Does your small business need an operational plan?

6 min read
Leeha Debnam

As a small business owner, you know that strategic planning — setting those high-level, long-term goals — is essential to your success. But taking the time to develop an operational plan is just as crucial. Why? Because an operational plan is what turns big-picture goals into actionable (and achievable) steps.

What is an operational plan?

Businesses typically have three types of plans:

The business and strategic plans are used to set the short- and long-term goals for a business. The operational plan gets down to the nuts and bolts of how you intend to actually accomplish those big-picture goals. And it typically covers a 12-month period.

An operational plan breaks down big business goals into bite-sized initiatives or projects. Each project must align with a big-picture, strategic goal for your business.

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Typically, an operational plan addresses the following questions:

  • What projects and actions must be completed?
  • Who has responsibility for each project or action?
  • When should each project or action be completed?
  • How much budget must be allocated to each project and action?
  • How will you measure the success of the project or action?

The benefit of an operational plan is that it gives you a step-by-step guide to follow for a year. It’s not as comprehensive as your strategic or business plan, and there’s a simple reason for this. An operational plan needs to be easily communicated, easily understood and actionable. It should also be adaptable if circumstances change.

Develop your operational plan in 5 steps

It doesn’t matter if you’re a one-person band or have a team supporting you, an operational plan is your roadmap to success.

  1. Set your goals.
  2. Assign responsibility.
  3. Find the funds.
  4. Set timelines.
  5. Measure how you did.

Now let’s explore each of the five steps in detail.

Step 1. Set your goals

To develop your own operational plan, you need to have a solid strategic or business plan in place. If you haven’t already got a business plan, you can download a free template on

You need to know your big-picture goals before you can work out the steps to get there.

Once you have a business plan, identify single projects and outcomes that you want to achieve (or work towards) in the next 12 months. Let’s be realistic here. You want to set yourself up for success by choosing only three to five projects.

Break each project down into key actions, tasks or events that need to happen for you to reach your outcome.

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Maybe you’d like to improve your customer ratings. You need an operational plan for that too.

For example, if your project is to launch a new website, you’ll need actions and tasks assigned to:

  • Planning your website
  • Deciding on and registering a site name
  • Creating content (text, photos, videos, etc.)
  • Designing, building and launching it
  • Maintaining it

Be sure to include every task you can think of that will need to be finished to reach the goal. Check our comprehensive guide to building your website here.

Step 2. Assign responsibility

For small business owners going it alone, the bad news is that you and you alone are responsible for finishing each project. The good news is, you can skip ahead to Step 3.

If you have a team supporting your day-to-day operations, work out who will own each project.

You can also assign specific team members or vendors to work on the individual actions and tasks that make up the project. For example, with the website launch, you might assign a freelance copywriter to write the content, a web designer to design it and your marketing team to promote the launch.

Step 3. Find the funds

When it comes to allocating your budget, you’ll need to consider all the costs required to complete the project.

The first cost that comes to mind is labour. This is either your wage (if you’re a single operator) or the wages of your team. Then there’s:

  • Administrative expenses
  • Equipment
  • Materials, including digital resources
  • Marketing
  • Travel

If you have savings to fund your project, great. If not, you could apply for a grant or loan. Just make sure you’ve done a good job of estimating the total cost involved in seeing the project through.

Step 4. Set timelines

Setting timelines for projects leads to accountability and increases the chances of success. Start with setting a due date for when the project needs to be completed. You could also break it down further and set deadlines for when the actions and tasks need to happen.

Tasks without due dates often don’t get done.

Timelines in operational planning are a great way to prioritise the work and your resources. Be realistic and ensure that you’re aware of what will be happening and when.

Step 5. Measure how you did

Key performance indicators in your operational plan help you measure the success of your projects. They’re also useful for monitoring the progress towards achieving those big-picture goals.

The performance indicators must paint a clear picture of what needs to happen during the project to reach a successful outcome. For example, this task should be 25% complete by this date, 50% complete by this date and so on. To help maintain focus, keep your list of performance indicators short.

Keep in mind that whatever you choose to measure, you’ll need to regularly monitor these numbers and adapt your targets or deadlines if required.

Implementing, monitoring and reviewing your operational plan

Congratulations! You’ve got an operational plan. Now you’ll need to use it. Here are some quick tips to help ensure its success:

Operational Plan Small Group Meeting
  • Training sessions are a good way to explain how individual performance aligns with the operational plan and the big-picture goals in your business plan.
  • Regularly monitor progress made against each project, keep track of resources and adjust the plan if needed.

At the end of each year, take out the plan and review it. Don’t only focus on future planning. Reflect on past successes and capture the mistakes made that you don’t want to be repeated.

Operational planning: What have we learned?

No matter what size or stage you’re at in your small business, an operational plan will help you take those big-picture goals and break them into the individual steps that lead to success.

Remember, your operational plan should:

  • Focus on just just three to five specific projects
  • Include actions that need to be taken
  • Assign responsibility
  • Be fully funded
  • Include deadlines
  • Have clear measures of success

Consider your operational plan a road map for the daily operations of your business. A good one will bring the vision for your business to life.