Which Comes First: The Goal Or The Strategy?

Author's avatar Analytics Sep 22, 2022 11 minutes read

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    For most people, the answer is obvious. You define a goal first and then work out a strategy that will help you achieve that goal. Simple, right? Well, things are not quite that clear-cut.

    Databox has surveyed 91 companies in various fields, from B2B and B2C Services or Products to Marketing and Digital Media Consultants and Agencies. We’ve discovered that roughly two-thirds of respondents (67.03%) stated they set goals first while just over a quarter (27.47%) said that strategy comes first in their business. The remaining 5.49% were undecided.

    What muddies the waters somewhat is the fact that companies tend to focus on strategy more. Over half (57%) of our respondents prioritize strategy over goals (47%).

    So what’s really important here? Strategy or goals? 

    Well, it turns out that people frequently use objectives, goals, and ideas interchangeably, and see no real difference between a strategy and tactics. By necessity, the advice presented seems contradictory.

    We’ll do our best to present it clearly and it will be up to you to decide what approach best suits your business.

    This article covers:


    Strategy vs Tactics

    In simple terms, strategy is what defines your long-term goals and lays out a plan to achieve them. It’s the path you follow in order to achieve your mission, vision, or idea. It’s usually defined in broad strokes and it’s more about planning than doing.

    Tactics, on the other hand, focus on smaller, more concrete steps you can undertake in the service of your strategy. It’s more focused on the short term and involves specific plans, best practices, and objectives.

    A good way to differentiate between them is to think of the maxim “Think strategically, act tactically.

    A good strategy should reflect the core values of an organization and clearly align with the priorities of any separate departments, while a good tactic should have a clear purpose that aids your strategy. 

    Both strategy and tactics need to work together in order to realize the company’s vision. In essence, they’re both necessary.

    Reaching strategic goals is impossible without tactics since tactics are the concrete steps you need to take to get where you want to go. Conversely, relying on tactics without a strategy just leads to aimless busywork. Without a unifying vision, you’re at risk of taking random actions with no end in sight.

    Related: What Is Strategic Reporting? 4 Report Examples to Get Inspiration From

    Companies Set Goals First

    Here, we have a clear favorite with over two-thirds of respondents saying they set goals first and only 27.47% do the same with strategy.

    Most agree it’s hard to build a strategy if you don’t know what you want to accomplish and that strategies without goals tend to be aimless. After all, you have to know where you’re going in order to plan the trip.

    Lydia Mwangi of Barbell Jobs compares setting a strategy without a goal to picking a random recipe and hoping to get the cake that you wanted. “You have to know the kind of cake you want first so that you can objectively come up with, or decide on the right ingredients.” Know what you want to do before figuring out how to do it.

    Companies Set Goals First

    Gerrard Lipscombe of Landmark Labs has a slightly different take. In his view, strategy and goals co-evolve with one another through time. The first step is still to ‘set the clearest possible goal you can formulate’ and then go about developing a concrete strategy to reach it.

    That doesn’t end the process. “Even in the initial process of strategizing, it’s common to reassess and gather new information that will, in turn, adjust your goals.

    Through time this interplay evolves, and eventually, it becomes difficult to say with confidence which is the prime mover: one’s goals, or the strategy to achieve them,” Lipscombe concludes.

    Related: Goals vs. KPIs: How to Set KPIs and Targets That Will Help You Reach Your Business Goals

    …But Focus on Strategy More

    This is not as contradictory as it seems at first. In a way, setting a goal is easy, strategy takes work and refinement. A slight but noticeable majority of our respondents say they spend more time working out their strategies than their goals (57% to 43%).

    Information’s Candice Moses emphasizes the importance of strategy. “Strategy is about making decisions, weighing trade-offs, and deciding what type of distinctive value you will offer to particular clients in our cutthroat market. Building a strong presence inside the market is a strategy. It’s important to get and keep focused on business.” Setting goals is all well and good, but it doesn’t mean anything unless you know exactly what you’re giving the customer and what your business needs to concentrate on.

    Companies Focus More on Strategy

    Naturally, some goals arise from strategy and both will evolve and change as time goes on and the market changes. While the maxim “No plan survives the contact with the enemy” initially referred to the military, it’s universally applicable.

    As your strategy is put into place, you’ll gain more information about its effectiveness and be able to adjust it accordingly.

    The goals themselves are less likely to change at an early juncture as you’ll simply use them to gauge the effectiveness of your strategy.

