operational plan

What is operational planning?

Reading time: about 6 min


  • Strategic planning

Operational planning is a fairly granular approach to planning. While strategic planning focuses primarily on the what of your business, operational planning focuses on the how. If you are, for instance, planning on tripling your bottom line within the next 15 years, the strategic plan will give steps you’ll take to do that. But operational planning will detail how those steps will be carried out. 

Operational planning includes every aspect of your organization—sometimes down to the role of individual team members. This is important to understand how each team contributes to the goals to move your business toward its vision. Operational planning can happen at a pace and with a granularity that is specific to your organization. For instance, it may not be feasible for you to make an operational plan that covers the next year—perhaps you have a specific milestone that needs to occur within the next quarter and it’s most efficient to create an operational plan that covers only the next three months. The speed of your business determines how much ground your operational plan should cover and how detailed it should be.

Planning is critical to success. The need for an operational plan doesn’t depend on the size of your business. Without a strategy and a clear path to executing that strategy, your business has a higher likelihood of failing. 

Strategic planning vs operational planning

We touched on strategic planning above, but it may be unclear how it varies from operational planning. In short, strategic planning focuses on long-term direction and goals for an organization, usually over a period of three to five years, and involves setting the organization's mission, vision, and values. Think of it this way: If your business is sailing, strategic planning sets the course of your ship. 

Operational planning, on the other hand, dictates what ship you’ll be using, how it will be manned, and what the duties of the crew will be to reach the destination. Operational planning focuses on the short-term execution of strategies and tactics to achieve the organization's strategic objectives, typically covering a period of one year or less. 

An operational plan can also act as a north-star document when questions arise about business decisions. Since the operational plan has goals and milestones, when a decision must be made, those goals and milestones can provide the answer. For instance, if the sales team has a goal of making 1,000 sales in January and a decision must be made around implementing new software that will optimize lead generation, it’s easier to understand how that software could help meet a broader goal that, in turn, plays into a larger strategic plan. 

How to start an operational plan

  1. Develop a strategic plan 

Your operational plan should be aligned with your strategic plan. An operational plan can’t stand on its own, nor should it come before the development of a strategic plan—that would be a bit like buying materials before having the blueprints for a house. 

  1. Narrow the scope

The operational plan should focus on a specific area of your business. Narrow the scope to a team, department, or focus area. Having difficulty narrowing it down or knowing where to start? Focus on the highest-priority items first. Take the goals from your strategic plan, put them in a list, and then prioritize them. Determine how those goals can be feasibly achieved, then work backward to determine what needs to be accomplished, by whom, and in what order. 

  1. Identify stakeholders

Determine who should be involved in implementing the operational plan and make sure to include them in the planning process. Designate a person responsible for measuring KPIs and communicating their progress to the broader group. Also, determine which stakeholders are crucial for obtaining buy-in so that the operational plan can proceed without roadblocks. As part of identifying stakeholders, determine what kind of resources and budgets your plan will require.

How to write an operational plan

Once you start writing your operational plan, be sure to:

Set goals and milestones

We’ve already touched on narrowing the scope to the most critical items. Now it’s time to set goals and milestones for each team. Each goal for each team will feed into the larger goals set forth in your strategic plan. This is also when you’ll create deadlines for each goal. Managers can then work backward from the deadline to determine projects and due dates for the broader team that will then be distilled further into individual tasks.

Determine initiatives that can help achieve goals

These goals are likely included in your strategic plan. If they aren’t, you should work to add them in. If they are, your operational plan will take those goals and break them down into manageable portions that are then assigned to various parts of the organization. In essence, your operational plan should be a step-by-step guide on how to achieve each initiative. Later, tactical planning will distill initiatives into steps that individual people will need to take. Tactical planning is the most granular look into how a company will achieve its strategic plan. 

Define how success will be measured

This may seem straightforward. After all, it should be easy to determine whether a goal is met or isn’t. But many modern strategic plans don’t involve easy-to-define metrics. Which makes success very difficult to measure. Suppose, for example, part of your business’s strategic plan is to have greater brand recognition. How is it possible to determine that? That’s where defining success comes into play. Your indicators of success should be measurable and quantifiable. Detail what tools you’ll use to measure progress toward goals.

Outline responsibilities for those involved 

Implementation of the operational plan involves an entire organization. But by assigning specific roles to individuals, you can make sure that people know exactly what to do. Write it down and follow up with owners to make sure they understand their responsibilities. 

Set realistic timelines and deadlines

Setting realistic deadlines is a balancing act. Too little time, and goals won’t be met. Too much time, and there’s not enough organizational forward momentum. Gain input to determine what’s appropriate for your circumstances.

Allocate budget and resources necessary

You have likely gotten a reasonable understanding of available resources, but now it’s time to allocate those resources. Do you need to increase headcount? Do you need to reorganize so that certain teams have adequate resources? What kind of budgets are required to implement the operational plan across the business? Detail everything in the plan.

Last but not least, once your operational plan is finalized, it’s time to share it. The operational plan is somewhat flexible, so if new information or changing market needs to trigger a change in direction, the plan can be changed. It should be considered a living document that’s referenced often. 

The better planned a business and the more goal-oriented, the greater chance it has of success. Take the time to develop a strategic plan and then utilize an operational plan to fulfill your business goals. 


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