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How to create an operational plan

Your operational plan is the “How” to your strategic plan's “Why.”  It's a shorter timescale, usually a year, and it looks at the high-level achievements that would make this year a success.

What's included in an operational plan

The operational plan consists of the objectives you want or need to hit to move toward your strategic goals.

As well as the top-level objectives, you would need a high-level breakdown of the activities involved in reaching those objectives. This is not at the task level, but at an outcome or deliverable level. For example, if the objective is to launch a new service, a high-level activity might be to build a new funnel.

The operational plan is all about how you will use your resources to further your strategic plans. Against each objective you also need to add an owner and any resources he or she may need in terms of time, money, new software or equipment, etc.

It should also contain details of what success looks like and how it will be measured, e.g., does it need to create a certain amount of revenue to be deemed a win?

How to track your objectives

Tracking these objectives requires success measures to be set, and I recommend that they be quantitative so they can be measured objectively by you and the team working towards them.

Each success measure should then have a key performance indicator that measures progress regularly, so that you can stay on track with goals or make adjustments to plan quickly. You want to look at what would tell you in advance that you were veering of course, rather than when you’ve already missed a target; for example, leads per day tells you immediately that something needs attention versus revenue for the month that tells you if something went wrong but too late to change it.

Where to start

Prioritization can be the hardest part of the operational plan. It feels natural to want to focus on the highest revenue generator first (the fastest path to cash is instilled in us from the time we begin our business), but a non-revenue generator might actually be more beneficial if it saves significant time or makes another deliverable possible.

If you are struggling, the Eisenhower Principle can be a quick and easy way to objectively consider where to start. Dwight D. Eisenhower developed an urgent and important system for deciding between activities.

“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower 

If you ask yourself for each objective, “Is this important and is this urgent?”, then you can rank them in the following order:

1. Important and urgent.

2. Important (not urgent).

3. Urgent (not important).

4. Neither important nor urgent—ask yourself why any of these items are on the plan at all!

Interaction with other plans

While the operational plan comes from the strategic vision, it also needs to work in concert with the financial plan. The financial plan needs to factor in additional revenues or costs from the initiatives in the operational plan, and the operational plan may need to be adjusted for the financial needs or capacity of the business.

I suggest preparing the current state version of the revenue plan and then looking at the impact of the changes from the new initiatives and adjusting either the operational plan or financial plan as needed.

The unknowns

Risks to the operational plan should already be covered by your contingency plan, but new initiatives may create new risks. If you don't have a crisis plan or it needs an update for new risks, you'll need to consider what could derail, delay or destroy your timeline and adjust accordingly, for example, by adding in a time buffer to mitigate overly optimistic estimates.

Collaboration is key

The operational plan takes its direction from the strategic vision, but it also gives structure to the action plan, which will break the objective down into simple, bite-sized tasks to be tackled. It's a step that is often overlooked, but it's a key big picture element that focuses the business and team over the coming twelve months, where the strategic plan is too vague and the action plan is too deep in the details.

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