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The difference between a strategy and a plan (and which do you need).

The difference between a strategy and a plan (and which do you need).

There always seems to be a lot of planning going on. However, not all planning efforts are the same: different processes produce different results.

Some focus on building a clear plan to align actions, while others are designed to create a longer-term strategy to guide planning for years.

Desired results will determine the approach, right?

Not exactly. When teams don't know or cannot agree on whether they need a plan or a strategy, they don't proceed confidently.

Let's sort this out, starting with some definitions.

A Plan is the details: who, how, when, and how much it takes to achieve a goal or objective. A plan aligns resources, timing, and expectations. A plan has a more limited scope than a strategy, and the process to develop it should be focused and fast, so you get into action as soon as possible.

A Strategy is the story of an exciting journey; it explains how you plan to move from where you are today to where you eventually want to end. A strategy outlines how you will overcome challenges, confront vulnerabilities, and leverage all your assets and favorable forces to prevail through the journey to reach your ultimate destination.

Both define expectations and outline milestones to measure progress and performance. However, a strategy is frequently long-range and more directional than the near-term specifics found in a plan.

You can have a plan without a strategy, but a strategy without a plan is a story unfulfilled.

But how do you know which one your team or company needs?

A plan is needed to …

  • allocate and align resources, especially when they are limited.
  • manage people and processes efficiently.
  • ensure clarity and alignment so you can get into action!
  • clarify roles and responsibilities.

A strategy is needed when …

  • you are not clear on your destination or when there is no agreement on the destination.
  • you have been through a great deal of change, and there is confusion about how to regain traction.
  • even with all your grand plans, hard work, and dedication, you are not getting the performance you want or need.
  • you are new to your leadership role and want to define an exciting new direction.

How does the process of producing a plan differ from creating a strategy?

Strategic Planning v Problem Solving Processes 1

If you need a plan, you focus on a goal, break down the goal into smaller goals or objectives, and then work out what, how, when, and how much for each objective.  It's straightforward, for sure, but rarely easy.  Plans take time to build as they are usually iterative—the more complex the goal, the more complex the plan. 

If you need a strategy, your process should disrupt typical problem-solving practices to invite new ideas and divergent points of view into your strategy discussions. As you begin strategy development, your thinking will feel more divergent, eventually converging when the planning team achieves alignment.  A strategy will emerge from robust planning discussions that lead to highly satisfying plan development.

Understanding what you need is the first step, but aligning your processes to satisfy that need is equally important.

Still not sure which is the right approach for you?

Take our short quiz and download your Strategy Ready Report for suggestions on the next steps.

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