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What is Strategy Anyway?

Teams often get together to discuss strategy, and the thing they most often mess up is what strategy means. This blog is a modest proposal for how to use the word strategy, and a few other words, to greatly improve the effectiveness of business planning discussions.

The Big Assumption

This proposal is built on an assumption: Disciplined use of language leads to clarity, and clarity leads to better ideas and plans. That assumption might not always be true. I am not sure, for example, that great poets, abstract painters, and comedy improv performers are best served by rigorous use of language and meaning. But it might be better for business.

So, I am asking the reader to consider adopting a very specific definition of four words as the basis for improving business planning discussions. Those four words are:





I am not saying in common conversation these words do not overlap and have similar meanings. If I say, “my goal is to get you thinking” it is about the same as saying “my objective is to get you thinking.” What I am saying is, we can greatly improve business planning outcomes by being very specific and deliberate about how these words are used.

Working, Not Academic Definitions

You may have seen some academic definitions of these words. Those definitions appear to be most useful to academics. I have never seen an academic definition of strategy that is particularly helpful to people doing business planning. So instead, let me offer what we are going to generously call, “working definitions” – which I am asking you to consider adopting during business planning conversations.

Goal:             An aspiration

Objective:    A way to measure progress

Strategy:      An approach for achieving your goal

Tactic:          A set of things you are going to do

Still need some help with these definitions? Then let’s use an example. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviet Union was winning the space race. The first satellite in space. The first dog in space. The first person in space.

Although America had a goal, be first in space, we were losing. In 1960, John Kennedy added a specific objective that allowed us to measure progress against that goal.

Our objective: Put a person on the moon before the end of the decade.

Our strategy: Bring together the best minds and the best technology to bear on the problem.

Example of an aligned tactic: Buy a top-of-the-line IBM mainframe immediately – so work on the complex effort of building navigation models could start right away.

America put Neil Armstrong on the moon on July 20, 1969 with great pride, due to heroic efforts by thousands of people. 

However, we were also successful because our goal was clear: Be first in space.

Because our objective was unambiguous and measurable: Put a person on the moon before the end of the 1960s.

Because our strategy was well articulated and understood: Bring together the best minds and the best technology to bear on the problem.

Because our tactics were strategically aligned and effective: Buy a top-of-the-line IBM mainframe computer immediately.

How to Use

So, how do you apply these words successfully in your business planning? You may be thinking; People forget definitions and use words as they come to mind.

To make language work for you during business planning, here is what you do:

  1. Reach agreement on definitions. Get clear on what words mean.
  2. Put the definitions on the wall, and keep them there, so they can be referenced.
  3. Put someone in charge of being the language police. Politely, but consistently, impose the agreed definitions on the team discussion.

Then, in order, build your business plan. Goal: What do we aspire to achieve? Objective: As measured by what? Strategy: What should be our overall approach? Tactic: Consistent with our approach, what are our specific plans for getting there?

When you apply goal, objective, strategy and tactic in a consistent and disciplined way, your business planning will be more effective, you will reach agreement faster – and you will have cross-team plans that complement and build on one another because your plan and your people are aligned.

rGen, Inc. has helped many companies land on and execute effective strategic plans. Feel free to connect with us at