Understanding the difference between strategy and tactics is a critical skill in business leadership, and is the one most solopreneurs completely skip. Today’s episode offers a primer on what each actually ARE, how to use them, and how to ask yourself the harder questions that will lead to success.


Episode Transcript:

I’m Illana Burk, CEO of Your Life’s Workshop, coach to entrepreneurs and solopreneurs across dozens of industries and host of Good Business. With nearly 20 years experience helping hundreds of clients create profitable, ethically driven and sustainable businesses based on their life’s work, I’m here to teach you how to do great work, make great money, and make a positive impact without feeling like you need a shower afterwards.

Hi everybody. Today’s episode is one of the most important and complicated concepts that any business leader needs to master. Today we are talking about the giant difference between strategy and tactics.  I know that might not seem very interesting on the surface, but let me assure you, understanding this stuff can be one of the most critical linchpins in how things change for you, how you view your business, how you think about marketing, and how you think about decision making. It’s all tied to this, and the fundamental confusion that most people have is everything.

To give you a little bit of context, when I was in grad school, and this is in a pretty rigorous business school program, we spent three very, long intensive seminar weekends learning this. It’s not simple. It’s not straightforward.  The concepts are pretty simple. They’re pretty basic. We’re going to go through it, and you’ll go, “Oh, okay, that makes sense.” Then when you go to try and actually do it and implement it for yourself and apply it to real-world situations, that’s where it gets like sticky and muddled. Please know that you won’t fully wrap your head around it today. Well, you probably won’t. This episode is to help you start asking harder questions of yourself and of your business and how you plan and how you think about things. The goal here today is to get to a place where you know that you need to ask deeper questions, both of yourself and of where your business is going. So know that going in. Today we’re going to cover what strategy is, what tactics are, how they should each fit into business planning, and why they each matter. By the end of the episode, you’ll understand why the tactics you are taking aren’t working or aren’t getting enough impact for what you want to accomplish.

First, what is strategy? The best way I can describe what strategy is – it’s like if a chess game had a baby with a vision quest. It’s a critical step in decision making. It’s one of those things that solopreneurs completely skip. Good strategy is the planning and implementation of your core values and priorities. Think about that again. I’m going to say it again because I know that’s a big mouthful of a sentence and it’s important. Good strategy is the planning and implementation of your core values and priorities.

You have to know what your values and priorities are before you can do real solid strategy. It takes the needs of your stakeholders, it takes the needs of your clients, it takes the needs of your potential clients, and it takes your desires and goals into consideration. Before I glaze right past that big statement, I want to break down who your stakeholders are.

This is a little sidebar here. In bigger business, we refer to shareholders and stakeholders. Shareholders are the ones that hold the money. They’re the ones you have to consider their needs first because they’re the ones funding you. Stakeholders are anyone your business effects. It’s anyone that your actions are going to cause changes for. That could be your spouse; it could be you. You are one of your stakeholders. It could be your children, your friends, your family, contractors who work for you. It could be employees who work for you or anybody affected by your business. Your customers are stakeholders too. As you consider your strategy, you have to consider all of those people and what their needs are and how your actions are going to affect them. If you only start from tactics, you’re coming from a place of ego. You’re trying to market your thing, but you’re not doing all the work to consider what other people around you who are affected by it needs. We’re going to figure out how to do that and potentially navigate around potential damage and harm that you can do without even realizing it.

Strategy development is the creation of a path to your goals. It’s not all the rocks along the way on the path. It’s the carving things out, forging a pathway so that you know exactly what solid ground you’re standing on. It’s the foundation for how you develop a tactical plan, but it’s not the tactical plan. The tactics can change. They’re fluid, and we’re going to get that in just a second. The strategy part is thinking far ahead. It’s the knowing where the path is supposed to go. Then the tactics are what get you there. It’s one of the filters that you create to run your decisions through. That’s the biggest bonus to having a solid strategy in place. It makes decision making exponentially easier. I find that most solopreneurs struggle with this, especially in the first few years.

