How to Create an Operational Plan You’ll Actually Use

You probably have a business plan to help you create a system for growth and offer a financial outlook for the future. A business plan is often necessary if you want to attract investors or apply for financing.

You might also have a strategic plan that charts out your direction for the next few years. But what about an operational plan?

An operational plan is like an instruction manual that spells out how you will accomplish your strategic plan. It includes:

  • A list of tasks and processes within your company
  • A detailed explanation of the roles and responsibilities for you and your employees
  • A timeline for completing your strategic goals

The difference between operational and strategic plans

While it’s easy to confuse strategic and operational plans, they work hand in hand and offer different benefits. For example:

  • A strategic plan defines an organization’s goals, while an operational plan outlines what needs to be done to reach those goals. To create an operational plan, you need to have a strategic plan in place first.
  • A strategic plan is organization-wide, while an operational plan is departmental. Various departments have unique functions for achieving organizational goals. For example, suppose the strategic plan is to grow revenue by 10%. In that case, the finance department’s operational plan may involve calculating profit margins, while the marketing department executes campaigns to increase sales.
  • A strategic plan covers a set period, usually five or 10 years. In contrast, an operational plan details the actions to execute that strategy into weekly, monthly, quarterly, or yearly timelines. For example, the marketing department’s plan could include a weekly posting schedule for social media and a monthly review of engagement metrics.

How an operational plan helps startups survive—and move faster

A plan can seem like fruitless musing about the future—you’re just creating one more document that gets lost in Dropbox or Google Drive. But that’s a sign of a bad plan more than a critique of planning.

Startups may think they’re too small to need an operational plan, and some justify limited or no planning as “being nimble.” Yet a lack of planning is among the top reasons startups fail, according to University Lab Partners, an independent research project formed in partnership with the University of California, Irvine.

Without a plan, business owners have to reconsider and reprioritize company efforts daily. At the very least, it’s time consuming; quite often, it leads to inconsistent and even competing efforts, turning a straight-line path to strategic goals into a squiggly, looping line.

An operational plan can also improve teamwork by clearly outlining responsibilities and, as a result, accountability. Each member of the team better understands their role and what’s expected of them. Everyone can do their part, and every part works toward the strategic goals.

An operational plan also helps identify siloed information from other areas of the business. For example, a strategic goal to increase profit margins might, in the operational plan, ask the marketing team to increase awareness for the most profitable products. That request acts as a natural incentive for collaboration with sales or data teams, who own the data on margins for product inventory.

Finally, an operational plan can improve productivity. Employees can work faster because they know exactly what to do. Tasks that don’t ladder up to operational and strategic goals can slide off their plates.

A Gallup study found that clarity of expectations is one of the most basic employee needs—and is vital to performance. Yet, as another Gallup survey found, only about half of employees know what’s expected from them at work. A well-written operational plan translates objectives and expectations into writing.

How to write an operational plan that’s worth the effort

To create an operational plan, you first need a strategic plan to identify your organization’s goals and timelines. Every project and task in the operational plan ties back to the “why” of your operational plan.

For example, if the strategic goal is to increase annual revenue by 40% in two years, there are many projects—elements of the operational plan—that could get you there. How do you decide which projects to pursue?

You may identify a diverse set of potential projects to help you reach your strategic goals, such as:

  • Running a social media marketing campaign
  • Publishing a downloadable asset to encourage email signups
  • Implementing a referral program for existing customers
  • Participating in an industry trade show

Prioritize projects based on their likely impact on your strategic goal, then assign responsibilities to team members, breaking down the project into actionable tasks.

At this stage, identify (or ask!) if employees need additional resources. For example, will the person executing the social campaign need an automation platform to schedule posts in advance or view roll-up statistics on post engagement?

Break down each outcome into individual tasks and assign deadlines. For example, to create a social media campaign, the breakdown may look like this:

  • The sales director identifies products or services to promote.
  • The accountant provides a budget for the campaign.
  • The marketing director writes a creative brief to establish messaging guidelines and assigns team members to execute the creative assets.
  • The copywriter writes three versions of copy to test for engagement.
  • The graphic designer creates graphic assets for the campaign.

If you’re a small-business owner, you may handle all these roles and responsibilities. Or, if you have just a few employees, one person may tackle multiple functions. The important work is to break down and assign the tasks.

When it comes to setting realistic deadlines, it helps to get employee input, especially if one person is working on multiple projects or multiple parts of the same project. But be careful about giving employees too much time. People tend to procrastinate when they have long deadlines, and Parkinson’s law suggests that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Deadlines will be missed. But having a deadline means you’ll know as soon as a task fails to wrap up on time—so you can solve the issue and get the larger project back on track. A project broken down into tasks with deadlines is a good sign that you’ve got a solid operational plan.

How do you know if your operational plan is working?

Once your operational plan is in place, you need to chart the impact of your efforts—at a granular level. For example, if your strategic goal is to grow your customer base, and your operational plan includes an email marketing campaign, a few KPIs can help measure success:

  • Email open rate, which mainly reflects the strength of the subject line
  • Click-through rate, which evaluates the effectiveness of the copy and offer
  • Landing page conversion rate, which measures relevance of the landing page

Piecing everything together from strategic plan to operational plan to outcomes, tasks, and measurements may seem daunting. Some frameworks, like objectives and key results, or OKRs, can help.

With OKRs, objectives are the goals your company wants to achieve, and key results are how you measure progress toward those objectives. You can have company-wide, departmental, and individual OKRs—all nested within one another—which help connect employees’ work to the big-picture goals.

A lookback to assess your operational plan—and refine the next one

Once you complete a project, schedule a postmortem meeting. During the meeting, recap the project, review the results, and determine what did and didn’t work.

Document the exercise so you can identify best practices as well as areas for improvement. Did you take on too much? Were tasks not broken down enough? Was there an acute need for a missing resource?

This information can help you build a better operational plan the next time around. It may simply make the process of operational planning more efficient. What may have taken days may take only hours once people are familiar with the process.

The outcome? A process no one dreads, a plan that keeps everyone in sync, and the best possible chance of hitting ambitious strategic goals.

Illustration by Sjoerd van Leeuwen

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