These three terms occur frequently in management books, articles and reports — sometimes with conflicting meanings — and, as a result, readers may become confused and the authors’ meanings may be misinterpreted. If you look for clarification you are likely to find ten different definitions in ten different management books. In this article, Bob Patchett is concerned, not so much with the purity of definitions, but rather what these terms mean in practice, and how they may be put to good use at all management levels.

Essentially they form a system for getting things done. The success of any business enterprise depends upon doing the right things — and doing them well. This system clarifies the purpose of the enterprise, enables sensible and relevant choices to be made, determines the resources required, and produces an integrated plan for achievement.

Simply put, the goal is the end result required, the strategy is the approach to be taken to reach that goal, and the tactics are the individual actions that together produce the end result.

Commonly, strategy and strategic planning are viewed as activities carried out by the highest level of management in the organisation. They need not be, as we shall see later; but for now, let us look at how the system works at these levels. In organisations such as public companies the directors — people appointed by shareholders to look after their interests — set the aim of the enterprise. Managers may prefer this to be regular profits because these are usually published annually and, therefore, show short-term management successes. But the board may be looking primarily at the interests of institutional shareholders, such as pension funds, who are more concerned with a consistent increase in the capital or share value of the business. And, in some cases, long-term interests may require the organisation to go for market penetration at the expense of short-term profits in order to secure a firm foothold in a particular sector on which future business may be grown. Appropriate though these aims may be, they need to be translated into goals that are clear, achievable and measurable. I may aim to lose weight, but this is merely a good intention. To get the result that I need, I must set a goal of, say, losing ten kilos within three months. That is clear, achievable and certainly measurable.

This goal is likely to be passed to the chief executive officer whose initial job will be to establish a strategy for reaching it. If, for example, the goal is to raise the capital value of the business, the first strategy he or she develops might be to produce a cheaper version of an existing product by ruthless cost cutting, to market this to a younger consumer, and to sell it in new ways, for example directly via the internet. The second strategy could be to raise the perceived quality of existing products by packing them with technical innovations and selling them at premium rates, using marketing techniques aimed at wealthier customers. The third could be to outsource technical development; the fourth, to project the vision of the company as a technical innovator. And, finally, to aim advertising, publicity and other marketing techniques not just to sell the products, but also, and most important, to make individuals and financial organisations want to invest in the business. This five-element strategic plan would, of course, need to be developed with the chief executive’s senior management team who would have to ensure that each element was achievable and that appropriate financial, human and outside resources were available.

Assuming that the strategic plan is accepted by the board, managers then have to examine their role in executing it and develop an appropriate set of tactics. The technical manager, for example, may have to liaise with marketing colleagues to establish what might attract young people and richer people to buy the cheaper and premium products, respectively. He or she may also scour journals and visit technical centres to see what developments might enhance existing products. The manager may then have to ascertain which development work can be handled by existing staff, what recruitment may have to take place, and what work would be better outsourced. These activities across the whole organisation would form an action programme to fulfil the strategic plan and thereby reach the goal set by the board.

This example shows how the three terms — goal, strategy and tactics — are commonly used when planning major organisational activity. But the system can be used for less august purposes. My weight issue, for example, has produced a measurable goal, so to achieve it I will need a strategy. I will diet, take more everyday exercise, and join a gym. Now for the tactics. For the diet, I will cut out sugary foods and restrict drink to six pints per week. I will walk rather than drive to the gym and to the shops. And I will attend the gym twice a week.

At work you may be hampered and frustrated by your filing system. You have run out of filing cabinets and space, many papers are misfiled so that you cannot deal promptly with customer queries, and some information is kept on computers anyway. Urging everyone to take more care is a fine aim, but you need a clear and achievable goal such as “within six months be in a position to access a customer’s file within 30 seconds”. This is both clear and measurable, but you need to convince your staff that the goal is achievable, so ensure that they understand the problem and involve them in devising a strategic plan. This latter may be that you determine which information will be kept on the computer network and which assigned to filing cabinets. Also, that you remove from the cabinets all out-of-date paperwork. And, finally, that you introduce a system for scanning certain documents for electronic storage. A tactic for clearing the filing cabinets might be that one member of staff is charged with cleaning one drawer per week, and for determining whether to replace a document, scan it, archive or destroy it.

A recruitment exercise might be planned better by using the three-tier system. For example your goal may be to have a new telephone salesperson operating by the end of next month. You devise a strategy whereby you advertise internally, but also publicise the vacancy to staff agencies. You will need two training programmes: one on telephone sales techniques for internal candidates who know the product and one on product knowledge for externally recruited experienced sales people. Tactics will include describing the job as accurately and as attractively as you can, liaising with training staff, setting a timetable for responding to applications, deciding whether to interview as soon as suitable candidates apply or one after the other, whether to give tests, and so on.

The pyramid of goal – strategy – tactics is certainly used to great effect at the highest management levels in the commercial and public sectors. It is used to fight wars. It was used by Sir John Hunt when he planned to, and succeeded in, conquering Everest. But it may be used with great effectiveness at all levels of management. And hopefully it will get my weight down.

Last reviewed 27 October 2014