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You say operational, we say strategic!

Potay-toes. Potah-toes. Tomay-toes. Tomah-toes. Does it really matter? It does if you're confusing operational with strategic! We were asked last week what the differences were. So, as we publish our final strategy guide, we thought it would be useful to explore these two terms.

Strategic or operational?

All organisations need some sort of plan, or framework, to help them set out what they're going to do, when they're going to do it and - usually - who's going to take action. What differentiates strategic from operational is the types of actions they're describing:

  • A strategic plan - and associated implementation plan - sets out the changes you want to make to your organisation over the next three to five years. Your strategy will identify actions that will help to deliver your organisation's purpose - why the organisation exists. It will look at what's happening outside of your organisation, to the sector or market, or government policy. It's likely to contain a set of high-level objectives that describe what you want to change, and outline the specific actions you'll take to deliver those objectives. And it should set out who's responsible for delivery and how you'll measure progress. Strategies can be developed for the overall organisation, or for smaller sections within it.

  • An operational plan, on the other hand, sets out the day-to-day tasks you need to do to keep the organisation running in its existing state. Operational plans focus on the near future, usually specifying tasks for no more than the coming year. They're likely to be focused on internal activities and context, rather than external ones. Like strategic plans, they'll include what will happen, when and by whom, and will usually include targets to ensure progress is being made. And they should have an eye towards the strategy, to make sure business-as-usual doesn't have a negative impact on strategy. Operational plans tend not to be developed at the organisational level, instead focusing on the detailed work of specific departments.

Here's how we picture it:

Which one do I need?

In a word, both! Successful organisations will use both a strategy + associated implementation plan and an operational plan. They'll just use them in different ways. The strategy will frame the changes you need to make to thrive, while the operational plan will set out what you need to do to keep your business operating while you make the changes.

If you're a small organisation (or area within a larger organisation), then managing the two types of plans can be simplified by combining them in one place. For example, one spreadsheet can contain both sets of actions, with the simple additional of a column that tags the actions as either strategic or operational. Filtering that column will then let you view your strategic actions, your operational ones, or both.

What next?

If you've been operating for any length of time, you're likely to have a version of your operational plan already. It may not be written down, but you'll know what you need to do - and when - to maintain your existing activities. And if you don't have a written version, we'd recommend taking half a day to capture it all in a spreadsheet. It will make juggling those different balls much easier!

Strategy takes a bit more time, as it's focused on the changes you'll need to make to build or reduce different areas of your work. Our strategy guides will help you get started, whether you're in a social enterprise, university, or small business.

You're already the expert on your operational planning, but if you need help getting your strategy off the ground, then get in touch. We'd be delighted to work with you!


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