The Difference Between Strategic Planning and Annual Planning

For years we’ve been telling anyone who will listen “Not having a strategic plan is like trying to sail without a rudder.” Without a strategic plan, you are at the mercy of the changing winds with little control over how far you’ll drift or where you’ll end up. Of course, while there are lots more of these clever analogies, the fact is that those organizations that have a strategic plan are much more likely to succeed than those that don’t. Organization’s with strategic plans to guide them not only take control of where they are heading, but they are also better positioned to take advantage of new opportunities and to thrive in even the most challenging of times.

At Starboard Leadership Consulting, it is not unusual for us to get a phone call asking if we can facilitate an “annual strategic planning retreat.” It is the word “annual” that is usually the tip-off that the organization is not actually engaged in strategic planning. Rather, it is much more likely that they bring the board together once a year to review what was accomplished in the year that has passed and determine what they want to do in the year ahead. It is good work, and important work, but unless it is linked to a multi-year strategic framework it is probably not very strategic.

Simply put, in a strategic planning process the organization clearly describes or affirms its purpose for being (mission), determines what it wants to achieve over the next few years (vision), and then decides on a set of 3-5 strategic priorities to guide the organization towards achievement of the vision.  This “strategic framework” should then be linked to specific objectives that can guide the development of annual work-plans or action-plans.

What differentiates a strategic plan from an annual work-plan is that the strategic plan is, well, strategic. We think of it this way (returning to our earlier nautical analogy), without a plan of any sort, you aren’t in the boat. You are in the water, struggling to keep your head above the waves. With an annual plan, you are still in the water, but at least you are planning for and anticipating the waves. You may not know in which direction you should swim, but you are doing your best to react to your environment. With a strategic plan, however, you are not only in the boat, but you can see the point on the horizon where you want to head, and you have a strategy for sailing your boat there on the straightest line possible.

So, in short, a strategic plan looks out into the future two, three, or even as many as five years to determine what it is you hope to be accomplishing and then prioritizes the essential strategies for achieving your aspirations. With this strategic framework to guide you, work-plans can be developed annually that include specific objectives, outcome measures, and detailed action plans (who, by when) linked to the operating budget.

Your strategic plan and your annual work-plan go hand-in-hand. The annual work-plan provides the nuts and bolts of how the necessary work will get done, but without the strategic planning framework to guide you, the annual planning process will be anything but strategic.

For more thoughts on strategic planning, visit You’ll find more advice, like this blog post by Jeff Wahlstrom, as well as an overview of our consulting services. To contact us for more information, use our contact form to get in touch with us today.