Everyone thinks they need a Strategic Plan. And sometimes they do. But not always. Often what an organization really needs is an Operating Plan to effectively drive their work. This article will share when a Strategic Plan is appropriate, when an Operating Plan is a better option, and what a solid Operating Plan looks like. Let’s dig in.
Strategic planning is an organization’s process of defining its overriding direction for achieving its mission or purpose. A business uses this process to make decisions on how it will allocate its resources to pursue their strategies.
The general outcome of a strategic planning process is a Strategic Plan. This can be anything from a one-page visual to a binder full of documents, information, and goals. The trap many businesses fall into is believing that the point of strategic planning is to get to the Strategic Plan. In reality, the most important part of the process is engaging stakeholders, volunteers, constituents and staff in the activity of examining the organization.
Gathering information and input from multiple sources ensures a business or organization is staying relevant and on track for fulfilling its purpose. Through this process leaders learn what is important to the community, their customers, and those people closest to the products or services of the business. In order for a strategic planning session to be effective, leaders must be open to change and willing to let go of the past. Otherwise, there is no reason to go through the work of strategic planning.
Another pitfall of strategic planning is to create a beautiful plan, then leave it sitting on a shelf or in a drawer. Again, if you are going to go to all the work of strategic planning and then you don’t use it to guide the work of your business, you have just wasted a bunch of time and energy. This can also serve to disengage your most loyal allies.
When Not to do a Strategic Plan
While the strategic planning process can be a very valuable tool for guiding your work, there are several reasons NOT to do it.
- First and foremost, if done right, the strategic planning process takes a significant amount of time, energy, and money. If you do not have the time, determination, or funds to do it right, you are better off not doing it halfway.
- A business that falls under the guidance of a parent organization probably does not need to go through a strategic planning process. Usually the parent organization sets the strategy. In that case, your operation is responsible for figuring out how you will execute those strategies for your service area.
- A business that already has effective and relevant strategies in place does not need to go through the process. There’s no right or wrong answer to how often you should go through the strategic planning process. A general rule of thumb is every 3 to 5 years. If you are actively using your strategic plan and reviewing, the need for a new planning process will organically reveal itself.
- When a business uses Strategy Screens (you can read more about this concept here), they go through the process of examining their strategies every time they are faced with an opportunity or challenge. Similarly to number 3, by using this system you will know when it’s time to go through a strategic planning process. It won’t be dictated by the cycle of the calendar.
- As stated above, if leadership is not ready for the potential to make significant changes, then its probably not a good time to embark on a strategic planning process. This can happen because of egos, protecting turf, and special interests. In these cases, it doesn’t matter how fantastic a plan is, it’s unlikely to result in any real change.
- Other reasons for not engaging in strategic planning include a lack of understanding of the purpose, lack of flexibility, lack of ability to follow-up and a lack of engaged stakeholders.
Due to the significant investment it takes to do effective strategic planning, you want to be sure it’s the right option at the right time. If you decide that a strategic planning process isn’t right for you, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do some sort of planning. That brings us to the value of Operating Plans.
Strategic planning focuses on how things have changed for your business over the past few years, what’s changing now and what might change in the future. On the other hand, Operations Planning looks at the way you will conduct business over the next year. If you have a Strategic Plan in place, your Operating Plan should be directly tied to it. For businesses that do not have a Strategic Plan, it might be even more important to develop an Operating Plan.
I recommend some level of Operations Planning every year. The best time to do this is leading up to your budgeting process. A budget is simply a plan for your year, broken down into numbers. In order to put together your numbers plan for the year, you need to know what you will be doing.
Since most people cannot predict the future, the best we can do is make assumptions about what will happen over the coming year. Then we make plans around those assumptions. Based on your expertise in your industry, you may predict growth, stagnation, or the need to add a new product or service. Taking the time to think through what will happen over the next year, you are able to put together realistic plans. Sometimes it’s appropriate to map out multiple plans. If XXX happens we will plan for YYY. If XXX doesn’t happen, we will plan for ZZZ.
The next step in your Operating Plan is to develop the budget. With clear assumptions in place you can create the money story to support those plans. Whether you’re predicting growth, staying the same or changing products or services, you put your numbers in place in order to carry out the plans. This is an oversimplification of the budget process. If done right, that process involves a great deal of research, comparison, and give-and-take. That’s a topic for a whole separate article.
Once you have your budget plan mapped out you can write your goals for the year. Done right, your operating goals for the year will keep you on track to meet your budget. And when tied to your Strategic Plan, they will keep you moving towards your mission or purpose.
In addition to being tied to your Strategic Plan, annual assumptions, and budget, a well constructed Operating Plan will include the following:
- Goals for the year – Spell out what you want to achieve over the next year. Define how your operations will be different at the end of the year.
- Action steps – Break down the goals into the steps it will take to get you there. Be specific and thorough.
- Accountabilities – Assign each step to one person who will be responsible for carrying it out.
- Due dates/Checkpoints – Set a due date for each of the action steps. A good practice is to set aside time at the end of each quarter to examine your goals, action steps and accountabilities. By checking in every 90-days you stay on-track and are able to refocus.
As you develop your Operating Plans, you will want to run it by your stakeholders. This serves as a “reality check”. While you don’t want to turn this into a pseudo Strategic Planning process, you also don’t want to do your planning in a vacuum. Check the logic of your assumptions, goals and action plans. Not only will this ensure that your plans are solid, it will also garner confidence from your stakeholders, and make it easier to get budget approval.
I really love the quote by Yogi Berra: “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” Whether you’re ready for a Strategic Plan, or an Operating Plan makes more sense for you, it’s best to know where you’re going.
Need help with your Strategic Planning, Operational Planning or figuring out which is best for your business? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free 30-minute discovery call to get started creating the best plans for your business!
Kim is a mom, wife, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of small businesses and nonprofits.