Strategy and Operational Planning for the Long Haul


I joined the board of a large non-profit this year and we recently spent several hours on planning for our year at the helm. Once we’d hammered out what we thought was a pretty near perfect vision and plan for the organization, a former board member dashed our enthusiasm with these words:

This is not a strategic plan. This is an annual plan.

And for the life of me and my cohorts, we could not get a straight answer out of this person as to what was missing from our so-called annual plan that would make it a strategic plan. I’m still grappling with the differences but here’s how I understand it so far.

Strategic plans address fundamental and directional issues. They are over-arching, visionary, and long term.

Annual plans (operational or management plans) target the day-to-day implementation of strategic decisions. These are the immediate (less than one year) objectives and imperatives.

Strategic plans take into account the unpredictability of the future, but plan for it anyway. They develop strategies based on the organization’s strength and weaknesses relative to the opportunities and threats in the external environment. Got it.

Annual plans take on future goals as something to accomplish now. They focus on short-term goals and go into greater detail about how specific tasks will be accomplished. Check.

Okay, so for example, in our organization one strategic goal was to raise our profile in the community. And one of the corresponding annual plan goals to accomplish this was to develop our website as an external (marketing) tool. ┬áTo me that’s strategy and operations. But the former board member still says – nope, that’s not strategic. According to her, strategic is more like, ‘Become a benchmark organization for online communication”.

  • Is it just that we’re not thinking big enough?
  • Just how detailed should long-term goals be?
  • And must they always be measurable?

I’m still confused, and betting I’m not alone. Planning seems to get pushed to the back of the list in order to put out today’s fires and we all know that’s not the best practice. It’s exciting to be part of an organization with such a forward thinking planning model. Now if only I could wrap my mind around it!

Please, strategic thinkers out there – enlighten us! (Okay… me.)

Image Credit: Wolfgang Staudt, Flickr