It’s tough to make decisions and try to look into a crystal ball. The stakes are so high, and it’s so hard to try to figure out what you should do, and how to evaluate ideas, and how to evaluate opportunities. Strategy helps with that because if you know what your strategic plan is, then things start to become an easy “no” or an easy “yes.” It either fits in the planner, or it doesn’t. The hard part, of course, is always going to be staying the course and sticking with your strategic plan. That’s a whole other episode in and of itself we’ll talk about later. Changes can be made along the way to your strategy. This is important – changes shouldn’t be made out of panic or confusion or reactionary behaviors. They should come from a change in conditions, so you have to know enough about your strategy.

This is why having someone else create a marketing strategy for you that happens in a vacuum where it’s not super collaborative, doesn’t usually work and people end up feeling like they didn’t get their money’s worth because they don’t understand that in order to be a CEO, in order to be a leader, you have to learn how to think strategically. It’s not optional. It’s not something that you can navigate around in a business, or hire out entirely. You can hire somebody with a better marketing brain than yours. Great. Do that. I’m one of those people for sure. I want you to do that. You should, but you have to know in your bones that what they’ve created for you is right, and is in alignment. You have to have a strategic understanding of your vision and goals before you ever walk in the door.

You can’t ask them to create that for you. If they do, it’s never going to be in alignment with what you want. Make sure that when those moments come where the conditions change, you know what to do strategically. When I say the conditions, I mean the conditions that affect your business, such as anything externalized that you don’t have control over. Let’s say you run your business on the Internet. What happens if the Internet goes down and is no longer in existence? That’s a massive change in condition. I’m going to a wild extreme to illustrate the point, but that is a massive change in the conditions and the circumstances that affect your business. Therefore, you need to learn what to do strategically.

You need to be able to think differently. If your strategy was to reach people worldwide, that stops becoming so easy. It’s not impossible, but it might not actually be your goal when you consider the needs of your stakeholders again in light of there’s no more Internet. Now you might not be that interested in reaching people worldwide. You might want to reach people in your community. That would be a shift in strategy. You need to know that and be able to see that. Granted, if the Internet goes down, I know the strategy of your business is probably the lowest thing on your list, but it’s to illustrate the point. Go with me.

This is why you have to learn. You can’t just pay other people to do it for you. You must learn this. I’m going to give you a solid example of what strategy should look like. I’m going to use a life coach as an example. Say you’re a life coach and your goal is to show as many people as possible that they can live a confident life. You have a deep burning need inside you. Your vision is to show millions of people. When you think about your big vision statement, “I want every single person on earth to know that they can live a confident life.” That’s a huge vision.

Another person could be a life coach and have the same vision. Only it’s completely different in scope. It could be, “I am a life coach, and I have a vision of teaching a hundred women in my lifetime they can live a confident life.” They want to start small and go deep. They have a different perspective on it. No judgment here. We’re just talking about how your vision can affect your strategy making.

For coach number one, who wants to go big and go global. Their pricing strategy might be to keep the prices as low as possible so that they can reach as many people as possible to take part in their programs. It might mean they have a wildly diverse set of programs because they have to consider they want to reach people multi-culturally, all over the planet. Different learning styles, different abilities, different life experiences, they have to consider the needs of all of those stakeholders and have to think accordingly. Their strategic plan could involve keeping prices low, offering a diverse set of options for leadership and guidance. Then they’re going to employ tactics that mimic that.

For coach number two, who wants to reach a hundred people in their lifetime, their strategy might be to have premium pricing, and they’re going to reach out on and work with people one to one only. They’re reaching people deeply and one at a time. They’re going to have premium pricing. There are going to have a strategy that involves connecting with people individually. Lots of networking events etc. would be part of their tactical plan.

Before I move on, I want to go through one last time, how strategy asks you to think, to wrap up that section. Strategy asks you to think, “If this, then what? Then if that, then what?” If I do X, people will respond by doing Y, which will mean that I need to do Z so they can wrap around and do a and on and on and on. It thinks if this, then what?  Go as far out as possible. The more you know about psychology and human behavior, the easier this becomes. I seriously go back to two classes I took in my undergrad that had nothing to do with business. I had an awesome instructor named Steven Ducati. I’ll never forget him. We’re still Facebook friends if he’s listening. Hey, Steven. I took two classes with him, and they were the only two he taught at the time. It was Cross-Cultural Psychology and Political Psychology. They taught me how humans think about information, how humans consume information, and how objective correlatives work. If you don’t know what that is, you can go to Google. He taught me how to think and predict how people move through the world without judgment.  

