes from τάκ-τω/τάττω/τάσσω (taktô/tattô/tassô), "to order, position". It concerns the arranging of troops on the battlefield.

Consider the famous Greek general Pyrrhus, who defeated the Roman legions several times around 280 BC. While he was victorious, he lost so many troops to the Romans that his army would never again be able to defeat the new Roman armies that eventually came, and he lost in the end. His short-lived victory was a strategic defeat: while tactically he achieved his objective of defeating the Romans at the time, he should probably have retreated and let them conquer a province or two. If you win a battle but thereby lose the war, you have achieved a Pyrrhic victory.

In business, these terms are often used metaphorically. But in many cases they are used very loosely, so as to become nearly synonymous. If used in opposition, strategy is usually more important and matters in the long run, while tactics are less important and matter on a smaller scale.

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Means we usually make tactical decisions when we're in hurry? –  Gigili Jun 10 '11 at 19:40
    
+1 - Was going to use Pyrrhus in an answer myself if nobody else had brought it up. –  T.E.D. Jun 11 '11 at 3:02
    
@T.E.D.: Yeah Pyrrhus is my man! Is this 17th-century tragedy "Pyrrhus" by Hopkins ever performed? –  Cerberus Jun 11 '11 at 3:14
    
+1 for etymology –  hyperslug Jun 11 '11 at 8:17
    
I don't agree that a tactic is less important than a strategy. They are different in their scope. Also, I think even tactics can be long-term. I would instead divide the meaning of the two this way: a strategy is knowing what you intend to accomplish and the more abstract general thrust of where you want to be, while a tactic is a concrete move that is selected to support that strategy. E.g., a strategy to weaken the enemy's support structure could be supported with the tactic of bombing supply wagons, or perhaps parachuting in sabotagers behind enemy lines. –  ErikE Jun 11 '11 at 23:06
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A strategy is generally a longer term plan or an overall vision, and strategic decisions are usually ones that are aimed at achieving those future goals over that long term.

Tactics are the smaller scale decisions and techniques that are used to achieve, piece by piece the objectives of the strategy.

For instance, you could have a plan to purchase one of every single Pez dispenser design ever made for an average price of less than $1 by haggling at flea markets and yard sales over the next 5 years. That would be a strategy. You're going to spend every weekend driving around looking for Pez dispensers and purchasing the ones you don't have.

Now, let's say you spot a rare Pez dispenser at a flea market, but there's someone else looking at it and it's a bit more expensive than you'd like to pay. How are you going to get the other person to pass it over? How are you going to convince the vendor that he's asking too much for it? Whatever plan you decide to use, those are tactical decisions.

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The great chess grandmaster Savielly Tartakower had the best explanation of the difference that I have ever heard:

"Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do. Strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do."

I can't improve on that. Not even a little.

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+1 Nice quote! :) It kind of made me think about some RTS I used to play in the past... –  Alenanno Jun 10 '11 at 18:42
    
Love, love, love this answer. But I only upvote it because of its beauty. I think most of the other answers here are more helpful for people trying to learn these terms "from scratch". I think this answer is much more valuable as a refinement for people who already have a decent idea of tactics versus strategy. –  John Y Jun 11 '11 at 3:53
    
    
@John Y: Thank you. I'll point out that a decent idea of the two words may be had from any dictionary. Tartakower's aphorism then proceeds to elevate that basic understanding to a profound epiphany. –  Robusto Jun 11 '11 at 11:08
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-1: I just don't see that this is helpful to someone who does not know what these words mean. It is elegant, though! –  Jon of All Trades Apr 7 '12 at 5:59
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I found the following for tactical in NOAD:

• (of bombing or weapons) done or for use in immediate support of military or naval operations. Often contrasted with strategic

and the following for strategic:

• (of bombing or weapons) done or for use against industrial areas and communication centers of enemy territory as a long-term military objective : strategic nuclear missiles. Often contrasted with tactical

So tactical would refer to targeting something military for immediate support whereas strategic would refer to targeting something not directly military in order to weaken the enemy in the long run.

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Note that the OALD gives as synonyms in some cases. –  Alenanno Jun 10 '11 at 18:03
    
My apologies for not giving you some context on the sentence. It has nothing to do with military or weapons or fighting. What would be the interpretation if the sentence was a report on organizational changes in a company or something of that sort. –  harithski Jun 10 '11 at 18:06
    
@harithski I imagine from the other answers that they contrast similarly in all contexts –  snumpy Jun 10 '11 at 19:43
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