The words “plan” and “strategy” are often used interchangeably. The meanings of the words are quite similar: a method for achieving an end.
Here’s the truth:
There are strong differences between a plan and a strategy.
A plan is an organized scheme created with a clear objective in mind. Conversely, a strategy functions as a flexible blueprint employed to achieve a particular goal, with the capacity for adaptation and change as needed.
It’s important for a company to understand the difference between having a plan and having a strategy. This is because although they each have strengths and purposes, they aren’t necessarily interchangeable. The differences in types of industry, clients, and projects call for one method or another.
What Is a Strategy?
A strategy is a blueprint, layout, design, or idea used to accomplish a specific goal. A strategy is very flexible and open to adaptation and change when needed.
A strategy is most useful when creativity, collaboration, and innovation are of the utmost importance. It encourages openness and debate from every side of the equation. A strategy embraces questions and out-of-the-box, effective answers while allowing for a natural flow of thought and continual momentum that builds until success is reached and expectations are blown out of the water. A strategy can surprise, impress, and put you on track to becoming a competitive powerhouse.
The building blocks of building a good strategy include the following actions:
- Framing the right questions
- Learning from the past
- Diagnosing the whys
- Forecasting the future
- Searching potential pathways
- Choosing how to integrate
- Committing to changes
- Evolving when it’s necessary
What Is a Plan?
A plan is an arrangement, a pattern, a program, or a scheme for a definite purpose. A plan is very concrete in nature and doesn’t allow for deviation. If “Plan A” doesn’t work, you don’t alter “Plan A” and try again. Rather, you move to “Plan B;” something totally different.
A plan is most useful when staying well organized and on-track is the highest priority. A plan provides a coherent framework from which to build and a sure direction to follow, with intermittent milestones to pass in order to reach an end goal. It eliminates false confidence and increases stability. A plan increases the transparency of your work, leaves no room for assumptions, and can prove that you’ve put in a lot of thought and effort.
Types of plans include:
- Financial: Must be rooted in reality and universally accepted
- Tactical: Concerns the responsibility and functionality of lower-level departments
- Operational: Focused on specific, routine procedures and processes
- Succession: Don’t skip a beat should a major player suddenly depart
- Contingency: Be proactive in vetting a researched and realistic backup
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When to Use a Strategy vs. Plan
Ultimately, whether to use a strategy or plan depends on the nature of the goal and the need for adaptability in a given situation. Understanding the differences between a plan and a strategy can help you determine the best course of action. Here are some guiding principles.
When to Use a Strategy
Strategies are beneficial when:
- The focus is on shaping the future direction of a company or project.
- Open dialogue and out-of-the-box thinking are essential for solutions.
- The situation requires ongoing innovation and flexibility.
- The goal is to set new standards for success.
- The aim is to gain a competitive advantage in a market.
Strategies excel when adopting new technologies, diversifying products or services, and expanding into new markets.
When to Use a Plan
Plans are beneficial when:
- The focus is on executing well-defined goals according to a framework.
- Defined timelines and assigned roles are essential for solutions.
- The environment is predictable and contains minimal variables.
- The goal is to carry out specific tasks along a particular timeline.
- They contribute to internal consistency, structure, and growth.
Plans are ideal for enhancing operational procedures, carrying out events, improving resource management, and executing structured growth.
Example of Strategy and Planning
Business Strategy vs Plan:
A business team may have a plan to roll out a new product. Research, design, manufacturing, product placement, and marketing will all take place within their designated time frames and on budget. New products will continue to go through the same process until the customers decide on a winning product.
In contrast, a business team with a strategy will take the lessons learned from the past to determine what can be done differently, earlier in the process of product development. Innovation will be applied throughout the design and manufacturing processes. The team will use foresight to determine what customers will want (even though the customers themselves might not know it yet) and creative marketing techniques to ensure a winning product.
Sports Strategy vs Plan:
Another great example of the difference between a strategy vs a plan can be seen in sports. This example serves to illustrate the difference between a soccer team’s plan or strategy to score a goal.
A soccer team with a plan to score a goal might begin with a throw-in to another specific player. The ball would then be passed to a designated offensive player who would then be responsible for shooting the ball into the goal. The succession of moves would be deliberate and would not be adjusted when risks or obstacles to the plan were presented.
A soccer team with a strategy to score a goal might also begin a play with a throw-in one of a few different teammates. The main idea would then be to move the ball forward and pass to open offensive players who would then shoot the ball at the goal. The succession of moves would be open to adaptation and change if the ball were intercepted or if other players were open for receiving the ball.
When planning for the future, which is undeniably unknown, it helps to strategize and consider the various scenarios you might be faced with and be prepared to modify your strategy so you can keep moving forward rather than starting over at the beginning.
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