That’s a key thing. When we start to think about predicting the behaviors of our stakeholders and potential clients, we may have a habit of making assumptions instead of informed judgments. This is your invitation to dig deeper into human psychology, and to learn about the psychology of advertising, to learn about the psychology of how different cultures consume information. This is useful stuff. These were two undergrad courses that I still think I probably use as much, if not more than, any of my business knowledge.

This leads us to tactics. Let’s talk about tactics. Tactics are the easy part.  Tactics are the part you probably already know, so I’m not going to spend a ton of time like digging into all the options. Tactics are the actions you take in service of your strategy. A cocktail of tactics is how you implement a strategic plan. It’s the e-books, the courses, the podcasts, the blog, the Instagram, the stuff you do, and the actions you take. How you do them is dictated by your strategy.  The selections you make from the plethora of different tactical options. That’s what makes up your tactical plan and how it feeds into your strategic plan. The two are in constant interplay. They have to work together and consider each other. As you think of your strategy, you also have to consider what tactics you’re open to.

This is one of those important points and observations that I’ve made in years of coaching people. The strategy and tactics, the plans for those things, if they’re happening at all, often happen in silos. They’re not naturally considering each other.

I made this mistake when I started. Here’s a good example from my past. Here’s what happens when you don’t consider your strategy and tactics and what you’re capable of in parallel. When I first started blogging, when I started making this a million years ago, um, this is like 11 years ago now, I read somewhere that the more you blog, the faster you’ll gain traffic. So I decide I’m going to blog every freaking day. I spend like two weeks developing the most detailed content strategy anyone has ever seen in the history of fucking strategies. I’m thinking about how to break down every possible idea that any new entrepreneur might need. I’m good at that; I’m great at breaking down ideas. It’s one of my superpowers. I was exceedingly good.

Every single day I had prescribed blog posts that I needed to write. You know how many days, once I was all finished with this epic fucking content strategy I made, that I actually wrote about what I was supposed to write about or wrote at all? Three. Three days. I blogged less than the time it took me to develop the strategy for it because I didn’t consider a few things that were realities for me at that point. One, I had a day job; I didn’t have time to write that much. Two, I need inspiration to create content. I am not somebody that can sit down and write about a prescribed topic. I’m not wired that way. Since this depended on me as the biggest asset for implementation, I probably should have considered that.

This is what happens when strategy and tactics don’t work together. If you’re thinking about a strategy, sometimes you might not be able to have the strategy you want because you don’t have the resources for it. You have to think about what your assets are. You have to take inventory of what you’re capable of. As you think about your strategy, because that’s going to come into play when you develop your tactics, they have to work together.  They have to consider each other. They have to hold hands. When I develop a strategic and tactical plan, I split my screen and think about, okay, if I’m developing this strategy, here are the tactics that are going to come into play to implement that strategy. Will those work for me?

For example, say you want to be a photographer. Maybe your biggest vision for yourself is to be on the pages of National Geographic. The non-negotiable tactics that you will have to do whether you want to or not are be on Flickr and Instagram because those are the two most visual mediums. That’s where people find photographers these days. Those are your two non-negotiables if you’re starting from zero and have no contacts.  Of course, there are other pathways to success. I’m talking about if you are sitting down and you’re creating a strategic and tactical plan that’s absent of look and contacts, these are non-negotiable. If you turn your nose up at Instagram or Flicker and think, “I will not do that, I’m going to just take pictures, and people will find me, I’ll send them out on Facebook or something, and the right people will find me.” No, they fucking won’t. There are non-negotiables attached to that.

Therefore, your tactics aren’t always up to you. Sometimes they have to happen for your goals and your vision for yourself. If you can’t do that tactic, then you have to reimagine your vision and your goals, and then you develop a strategy accordingly. Vision, goals, assets, strategy, tactics, those things are all part of the same soup, and they all have to consider each other.

So back to tactics. Tactics can change quickly if your strategy supports that, but more often than not, it should. Your strategy should move slower and be more contemplative. Beyond that, though, and this is where it gets complicated, tactics can inform your strategy, but only when you fucking know what you’re doing. See, changing strategy based on what’s happening in your tactics is one of those skills that you don’t get to do until you’ve mastered the right way.