    Why You Should Set Strategy First

    People who put strategy before goals tend to think of goals as parts of the strategy or milestones that a strategy should achieve. There’s a unifying vision or the main objective that a strategy should achieve, but goals are something different.

    Brandconvert’s Andrew Spence firmly believes in getting strategy down first. “This is because without a strategy in place, it is very difficult to know what the goals should be. A clear strategy will help guide the business and ensure that all decisions are in line with the company’s overall vision.”

    In addition, a strategy can help set the tone for the company and expectations for employees. If you set goals without having a strategy in place, you risk bouncing around without purpose or direction, which can be demoralizing for employees.

    The best way to think of a strategy is as a roadmap for your business. Mark Pierce of Cloud Peak Law Group believes that creating it first can help you set more clearly defined and targeted goals. “That being said, goals and strategy go hand in hand, and one without the other isn’t enough. Once you’ve laid out your strategy, goals help to ensure that steady progress is being made and provides you with something measurable to track,” Pierce concludes.

    A good strategy will outline the steps that you need to take to reach your destination. Once it’s in place, you can set goals that align with it. In the opinion of Harry Johns white of NBA Blast, Developing a clear and achievable strategy is the only way you can hope to reach your destination.

    Related: How to Write a Marketing Strategy? (5 Ready-to-Use Report Templates Included)

    Why You Should Define Business Goals First

    A journey starts when you set a destination. This is a common approach to running a business and over 67% of our respondents define goals before setting strategy. The common response is that you simply need to know where you’re going before planning your trip, and it does ring true.

    People who want to define goals first tend to think of them as big ideas and endpoints, rather than smaller goals that are a part of the strategy. 

    C Shakhawat Sultan of WPFunnels says that “A company should know what it wants to achieve. It should have a target vision and goal it wants to reach at the end of the year. Once the goal is clear, then you start devising strategies to achieve that goal.” That way, you’ll have a clear idea of what needs to be achieved with your strategy, which will help you plan for long-term results.

    Despite focusing on goals first, Sultan still thinks that both are equally important. “If you do not have a proper visionary goal, your strategies won’t be good enough to help you grow your business. If your strategy is not well-planned, then you might fail to reach your goal. So they both have equal importance in the process.”

    This is a recurring theme in all the answers we analyzed. Define the goals in order to build a strategy around achieving them. Goals should be the drivers of strategy and according to Julia Tiedt of SmartBug Media, you should simply ignore strategy ideas that don’t line up with your goals. Getting sales and marketing to align on shared goals and KPIs is the real first step. Only after they’ve agreed on goals can the real strategic planning begin.

    Related: Goals Based Reporting: Everything You Need to Know


    The Takeaway

    It’s clear that our respondents are well-aware that both goals and strategies are important. However, they need something to focus on and the goals seem more tangible and easier to pin down. In addition, goal progress is easier to monitor than strategy. After they defined their goals, companies build a strategy around them and focus on fine-tuning it quite a lot.

    Of course, some think of different things when they say “strategy” and “goal.” For people who think you have to set the strategy first, goals are simply metrics by which you gauge the effectiveness of your strategy. For those who believe in defining goals, goals are big objectives that shape what the strategy is aiming for and it doesn’t make sense to “plan a road trip without knowing where you’re headed.”

    These disparate opinions can lead to somewhat confusing results, but our takeaway is that most people would agree with the sequence of vision > strategy > goals (or objectives).

    Ensuring all of these aspects are in sync is paramount and none of them can function in isolation.

    Vision is as necessary as strategy and if you don’t set up objectives, you’ll have a hard time tracking the progress of your strategy.

    Of course, it’s possible to set up objectives first and then build a strategy around them, this is particularly useful for agencies working with clients who have clearly defined goals they want to achieve. In this case, you have business goals pre-built and focus on figuring out how to best achieve them.

    In either case, tracking goals is absolutely essential if you want to know how well you’re doing in the market. With the right dashboard, you’ll be able to visualize performance and analyze your progress. With Databox, you’ll be able to set goals for any metric from literally any data source, visualize your goals against current performance and make adjustments when they matter most. Try out Databox by signing up for a free account today.

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    Article by
    Davor Štefanović

    Davor is an English literature graduate and an avid reader with a passion for languages. Working as a translator, editor, and writer has allowed him to learn about a wide range of topics — making him something of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to content. In his spare time, he reads, plays video games and boardgames, and runs/plays tabletop RPGs.

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