Think back to the last time you took a vacation. Right after you decided that you were going to take a week or two off, the first thing you did was run out and buy a train ticket, right? Of course not!

What you probably did was unconsciously think through a bunch of steps that quickly resulted in a “strategy” that guided your vacation planning. But as business owners trying to grow our companies, it rarely happens that easily.

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Back to that vacation. Of course, you didn’t just go out and buy a train ticket. You no doubt reviewed and made decisions on the following: Where you wanted to go, how you were going to get there, who you were going with, what type of vacation you wanted. What your budget was. In other words: How to achieve your goals in the context of your resources.

In our personal lives, those series of steps happen unconsciously all the time. So isn’t it amazing that when we’re running our businesses, we seem to skip that important step and go from what we’re trying to achieve straight to the day to day tactics? We slide over the key strategic decisions that have to be made BEFORE we can best determine the right tactics.

Part of the problem is, the concept of strategy is one of the most misunderstood concepts in all business. Google it and you’ll find dozens of different definitions. Here is the best one we’ve found: Strategy determines how you maximize your limited resources to create a sustainable competitive advantage to achieve your goals.

Small businesses, in particular, are constantly battling limited resources. And you need a sustainable competitive advantage because that is the source of all profits.

Maximizing your resources means creating an outsized impact on just a slice of the available market. You can’t boil the ocean. You have to choose where and how you’re going to aim those resources. That forces you to be very smart about who your target is, and specifically what your value proposition is to that target. A value proposition that is relevant to your target and different (and better) versus your competition.

To do that right takes analysis, listening to your customer and synthesizing a lot of data.

And you have to organize your entire operation to deliver that proposition efficiently. Which means everyone connected with your company needs to understand the strategy and get aligned with it.

It’s a lot, indeed. It is certainly not easy.

Which is why the process gets skipped over, again and again. It takes time and it’s hard work. Tactics without strategy is like rowing with one oar. There is a lot of exertion and very little forward progress.

Or as Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist and philosopher said, “Tactics before strategy is the noise before defeat.”