It’s one of those things. You can’t break the rules until you’ve mastered them, like writing. You have to write in complete sentences until you nail how to write great complete sentences. THEN you can write broken or run on sentences because you know the rules and you’ve mastered them. Notice that. What I mean by that – let’s say we were talking about Instagram, so we’ll stick with that. Let’s say one of your tactics is to implement daily Instagram lives in support of whatever your vision is. You have a communication-based strategy in place, so you need to put yourself out there more. You’re doing Instagram lives, one of them goes viral and all of a sudden you go from having 300 followers to having 30,000 followers practically overnight.

That would be a perfect example of when your strategy is going to need to change in reflection of something that happened as a result of your tactics. This is where understanding this stuff and learning how to do it instead of asking someone to do it for you, comes in. Strong and fierce is usually in moments of success. The mistake people make is in moments of failure in their tactics, they changed their strategy, instead of staying the course. Notice the difference. You should only be changing strategy when you have given your tactics their all. You’ve stuck with it for an extended amount of time. You’ve given it everything you’ve got because you put the thinking in, you know you’re doing the right thing because you put the thinking in and you know you’re doing the right thing.

The only time a tactic should inform a change in strategy is if it’s positive. You had a runaway success that you weren’t anticipating and your strategy wasn’t big enough to hold it. Then you need to expand your strategy. Or this is the other thing. What if you didn’t want 30,000 followers? What if you’re that person who only wanted a hundred people in their business for the rest of their life and they want small, intimate and quiet, and they accidentally went viral because they said something brilliant that caught on like wildfire? Then what do you do? Maybe your strategy changes. Maybe you take yourself out of the equation. Maybe you stop doing Instagram. Maybe you withdraw from that because it doesn’t fit into your original vision and goals. Anytime you have an outlier, and anytime you have a success that you’re not expecting or a massive failure that you’re not expecting, you have to evaluate whether your vision has changed before you change any strategy.

Again, this is a primer. You could probably listen to all of the things I said about 15 times and still struggle to wrap your head around it. Frankly, I struggle to wrap my head around it as I’m saying it. This was the longest outline I’ve written for a podcast episode yet because I needed so many notes to make sure it can hold all this stuff. It’s complicated, you guys. It’s fucking hard. So if you’re feeling lost, that’s totally legit. If you’re totally on it, you might have a more strategic mind than you realized.

Here’s what people do instead of mastering the roles.  They come up with an idea, and then instead of setting a vision for themselves and working on a clear strategy to achieve it, they go straight into marketing. They go, “how do I market my thing? I created a thing. How do we market my thing? How do I get people to buy it?” Which is the wrong question to ask. That’s the fifth question on the list of important questions for building a business. How to get people to buy. It should be a lot lower on the list than it is for most people. Unless you know that strategic thinking is even a thing that you’re supposed to be doing, it’ll look a lot like, “what social media should I focus on?” That will happen. That decision will get made by which one you like the most. Again, not strategic, not even tactical. There’s no consideration there whatsoever. It’s just preference. You haven’t even thought about what your stakeholders need. You haven’t thought about where your people might hang out.

You haven’t thought about what their values are and how they interplay your biggest vision. If that’s you and you’re banging your head against a wall going, why isn’t anything working? This is fucking why. You haven’t done all the things. You haven’t done all the steps. Building a business is not something you snap your fingers and do. It requires a profound amount of skill and a profound amount of patience and a profound amount of thought. Like with anything else, you have to master it if you’re going to be a CEO. If you’re going to be successful, if you’re going to learn how to be in business, not just starting something because the Internet makes it easy now, then you have to learn how to do all this stuff, too. What it should look like is something more along the lines of the following.

I’m going to read this because I want to make sure I don’t miss anything. This is what I call the one paragraph business plan. I didn’t steal that from anybody, but I’m sure there’s probably somebody out there who has a trademark on it. This is what I call it. I didn’t steal it from you. If you’re out there listening, I’m sorry if it’s the same name. It’s unintentional. I promise I developed this myself for sure. Maybe I’ll look into trademarking at some point, but right now it’s just for your knowledge, and it was off the top of my head. I have an idea. That idea solves this one big problem for this one specific group of people who highly value X, Y, and Z. My biggest vision for this idea is Y. That’s the letter Y; these are just blanks; they’re placeholders. My strategy is to connect deeply with those people and build trust, so they feel invested in working with me to solve that problem. That’s your strategic statement. Then here comes the tactics. I’m going to do this by leveraging daily Instagram stories which address specific collateral issues that draw their attention to the collateral issues around their core problem.

