You’ve probably heard of a strategic plan, which maps out a long-term strategy over one to five years. But saying you want to double your profits by 2025 is a bit too pie-in-the-sky. You need something else in place to help you achieve these goals — a step-by-step outline of how you’ll reach the target. Introducing: operational planning, a vital tool in the project manager’s toolkit.
Ready to learn how to do operational planning the right way? You’ve come to the right place. Read on!
What is operational planning?
First, let’s get some definitions out of the way.
Operational planning is a process that involves making plans or policies, acquiring and allocating resources, setting milestones, implementing projects, and evaluating progress. Operational planning is sometimes called operations research, O.R., or O.P. The goal is to set out exactly how your team or business will achieve its strategic goals within a set timeframe.
What’s the difference between a strategic plan and an operational plan?
A strategic plan is a long-range plan that provides a basis for decision-making. Instead of focusing on immediate results, strategic planning provides a high-level view of milestones you need to hit to achieve long-term goals. This strategy also:
- Outlines your company vision
- Defines your target projects and the framework for measuring long-term goals
An operational plan focuses on the specific actions and short-term goals your team must accomplish to carry out their strategic plans. It also lists the resources and timelines for completing each task. Operational planning:
- Focuses on the near future — typically the upcoming year
- Includes detailed, measurable objectives
- Outlines the steps you’ll need to take to meet your strategic plan’s goals
Key differences between strategic planning and operational planning
- A strategic plan is overarching, while an operational plan focuses on achieving the details of that strategy. One is a big-picture overview, and the other is more granular.
- A strategic plan outlines an organization’s vision, mission, core values, and guiding principles. Operational plans lay out how you’ll achieve your strategic goals.
- The timespan for a strategic plan is typically three to five years, while the timeframe for an operational plan may be anywhere from weeks to months. At most, an organization will plan operations for an entire year.
- Strategic plans are forward-thinking by nature. Operational plans focus on the immediate actions you can take to make progress within specific deadlines.
- Strategic plans are intended to align everyone with similar ideas about where you’re going together as a team. Operational plans are more about how you’re going to get there.
- Strategic plans are more enduring. They don’t change much over time, no matter what happens. Operational plans need to be more flexible and take daily changes into account.
- Strategic planning involves high-level reporting and typically includes your executive team, planning committee, and stakeholders. Operational plans, on the other hand, encompass hundreds of tasks and milestones, involving everyone in the business. Reporting tends to be on a team-wide scale, usually with managers checking in to monitor progress and drive things forward.
Who should create an operational plan?
Both plans need input from management, but operational planning is usually done by mid-level managers to avoid the risk of having too much information come together.
Strategic plans are more long-term and can go over several years, while operational plans are short-term, usually six months to a year. Both should have approval from upper management before being implemented.
What are the benefits of operational planning?
The most obvious benefit is time savings. If you have a plan, the team shouldn’t have to spend days figuring out what to prioritize or reworking projects because they don’t have enough money or time.
Another benefit of operational planning is transparency in tracking progress. If there are problems, it’s easier for management to find and fix them quickly.
Lastly, crucial tasks or decisions are less likely to fall through the cracks when you have well-defined objectives and milestones. This is especially true in terms of setting expectations with clients. In design meetings, for example, it’s common for stakeholders to forget things discussed in past meetings or during contract negotiations. Having these details written down saves everyone a headache when working together on future projects.
To summarize, an operational plan should:
- Clarify what your team will be doing on a daily and weekly basis
- Set expectations so teams can avoid going off track
- Provide a guide for day-to-day operations to help team members see what they need to do to accomplish long-term goals
What to include in an operational plan
Operational planning should be broken down into quarterly milestones with monthly action items lined out in between. The most important components to include are:
- Target objectives and deliverables
- Timetables for completing milestones
- Resources required to meet each objective
- Desired methods or processes for achieving goals
- Projected outcomes for each goal
- Metrics for measuring performance
Operational plans aren’t meant to be etched in stone; they should be dynamic and change when necessary. For example, if you budgeted X amount of money to advertise your new product in December, but Christmas sales are higher than expected, you can reallocate funds from other areas to increase ad spending.
So, how do I make an operational plan?
Follow these steps to get started.
1. Start with a strategic plan
What are your company’s overarching goals for the next year or two?
- Determine your current position.
- Develop your strategy.
- Build your strategic plan.
- Share your plan with the wider business.
2. Narrow your scope
Break down the strategic plan by team, project, or focus area. The marketing team, for example, may want to focus on increasing mobile ad revenue. Sales will have their own goals, as will the design team. Start thinking about individual team priorities, and narrow your focus accordingly.
3. Identify relevant stakeholders
Internal and external stakeholders play a crucial role in operational planning, so treat the process as a collaborative effort. To varying degrees, stakeholders have the final say on new initiatives and will actively influence whether projects move forward or not. By getting their input from the beginning, you minimize any miscommunication or conflict later on.
4. Map out your operational plan
Begin by looking at what happened during the last six months (or year). What worked well, and what didn’t? How can you improve on those successes? As for failure points, think about why they didn’t work out. Was it a lack of funding? Insufficient resources? Bad timing? Poor marketing decisions? Depending on the obstacles you have to overcome, you may need to adjust your timeline or budget.
Next, build a timeline of your plan. Set deadlines for each task with milestones along the way. If you’re doing research, set deadlines for different research areas (e.g., product testing, market research).
One of the most important steps of planning is creating milestones with specific deadlines and assigning people to each task. These deadlines should be realistic and motivate people to complete work before the due date.
For example, imagine setting a two-month deadline for a brainstorming session. Most people will probably forget and won’t bother coming up with anything until a few days before the deadline. However, if you set a weekly task to write down 10 ideas, people are more likely to concentrate on the short-term goal and come up with better ideas.
Questions to ask yourself during the planning stage:
- What do we need to accomplish? Draw from your strategic plan here.
- What daily tasks do we need to complete to hit our goals? Work backward from the end goal.
- Who is responsible for these tasks? Make sure to assign a task owner and a deadline to each one.
- What are our metrics for success? Make sure your goals follow a SMART framework.
Finally, develop an overall budget based on your timeline and milestones once you’ve fully defined the scope of the plan. If some phases get delayed or finish earlier than expected, reallocate funds accordingly so that the entire project doesn’t fail due to insufficient resources.
Another thing to consider when planning is how much everything will cost, based on task duration. For example, if you plan to release an app, you should know that the development period for your product (including research and design) will typically last around two years. But then it might take another year or two after that before everything starts making a profit, since it’s hard for new products to get noticed in the beginning.
5. Share your operational plan with the team
There’s no point in having a plan if no one knows about it or uses it regularly. Sharing your plan with the broader team ensures there are no surprises (and people won’t jump ship because they think you have no direction). You should also share it with stakeholders, so they understand your goals and have the opportunity to provide feedback.
When it comes to planning, always remember that things change — so monitor your plan and update it regularly.
Using project management software can be a massive help: you can set up workflows, assign tasks, share progress charts, and keep everyone updated in real-time. This means everyone is pulling in the right direction — a must when it comes to hitting long- and short-term goals 💪