What is an Operational Plan vs a Strategic Plan?

by | Feb 17, 2023 | Strategic Planning

Organizational leaders do a lot of planning. The ability to consistently design and implement project, program, and other plans can spell the difference between an organization’s long-term failure and success.

In our work with hundreds of leaders and dozens of organizations, Funding for Good has seen just how critical planning really is. But making sure you’re doing the right planning at the right times—and for the right purposes—is just as important.

With that in mind, we wanted to look at two types of planning that are not only essential but intertwined: operational planning and strategic planning.


Operational Plan vs Strategic Plan

While there is some overlap in content between an operational plan vs a strategic plan, the two have distinct goals and uses:

    • A strategic plan is a written roadmap for where an organization is going, how it will get there, and specific ways to determine if the organization has “arrived” at the destination. A strategic plan often covers 3-5-years and includes an organization’s vision, mission, goals, objectives and benchmarks over that period.
    • An operational plan also outlines an organization’s goals and objectives over a defined period. However, it then goes one level further into the details of how an organization will operationalize the activities needed to achieve those goals and benchmarks.

Here at Funding for Good we also call an operational plan an action and implementation plan.

Are you ready to start the strategic planning process?


Why a Strategic Plan Should Come Before an Operational Plan

A strategic plan should always come before an operational plan.

Imagine the two plans as the key ingredients for a successful road trip. Your strategic plan helps you figure out your destination and pick the right roadmap to get there. You know which states you’ll pass through, which route you’ll take, and about how long it’ll take to get there.

Then your operational plan comes into play. You’ll start figuring out exactly how long you’ll be on the road based on how much you want to drive each day. You’ll pick where you plan stay the night, and maybe even make reservations. You’ll make sure you have your phone charger, so you can get step by step driving instructions when you need them.

But what if a major highway is closed or you need to take a detour? That’s where you’ll pull your strategic plan back out and reassess your overall route. Rinse and repeat.


Why You Shouldn’t Skip Strategic Planning

Some leaders may be tempted to only make an operational plan. It includes goals and objectives after all. But skipping the strategic planning step can undermine your organization’s long-term success.

Strategic planning isn’t just about putting goals on paper. It’s about the process of co-creating strategy with stakeholders. This includes assessing internal and external challenges, such as through a SWOT analysis and environmental scan. Combining long-range visioning with these assessments, the strategic planning process gives organizational leaders a unique opportunity to think through both current and future opportunities and challenges. And then develop strategies to meet those moments.

This approach pays off. As reported by Forbes, research on this type of “corporate foresight” work reveals that:

organizations that recognize the future might change the very foundation of their businesses are 33% more profitable and achieve a 200% higher growth rate than the average company that does not.

By skipping strategic planning and going straight to an operational plan, you’re shortchanging your organization’s future.

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