I’m sure everybody got that and wrapped your head around that. I’m going to do this. I’ll read it one more time. I bounced around a little bit between generalizations and some specific tactics. That’s mostly so you can understand the difference. I don’t need to go into a hypothetical business, but maybe we’ll go ahead and do the two life coaches from earlier. I’m just doing this off the cuff, you guys. I’m going to trip over it a little bit.  

Coach One: I am a life coach. I want to reach as many people globally as I possibly can and show every person on planet earth they can live a confident life. Here’s my idea. I’m going to create a life coaching business to access and show every single person on earth they can live a confident life. That idea solves this one big important problem that self-confidence is waning among people worldwide and people feel less confident than they ever have before. The people that are my people, highly value integrity and honesty and delivering on your promises. My biggest vision for this idea is that every single person on earth will be impacted by my work. My strategies to connect with those people in a way that they can understand that I have what they need. I want to make it as accessible as possible to them. I’m going to do this by heavily leveraging every free platform that’s global that I can find. I’m going to have a YouTube channel. I’m going to have an Instagram feed. I’m going to be on Facebook and do lives. I’m going to have a podcast and have a blog. I’m going to be everywhere I can. It’s free information for people to consume, and then I’m going to tactically offer low priced courses, and I’m going to work on volume. My goal is to sell as much as I can to as many people as I can tactically.

That’s a rough and tumble, off the top of my head, hypothetical one paragraph business plan for that vision. I’m not going to do the other one because I want to go into something a little bit deeper, but that at least gives you a wrap up on the earlier example.

Once you know what you’re doing for your people, what your product’s superpowers are, you can nail the tactics without doubting yourself like crazy. It becomes easy to decide on what your tactics are because they feed into something. They’re not just happening in a vacuum. I want to wrap up with our paragraph business plan. This is what’s created for the Good Business Company and the Good Business Podcast by extension. I figured turnabout’s fair play.  I had to do this work and figure it out as I started. The Good Business Podcast is the first endeavor in the Good Business Company. The idea is to create a learning and communications engine for aspiring and existing entrepreneurs who value integrity, rebellion, and service, above cash and ego. My biggest vision for the Good Business Company is it becomes the first stop for every new entrepreneur and continues to be the place you come back to again and again when you want to learn new things with depth care and mastery. Our strategy is to position the Good Business Company as a top of mind source for no bullshit business leadership, by setting an exceedingly high standard for the quality of our content, the participant of our endeavors, and the balanced value that we generate. Some of the tactics we will employ include starting a podcast, (hi podcast listeners!), generating an active Instagram community and creating affordable, high-quality educational pieces.

There you have it. That is our one paragraph business plan that nails it. It boils it down into something simple. You know what my vision is. You know who I want to talk to, you know what our strategy is to meet that, and you know what some of the tactics that we’re going to do along the way. I don’t tend to develop, release, detailed tactical plans for myself because I like the ability to be a little more nimble. That’s why you got some generalizations. I would suggest if you’re just out the gate, you make your tactical plan way more specific.

Here’s the thing about a tactical plan, and this is the last thing. This is what we’re going to wrap up with today.  A strategic plan can be a one year, three years, five years, ten years; You should be looking out at different stages, but looking pretty far in advance. A tactical plan can be your tactics for the next six months, the next six years, the next six decades. You want to make sure your tactical plan is nimble enough to be changed based on the ever-changing climate of the Internet, and what tactics are available to you. You’ve got to keep your eyes open because you might have tactics pop up that you didn’t even think about when you initially created your plan. There are new platforms, new software, new opportunities all the time. Don’t be afraid to add new tactics. Just make sure you’re running them through your strategic filter.

All right, everybody, that’s it for today. Thank you so much for tuning in and listening about strategy and tactics. It’s always a pleasure, and if you have questions, please don’t hesitate to head on over to Instagram and ask in the threads there. We are @thegoodbusinessco on Instagram. We’d love to have you, and we do giveaways and all kinds of fun stuff over there.

Thanks so much for hanging out with me today. For more information, visit www.thegoodbusiness.co or www.yourlifesworkshop.com.


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