A strategic plan defines what a company wants to do. An operational plan defines how it's going to do it. A company with a plan but no strategy and a company with a strategy but no plan for how to execute it are equally handicapped. Every element in each plan must be linked to the other to ensure that people spend their time working on the right activities and that those activities will make the company successful.

Strategic Plan

A company's strategic plan describes its vision for success. It focuses on the future of the company and how the future will be different from the company today. For example, a software company's strategic plan might be to provide industry-specific solutions that are tailored to the unique needs of each industry for five key industries. Another strategic goal might be to have at least 70 of the top 100 companies in each industry as a customer.

Operational Plan

An operational plan describes the tasks that people will carry out to accomplish the goals in the strategic plan. The plan helps employees understand what they need to do to help the company realize its vision. For example, the software company might plan to sponsor and exhibit at the main industry conference for each of the five industries. It might also implement training for software developers who work on each industry product to help them better understand the business issues that create the need for industry-specific features.

Every goal in an operational plan should link directly to one or more goals in the company's strategic plan. If an operational goal can't be tied to a strategic company goal, it probably shouldn't be an operational goal. For example, if an operational goal of the software company is to develop a sixth industry solution but there's no strategic goal to expand to an additional industry, employees will spend time working on something that isn't a priority for the company. The quality of the solutions for the five key industries might suffer as a consequence.

Support Strategy With Actions

If you create a list of five goals you want to accomplish, but you only assign people to work on three of the goals, the success of the remaining two goals is doubtful. That's why every goal in a strategic plan must have one or more supporting goals in an operational plan. If a strategic goal isn't represented in any of the company's operational plans, it's highly unlikely that the goal will be realized, and executives should question why the goal is part of the company's strategic plan.