How Detailed Should a Strategic Plan Be?

by Lyn McDonell

A strategic plan typically provides guidance to organizational leadership for three to four years.  It is intended to establish direction and reflect choices – i.e. setting out that “we are going to concentrate on this and not on that.”  The plan’s goals align everyone's efforts towards a destination described in the mission and/or vision.  However a strategic plan can be disappointingly vague in the final result.  Is this a problem?

Consider these points when deciding how detailed a Strategic Plan needs to be:

Run time:
Goals have to have sufficient continuity for three or four years.  At the end of year two, the goals stated should still be meaningful at face value. 

Flexibility:
A plan should provide sufficient flexibility for the management/staff of the organization to determine the best way to get there given available resources.  Too prescriptive a plan can be a problem.  The strategic plan has to make clear what the major outcomes should be while not prescribing so specifically that it hamstrings the staff towards only one way of accomplishing something.

The Big Moves:
A strategic plan has to identify the big shifts and emphases.  What is different from the past? Explaining this is not usually about detailing specifics.  Rather it is a call to action.  The clarity of the thinking and logic behind the shift becomes the important thing.  People must be able to grasp the future strategy of the organization.

Right Messaging:
Related to the point above, a strategic plan orients stakeholders internally and externally to the priorities of the organization. For example, there may be a goal of “supporting the professional membership with resources to meet their learning goals.” The digitization of courses and tools is a new thrust and can be noted as the tangible objective.  If the plan is a list of too specific initiatives, it can fail to communicate the “why” behind activities. 

Operational Plan Objectives and Strategies:
Once the goals and intended outcomes are clear, implementation detail emerges only with research into what other organization are doing, resources availability, and, ultimately, operationalization of strategies into a plan and budget.  The fulfillment of any goal is usually multi-dimensional.  This is where objectives come in – identifying different dimensions of the goal.  Included in a strategic plan, objectives yield different strategies over the duration of the plan. Ever notice how in year one of a plan there is a great cluster of activities and then year two and three are “emptier?”  There is a reason for that.  The sight line of change can only be extended so far and strategies towards objectives in a time period are better struck as that period comes into view… i.e. in the operational plan. 

A strategic plan is high-level on purpose. An operational plan provides the detailed “how” of the strategic plan.  Don’t clutter your strategic plan with implementation detail that may become quickly out of date and, worse, obscure the plan’s directional wisdom.

~ by Lyn McDonell

Photo Credit - Farm4

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