What’s the difference in a Strategic Plan and an Operating Plan? Do you need both? Many organizations seem to be unclear as to the difference between these two very different types of plans. I believe both are essential if we’re going to maximize the success of our organizations.

While I’ve not been able to find a universally agreed upon definition for these two types of plans, Strategic and Operating plans are clearly different. The three primary differences are: sequence of origin, time horizon and level of detail.

First, Sequence of Origin – Strategic Plans are usually created BEFORE Operating Plans. It makes sense to me that you would want to determine your destination and your approach before you create tactical plans.

Time Horizon – Strategic Plans contain a future destination – often many years in the future. Also, they outline a strategy(s) that will be pursued over an extended period of time. These plans can easily be in place for several years, or longer. I’ve seen Strategic Plans that unfold over a decade or more. Operating Plans are most often for a much shorter period of time – 12 months being most typical.

Level of Detail – The Operating Plan contains the specific tactics needed to execute the strategy. That’s why it makes sense to have the Strategic Plan first.

With these differences noted, here are my working definitions:

Strategic Plans include long-term goals or objectives for an organization and articulate the path they’ll take to accomplish them. As an example: Administrators attempting to move their school district from the bottom 10% to the top 10% might include in their strategic plan: Longer school year, more parental involvement and adoption of best practices from other schools. Although these statements are broad, they would provide the needed direction for local principles and teachers to create their Operating Plans.

Operating Plans contain the details (tactics) necessary to execute the strategy. Specific accountability is often assigned at this point. I encourage leaders to outline who is responsible for the execution of each tactic in the plan. Once the Operating Plan is finalized, you can move to the final stage in the process and determine the budget needed to execute the plan.

With these definitions in mind, here’s a metaphor to clarify the concept… think of the Strategic Plan as guidance provided by GPS that outlines your route towards a predetermined destination. The Operating Plan is like the itinerary for the trip – it will outline the specific details for your journey – what time you’ll depart, where  you’ll stop for gas, which hotels you stay in, etc. Strategic Plans outline the route, Operating Plans fill in all the details. To stay with the metaphor, you pick your destination and your route BEFORE you choose your hotel and your restaurants for a trip.

I encourage every leader to have both Strategic and Operating Plans in place.[GLS_Shield]

Author: Mark Miller

Mark is a business leader, author, communicator, photographer, husband, and father. He spends his time helping leaders grow.