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Strategic Planning and Management Insights

What is the Difference Between a Strategic Plan and an Operational Plan?

[fa icon="calendar"] September 24 / by Jenna Sedmak

A common misunderstanding we encounter when working with organizations is the difference between strategic planning and operational planning. While the two are closely connected, it’s important to understand how they are different and how your organization can use both types of plans to move the needle forward on your goals.

Many organizations mistakenly believe they have developed a strategic plan after meeting with their team and creating a list of short, medium and long term tasks and projects. However, strategic planning is a high-level, macro activity that hones in on your organization’s strategic priority areas and goals for the mid to long term range. A strong strategic plan serves as a roadmap to follow from where you are now, to where you want to be. An operational plan, however, focuses in on the micro, or the day-to-day and weekly actions that can help your people achieve organizational goals.

Therefore, strategy is working ON your business, while operations is working IN your business. 

To maximize your next strategic planning session, we recommend familiarizing yourself (and your team) with the strategic and operational planning processes:  

Get 15 Questions to Ask Your Team - Strategic Planning Questionnaire

Strategic Planning:

The best way to imagine a strategic plan is to think of the big picture of your organization. This is the outer layer of your entire plan, which contains smaller and shorter term actions on the inside. If you’ve never developed a strategic plan, or are developing a new strategic plan, it’s important to evaluate your vision, mission, and values before diving into your strategies, goals and tactics.

The strategic plan asks questions about the organization such as: 

  • What do we do and why do we do it?
  • Who do we do it for? 
  • What are our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?
  • What obstacles or roadblocks might we encounter?
  • Where is our organization now, and where do we want to go in the future?
  • Which key areas do we want to focus on?  

Priorities and goals should be limited to a select few to allow follow through, as well as a cyclical feedback loop where progress is assessed and changes are made on an ongoing basis through a set meeting cadence and/or quarterly strategy review meetings.

While strategic planning is usually led by the leadership team, it’s important that employees (or department managers for larger organizations) are consulted to ensure buy-in for the final plan. For a more in-depth look at strategic planning, this post details each step of the process.

 

Operational Planning:

Operational planning ideally supports strategic planning efforts. Where strategic priorities are focused on a select few areas that need to be reviewed on an ongoing basis, operational plans can have more items ranging from a single to-do, to ongoing short, mid and long-term projects. While strategic plans often begin at the organizational level, operational plans zoom into individual departments and teams and can hone in on the day to day necessities of running the business.

Without a strong strategic direction, operational planning can be daunting. If your people don’t understand where the organization is headed, it can be difficult to decide which operational tasks and projects can propel the company into its ideal future state (i.e. your organization’s vision).

In short, operational planning can be done at the end of a strategic planning session, once the organizational priorities and goals are established – AND/OR - If the organization already has a strategic plan, operational planning can be done on an ongoing basis to remain aligned with the company’s strategic direction.

Operational plans ask questions such as:

  • What projects do we need to carry out to achieve our goals?
  • What daily tasks do we need to implement, continue, or stop in order to function?
  • Who is responsible for what (departmentally or individually)?
  • Does this task or action support the organizations mission, vision and values (and is it aligned with the strategy)? 

When all team members are aware of the organization’s strategic direction and are aligned on where they are going, they will have a better understanding of how their daily tasks can move the organization forward. They will also be equipped to make decisions and model behaviours that support the organization’s mission, vision and values.

 

We've created a step-by-step guide for the strategic planning process,
complete with tools, templates and workbooks to help you lead your next strategy session:

Access Our Strategic Planning Course

 

Topics: Strategic planning, operational planning

Jenna Sedmak

Written by Jenna Sedmak

Jenna is the communications and client partnership manager with SME Strategy. She spends her time building relationships with the public, clients and partners through web content and podcast production, industry research, customer relations, project management and strategic plan implementation.

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