Whether you’re just starting a business or actively running an existing one, you probably have a business plan to articulate your organization’s mission, value proposition, target audience, company goals, and financial projections—essentially, the “who,” “what,” and “why” of your business. To truly succeed, however, you need to understand the details of how you’ll implement your company’s vision, and when.
While you may have a strategic plan that charts out your company’s direction over the course of years or even decades, true success depends on focusing all of the day-to-day operations of your business toward that end result. To do that, you’ll need an operational plan.
What is an operational plan?
An operational plan (also known as an operation plan or operations plan) is a document that describes the daily, weekly, and monthly processes teams and individual team members should follow in order to achieve their business goals. Essentially, an operational plan is an instruction manual that spells out how you will accomplish your strategic plan.
An operational plan typically includes:
- An exhaustive list of tasks and processes within your company
- A detailed explanation of each employee and department’s role and responsibilities (including your own)
- A timeline for completing your strategic goals
Operational plans vs. strategic plans
While it’s easy to confuse strategic planning and operational planning, they work hand in hand and offer different benefits.
- A strategic plan defines an organization’s strategic objectives, while an operational plan outlines what needs to be done to achieve those objectives. This means that in order 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. Different departments have unique functions for achieving organizational goals. Suppose your 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 and creates marketing materials to increase sales.
- Strategic planning covers a longer period, usually five or 10 years. In contrast, an operational planning 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.
The benefits of an operational plan
To the action-oriented entrepreneur, an operational plan may sound like fruitless musing about the future—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 the overall planning process.
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 operational 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.
The benefits of operational planning include:
- Less wasted effort. Without an operational plan, business owners struggle to keep key stakeholders on the same page, and must reconsider and reprioritize company efforts daily. At best, this process is time consuming; quite often, it leads to inconsistent and even competing efforts, wasting valuable resources and turning a straight-line path into a squiggly, looping line.
- Better teamwork. Operational plans can also improve teamwork by clearly outlining responsibilities and, as a result, accountability. Each member of a team better understands his or her role and what’s expected. Everyone can do their part, and every part works toward the strategic goals.
- More collaboration. An operational plan also helps identify siloed information from other areas of the business, resulting in diverse cross-functional teams that work together more effectively. For example, a strategic goal to increase profit margins might, in the operational plan, ask the marketing team to increase awareness of the most profitable products. That request invites collaboration with sales or data teams, which own the data on margins for product inventory.
- Higher productivity. Finally, a functional operational plan can improve productivity. Employees can work faster because they know exactly what to do. Daily tasks that don’t ladder up to operational and strategic goals can slide off their plates.
- Clear expectations. 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 achievable objectives and realistic expectations into writing.
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 strategic plan.
For instance, 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?
- Look at your data. Where are the biggest opportunities?
- Talk to your team. Which reasons generate the most no’s for sales or cause the most headaches for customer support?
- Read up on your industry. Where do industry studies suggest companies leave the most money on the table? For example, nearly 70% of ecommerce shopping carts are abandoned, and abandoned cart emails have impressive open and click-through rates.
You may identify a diverse set of potential projects for achieving company 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 project planning into actionable daily tasks.
At this stage, identify the resources required and ask employees what they need to get the job done. 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?
Divide desired outcomes into individual tasks and assign deadlines. For instance, to create a social media campaign, the breakdown may look like this:
- The sales director identifies products or services to promote.
- The accountant provides an operating 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 prepares 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 more granular level. Two methods for doing this are:
- Key performance indicators
- Objectives and key results
Key performance indicators (KPIs)
Also known as key performance metrics, KPIs are measurable values that demonstrate how effectively a company is achieving the short- and long-term goals identified in the strategic and operational planning process.
For example, if your strategic goal is to grow your customer base, and your operational plan includes executing a weekly email marketing campaign, a few leading indicators that can help measure success include:
- 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
Objectives and key results (OKRs)
The objectives and key results model takes a slightly broader view of measuring the performance of your operational plans. That is, instead of merely identifying the measurements that you’ll use to evaluate your operational planning, the OKR framework includes both a concrete objective and a milestone that will determine whether that objective has been met.
For instance, a sales department may set an OKR of reducing customer churn to 10%. In this example, reducing customer churn is the objective, while 10% is the key result. Note that OKRs actually include KPIs—in this case, customer churn, a measurable percentage of the share of customers who cancel their subscriptions over a given period.
You can have company-wide, departmental, and individual OKRs—all nested within one another—which help connect employees’ work to the big-picture goals.
Refining your operational plan
Finally, once you complete a project or reach the end of the month, schedule a postmortem meeting to review your operational plan. During the meeting, recap the project, review the results, and determine what did and didn’t work.
Document this exercise so you can identify best practices for achieving your company’s goals, as well as areas for improvement. Did you take on too much? Were daily tasks not articulated well enough? Was there an acute need for a missing resource? Were quality standards too high or too low?
This information can help you build a better operational plan the next time around. It may simply make the operational planning process more efficient. What may have taken days may take only hours once people are familiar with the process.
Ultimately, a detail-oriented operational plan will lead to a process no one dreads, a plan that keeps everyone in sync, and the best possible chance to achieve company goals.
Illustration by Sjoerd van Leeuwen
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Operational plan FAQ
What is the purpose of an operational plan?
What makes a good operational plan?
How do you structure an operational plan?
- Identify company goals.
- Articulate the key day-to-day activities needed to achieve those goals.
- Clearly articulate and outline responsibilities of each team member.
- List your key assumptions about the challenges your team faces.
- Decide how you’ll measure success on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.