Strategic Planning Vs. Operational Planning: The 5 Main Differences


Strategic planning vs. operational planning

Are they the same? If not, what’s the difference? Do you need both? We hear these kinds of questions frequently. In short:

A strategic plan outlines your mission, vision, and high-level goals for the next three to five years. It also takes into account how you’ll measure those goals, and the major projects you’ll take on to meet them.

An operational plan (also known as a work plan) is an outline of what your department will focus on for the near future—usually the upcoming year.

Simply put, your strategic plan shares your vision for the future, while your operational plan lays out how you’ll get there on a daily to weekly basis.

Both concepts describe your company’s plans for the future, but in different contexts. Below we’ve called out five major differences between them that you can use as guideposts to ensure you’re using these two concepts the right way.

Strategic Planning Vs. Operational Planning: The 5 Main Differences

1. Time Period

Your strategic plan outlines long-term goals for the next three to five years. What you’ll be doing to achieve those goals in the shorter term (typically the next fiscal year) is outlined in your operational plan.

2. Goal Focus

The goal of your strategic plan is to outline the company’s long-term vision and how all departments should work together to achieve it.

The goal of your operational plan isn’t company-focused—it is department-focused. There can be overlap between departments, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Large departments may require multiple operational plans.

3. Plan Generation

Your organization’s high-level leadership team—the executive team or city council, for instance—is responsible for creating the strategic plan. Once it’s created, the strategic plan will be pushed forward by cross-functional teams who work together to ensure the strategy is successful.

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Every department should have a leader or team of leaders responsible for creating their operational plan. Although each operational plan is designed for a single department, its successful implementation will lead to organization-wide success. For example, your marketing team has a set of activities they use to increase visibility. These activities should translate to more sales opportunities and ultimately more revenue for the organization (both of which could be goals in your strategic plan).

4. Budget

The budget for your strategic plan comes from your strategic budget, not your operational budget. Your organization may implement a Strat-Ex budget that aligns part of your budget directly to your strategic projects or initiatives. This is a different approach than putting a budget against each of your divisions or departments.

The budget for your operational plan comes from your department’s annual budget. If your annual department budget needs to be cut, consider which elements don’t align to your strategic plan and cut those first. For example, if your strategic plan defines a marketing goal of establishing a strong online presence, your trade show budget should receive budget cuts before blog writing does.

5. Reporting

When you report on your strategic plan (typically both annually and quarterly), your strategic planning committee or executive team will want to look at how your company is performing on its chosen measures. Depending on the meeting, these discussions should remain fairly high-level so you don’t get bogged down on details.

Your operational reports, on the other hand, outline hundreds of projects or tasks people in the department are working on. Monthly operational reporting meetings give the leadership—and the rest of the department—an indication of each project’s status.

Unlike your strategic report, updates on operational projects can be anecdotal or qualitative (as it’s often difficult to quantify actions that aren’t tied to measures). Some organizations have a running text commentary either in an Excel field or a Word document. This commentary is updated weekly or monthly, even if there are no direct measures for that part of the operational plan.

Understanding strategic planning vs. operational planning doesn’t mean you choose between them!

To be a strategy-focused company, you need a strategic plan and departmental operational plans. If you’re sighing and thinking, “Great, one more thing I have to start doing…”, hold up! Most departments have some form of operational work plans in place already. So you shouldn’t need to start from scratch; simply put your current plan into a framework or format that helps you perform at a higher level.

Similarly, if your company doesn’t have a fully fleshed-out strategic plan, we have you covered. By the time you’ve filled out this free toolkit, you’ll have a change agenda ready and a strategy map created—complete with your top-priority goals! Download it below.

Download: The Strategy Execution Toolkit