Strategic Planning vs. Business Planning. Yes, There’s a Difference.

By: Justin Moser

Too often when companies embark on a strategic plan, the results are disappointing. A common error involves assembling a long-term business plan, calling it a strategic plan, and complaining about how the exercise is mostly ‘financial,’ with limited use beyond the one-time rollup.  In fact, a 2018 Chief Strategy Officer Survey noted, “Despite the vast effort put into the strategic planning process – 82% of survey participants say that it is a ‘very important’ area – most CSOs are dissatisfied with its output.”

So, what’s causing these frequent unsatisfactory results?

In “Strategic Planning: You’re Probably Doing It Wrong,” I outline five common pitfalls of flawed strategic planning efforts. As important as avoiding these pitfalls is understanding there is a significant difference between a strategic plan and a business plan.

Strategic plans center on choice around a company’s most critical go-forward imperatives, with resource tradeoffs inherent in those choices. They are about saying No more than saying Yes to business-as-usual funding and selective investments. Because of their very mechanics, business plans cannot contemplate these tradeoffs.

But first, what is Business Planning and its purpose?

Business Planning

Business planning processes – whether one-year Annual Operating Plan processes or longer-term three-to-five-year plans – are financial vantage points by product and service line, by market. They answer the What for a business: What financial outcomes are you targeting or projecting? Yet, they do little to answer the How, beyond calling out clear expectations and gaps.

As an FP&A discipline, business planning is useful for several purposes:

  • Topline and Profit Targeting: Painting an aspirational and more realistic targeted revenue and profit trajectory by business segment and by market. Such targets are assigned to leadership incentive plans, both on one-year and three-year (as in LTIP) bases.
  • Gap Identification: Highlighting, with current information, where certain business segments or markets will have a significant gap vs. aspiration or recent history. These gaps elevate critical operational and marketplace challenges.
  • New Product Lines/New Market Expectations: Bringing attention to larger unknowns within the core business, such as new product line launch expectations or emerging market revenue trajectory. While uncertain projections, their identification is helpful in revealing higher-volatility aspects of a business.
  • Margin and Profit Mix: With segment-level profitability assumptions, the above margin-weighted aspirational targets and more realistic projections can highlight where natural business evolution will enhance or pressure targeted profitability. Typically, a growing, subscale emerging market presence, as well as new product launches, will pressure profit mix and highlight the need for higher profitability in the incumbent core business.
  • Long-Term Overhead Budgeting: The above topline projection and profit mix analysis can appropriately shape the scope and scale of a business’ total budget. However, business planning exercises rarely solve how this budget should be allocated between core and adjacent business opportunities, a common frustration of business planning.

With all the framing benefits above, misunderstanding a business plan as a strategic plan can yield damaging outcomes. For example:

  • Multiplication rather than Real Choice among strategic imperatives: Frequently, the financial exercise in a business plan paints an aspiration, and business segment owners know a business-as-usual approach will not realize the intended revenue and profit outcomes of that aspiration. This causes business owners to launch more product lines or services, adding multiplicative complexity to the enterprise. Instead, more strategic, enterprise-wide discussions are required to appropriately callout why the core business-as-usual will not generate the aspiration, and what choices must be made to address challenges and change the trajectory, including drawing resources away from business-as-usual pools. Launching more offerings in more markets is not typically an optimal answer.
  • Perpetuation of Misalignment: Like an Annual Operating Plan, multi-year business plans tend to engage the commercial P&L owners of the business on inputs within their respective business segment siloes. Functionally, they fail to force cross-business tradeoffs and choices. Worse, they may reinforce a business segment owner’s perception that they have their multi-year budgets as a given reflection of their numbers submission, without a transcendent view on funding and reallocation around decisive imperatives.

Spotlight Example: Nearly all branded consumer businesses are wrestling with how to grow their owned omnichannel differently in the 3-5 year horizon, to offset the pressure from wholesale channel consolidation, and from the Amazon price-matching, profit pool compression effect. Many of these businesses construct multi-year business plans annually without addressing the difficulties of the ‘How:’

  • What new capabilities are required to build a different omnichannel approach,
  • With what upstream product development to reinforce one’s own omnichannel offering,
  • With what re-prioritization and de-prioritization of wholesale partners, and
  • With what reallocation of funding from the core business?

When businesses do plan for bolder omnichannel plays, they often do so without a choice-driven reallocation.  Real, sustainable choices come in reallocating product development, field sales, and marketing funding from traditional wholesale channels, amplifying select product line offerings to align with consumer shifts and to drive traffic to preferred channels, including owned and more advantageous omnichannel endpoints than where that traffic will otherwise naturally migrate.

None of the above challenges get solved in a business plan, and business planning in the absence of strategic planning may make certain outcomes worse.

How do organizations move from Business Plan to decisive Strategic Planning outcome?

Initially, divorce the Business Plan entirely and attack the top three to four-year enterprise challenges.

Decouple the strategic plan from a multi-year business planning exercise. Instead, ask each of your business leaders to address corporately defined (by the CEO management team or CSO consortium) top strategic questions facing the company over the next three to five years. Don’t ask for more than a handful of areas; even three to four is a heavy ask. Their considerations should contemplate the a) magnitude of the challenge, b) likely solutions, c) magnitude of the response, and d) potential capability build/partnerships and funding requirements inherent in that response. With that thought pattern, assemble your business leaders in an effort that begins with enterprise-wide trade-offs and debate, rather than within silo business plan projections and incremental solutions.

Crystallize solutions to enterprise challenges, translating them into strategic imperatives.

There are a variety of approaches to ensure the core leadership team is informed, derives realistic solutions, and makes hard decisions against the top enterprise challenges, whether with mutual presentation, small-group forums, facilitated debates, outside support, or other mechanisms. Whatever the strategic planning methodology, aligning executives around strategic choices is not only a necessity for strong strategic planning, but also a pre-requisite for linking any business plan process to a decisive strategic direction.

With strategic imperatives in place, re-visit the Business Plan and link for accountability.

Once the mandate of the top strategic imperatives is clear – with the corresponding magnitude of solution required – only then can a business plan effectively be commissioned. Often, these strategic imperatives necessitate organizational change and a different structure for constructing the business plan. Regardless of whether there is organizational change, the business plan should include critical forcing mechanisms and reallocation targets upfront, prompting business owners to understand that business-as-usual budgets will not be available for select aspects of the business. Their business plan projections should reflect the corresponding impacts, both on the benefits of the focal imperative activations and on the businesses receiving less resource. Seeing decisive strategic choices translate into the more visible “cold hard steel” of the multi-year business plan will bring them to life. This is where the business plan graduates from a modest-value financial exercise to a rallying force behind the strategic imperatives.

In business as in life, one would never define the “what” without first considering the “why” or “how.” Yet that is what flawed multi-year business planning forums may do. Contact HighPoint to move from business planning frustration to impactful strategic planning.


Justin Moser is COO of HighPoint Associates, a strategy consulting firm headquartered in El Segundo, CA. Previously, Justin served as Group CFO and SVP at Mattel over its global commercial finance, brand finance, FP&A, and Investor Relations functions, and headed its North American Online/Amazon Sales and Corporate Strategy teams. He began his career as a Consultant with Bain & Company.