Nutshell: You can't build a pyramid without an operational plan

Written by
Future Talent Learning

09 Mar 2021

09 Mar 2021 • by Future Talent Learning

Operational plans are the link between strategy and action on the ground – crucial if organisations are to deliver on goals and objectives.

“A goal without a plan is just a wish.” That’s the observation of French aviation pioneer, war hero and beloved author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Perhaps the pyramids were on his mind when he reflected on the need for a plan.

He certainly had close connections with Egypt. In 1935, he crashed his monoplane on route from Benghazi to Cairo, after encountering poor weather conditions over the Egyptian desert. The writer survived but the plane was a write-off. And no amount of wishing could change that.

From Little Prince to all-powerful Pharaoh

Even today, one can only wonder at the pyramids; how the goal of protecting the Pharaoh on his journey to the afterlife was translated through skilled architects, craftsmen and many thousands of labourers into such phenomenal structures.

Right until the advent of the skyscraper, pyramids were the tallest human-made structures on earth. And dare we conjecture; they couldn’t have been raised from the ground without something akin to an operational plan. 

This brings us on to another important pyramid.

In the strategic planning nutshell, we saw how what starts at the top as corporate strategy feeds into business unit strategy and, in turn, is supported by team strategy, with everyone in the organisation contributing to its overall success.

This type of structure was outlined in the 1960s by Harvard’s Robert N Anthony (not to be confused with American pro wrestler Robert Anthony, aka Egotistico Fantastico), who chose a triangle to illustrate how management structures enable strategic purpose to cascade down through an organisation.

The ‘Anthony triangle’ places strategic planning at the top of the pyramid (the big-picture plans for the whole business), before tactical planning (how these big-picture plans are implemented at team level) and then operational planning (the detailed, day-to-day procedures, set out in action plans and personal development plans).

As leaders and managers, we’re most likely to sit in the tactical planning area in the middle of the pyramid. We therefore play a significant role in translating the strategic vision into action. And to do this, we must both inspire our teams and enable them to contribute to and deliver against the big-picture strategic imperatives.

Hence, it’s operational planning that we’re going to look at in more detail here, along with its close associate – action planning.

Anthony triangle beats Bermuda triangle

Most organisations have a strategic plan, outlining strategy over two to five years in line with long-term vision. However, many lack operational plans and without this vital underpinning at the foot of the pyramid, goals and aspirations can quickly go off-radar.

Operational plans are blueprints for managers and teams to follow in meeting their objectives and contributing to the overall goals of the organisation. In short, they link the strategic plan at the top of the pyramid to the human, financial and physical resources required at the coalface to deliver that plan.

This integration from top to bottom is key. And everyone involved in the journey must have a clear idea of the destination to avoid getting lost.

Take IKEA, by way of example. According to founder Ingvar Kamprad: “To design a desk which may cost $1,000 is easy for a furniture designer, but to design a functional and good desk which shall cost $50 can only be done by the very best”. It is only by dovetailing higher-level decisions about product range and market entry (top of the pyramid), with its design, stores and sourcing operations (down through the pyramid), that IKEA can support this distinctive value proposition. If it were just about ‘cheap’, the whole thing would collapse like a Billy bookcase minus its screws.

What goes into an operational plan?

In our own organisations, operational plans can help us to answer everyday problems such as who should be working on what and how will we allocate resources on a given task.

It should include:

  1. A clear set of objectives.
  2. The outcomes to be delivered.
  3. Allocated responsibility for achieving these objectives.
  4. Timelines for when the objectives will be achieved.
  5. Resource requirements, for example staffing and budget.
  6. The standard of work to be achieved.
  7. A method for monitoring progress – which we’ll cover in some depth in the measuring performance nutshell.

Making and testing our plans

Steve Cooke and Professor Nigel Slack, co-authors of Making Management Decisions, have identified five categories of objective common to most operational plans.

  • Technical specification: Improving products and services and bringing them closer to what customers want.
  • Quality: Reducing errors and getting things right first time.
  • Responsiveness: Delivering goods and services to customers more quickly.
  • Dependability: Increasing the chances of things happening when they are supposed to.
  • Flexibility: Increasing the range of things that can be done, or the speed of doing them .

Asking ourselves how we can accomplish these things provides a good framework for mapping out our operational plan – which then needs testing against some important questions.  

Q        Does it fit with and support the strategic plan?

Every element in our operational plan should play a role in helping us achieve a specific strategic objective. If we can’t identify how an element does this, then it probably shouldn’t be part of our plan.

How will a pyramid help the Pharaoh gain immortality?

Q        Are the objectives realistic?

When setting these objectives, it’s important to be realistic, not idealistic. The plan will only be as effective as the people who’ll be carrying it out. Setting unrealistic objectives is not only pointless – it can also depress morale and lead to high employee turnover.

Do we have the mathematical, engineering and architectural skill to build a pyramid?

Q        Are the objectives, actions and targets clearly laid out?

To be effective, an operational plan must be straightforward, easily understood by all participants and clear in what each team member is expected to achieve – and by when.

Do the quarry workers, hauliers and masons all know what is expected of them?

Q        Have we prioritised what’s most important?

Before creating an operational plan, we should break down our overall strategic plan into one-year objectives. Then determine three to five key initiatives that will drive our success in achieving those goals. 

Should we focus on building the subterranean chambers or work on upgrading our granite hammers?

Q        Is there a clear timetable for reaching key deliverables?

           With our 20,000 workers, will we finish this in 20 years?

Q         Have responsibilities been properly allocated?

Have we given poison to all the servants needed to accompany Pharaoh on his journey to the afterlife? 

Q         Is there a method for monitoring progress?

Key performance indicators (or KPIs) are among our most powerful tools for success. We’ll cover this in detail later in this module.

Should we aim to level the base within 5/8 of an inch?

Q        Is there overall support for the plan?

            Would Ramesses the Great approve?

With a tested plan in place to translate the strategy, we can begin to focus in on specific tasks using action planning.

We are what we do – not what we say we’ll do

Action planning is an approach rather than a method and it’s something that most of us do instinctively – just as new parents instinctively focus on their baby’s needs, without thinking to call it ‘prioritising’.

For example, taking a few minutes at the start of the week to note down and prioritise our workload is a form of action planning, as is organising a holiday. It’s just that the action plans we make for our teams are more considered and more detailed.

Action plans outline the day-to-day actions for each individual team member and team. They typically include details on who is going to do what, by what time, using what resources and in what sequence to get us where we are going.

There are many tools available to help us create these action plans and work in a more effective way towards achieving our set objectives. These range from Excel spreadsheets and online to-do lists to bespoke action-planning programmes.

Here, the emphasis is on looking forward to the specific tasks we’ll undertake rather than linking back to the strategy already set, as we have already ring-fenced this territory when making the operational plan.

What goes into an action plan?

While all action plans will differ, they tend to contain the following ingredients.

WHERE are we now?

Whatever our objective – for example, to improve our team’s productivity – we need to be clear about our current position, or how we can plot the route we need to take.

Consider the well-known joke about a lost tourist who asks a local for directions to the nearest town, only to be told: ‘Well, Sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here”. There’s wisdom in this wit because it’s always best to start from a place where we have a good chance of reaching our goal. And if we’re not well placed, we may need to ask if our goal is realistic.

WHERE do we want to be?

Next, we need to determine what exactly we are trying to achieve. To use the same example, to simply state that we want to improve productivity is too general; we need to be more specific. For example, “I want to improve my team’s productivity by 10% by the end of this quarter” is much clearer.

All objectives should therefore follow the SMART criteria: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.

HOW are we going to get there?

We also need to determine the steps we must take to reach our goal and any changes we need to make. For example, if we are planning for our team’s performance review, we might need to gather evidence, schedule meetings, book a room or complete the appropriate paperwork. Once we have identified each step, we should check to see if they can be broken down even further. For example, whether we have the necessary resources, and whether there are training needs to be met.

WHEN will we reach our destination?

We then need to create a schedule detailing when each activity must take place, how long it is likely to take and when we are going to get there. Our timescales must be realistic. To determine this, we need to know if certain steps must happen in sequence or whether some of them can run concurrently. We may also need to check the timescales or third parties such as external suppliers. And we should always build in some contingency, especially for any steps that must be completed before another one can start.

Faster isn’t always sharper. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”.

WHO is going to take responsibility for each step?

We need to consider how any changes will impact on our teams and team members and how best to communicate this, which may require support from HR. We may also need to involve more senior managers in getting our plans signed off.

Charles Darwin observed: “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change”. But as we know, people are often resistant to change because they believe they will lose something of value or fear they won’t be able to adapt. This may require an evolutionary leap on our own part as we need to be first-class communicators and ensure that everyone understands their own role and any changes, and the roles of everyone else on the team in achieving shared goals.

WHAT resources do we need to get there?

Working through the above steps should give us a clear idea of the resources we need. For example, time (both our own and other people’s), space (e.g. meeting rooms), equipment (e.g. machinery or software) and thus budget. We should also consider whether there are organisational procedures or guidelines that could restrict our plans.

Both operational plans and action plans can be run through the same filters as strategic plans to test for potential barriers and unhelpful influencing factors, so remember the tools in the Strategic Planning Toolkit.

It’s also wise to ask a manager or a colleague to check through our plans, as a fresh pair of eyes can often pick up on something we’ve missed. Then, once we begin to implement our plans, we must set KPIs to monitor progress.

Choosing the right KPIs can play a vital role in whether or not our plans succeed. The most effective metrics are leading indicators: predictive measures that show us what to expect in the future, allowing for real-time course correction. By contrast, lagging indicators only show you that our progress is falling short once it’s too late to make wise changes.

Even big dreamers need plans

When Elon Musk tweeted that it was aliens who built the pyramids, it prompted the response that the Pharaohs built Tesla.

But the truth behind both is much more prosaic. Extraordinary achievements require everyday planning. And organisations that spend insufficient time and energy in this vital area may – like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – set off for Cairo only to come crashing down in the Egyptian desert.

Conversely, those with plans that make clear what everyone is doing and how it fits into the bigger picture are more likely to achieve success and enjoy the benefits of improved teamwork and collaboration and greater productivity. It can even help you reach for the stars.

Think back to NASA in the 1960s. Landing a man on the moon required the collective imagination of a 400,000-strong organisation, all committed to the same giant leap. Legend has it that during a tour of NASA’s HQ in 1961, John F. Kennedy encountered a janitor mopping the floors. “Why are you working so late?” he asked. “Mr President,” replied the janitor. “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” This type of a connection to a common goal doesn’t happen spontaneously; it needs to be nurtured. As managers, we need to build a strong connection between our employees’ daily responsibilities and what we are ultimately trying to achieve. And we need to express that in a way that is both clear and inspiring – just like “let’s put a man on the moon”.

As a final point, consider this. It took just over 20 years to build the Great Pyramid of Giza and construction work began in around 2,580 BC – or 4,413 years ‘before computer’ if we accept Charles Babbage’s difference engine as the prototype.

With all the tools we have at our disposal today, just imagine what’s possible. Then plan for it.