an apple and an orange to represent how different strategic initiative is from operational projects

Strategic Initiative vs. Operational Project: Same or Different?

In my years of writing and talking about risk and strategy, one thing I’ve had to be careful about is making sure to use terms or phrases in their proper context or meaning.

It’s common for us to use terms interchangeably that, upon closer examination, have different meanings. This often goes unnoticed, but in some cases, it can cause [tons of] confusion. A prior article exploring the difference between a meeting and strategic conversation explored this dynamic at a high level.

One example of words that are used interchangeably include anxious and eager. Someone may say that the Director of Marketing is anxious to start a project instead of eager. The former (anxious) means the person is experiencing anxiety while the latter (eager) is excited or impatient to get started. Just that one word can lead to wildly different conclusions, especially if they’re taken literally.

Speaking of projects, there are instances where the word “projects” is used interchangeably with “initiatives.”

It is easy to get confused – on the surface, they both seem to mean the same thing, but as we’ll explore shortly, a strategic initiative and an operational project are not the same thing. The need for this clarification became apparent during a planning session I was facilitating last fall when on the project managers spoke up.

It is typical in these situations to just list the differences in a 1,2,3… type of format. However, after reflecting on these differences, it became apparent that…

The real distinction between a strategic initiative vs. operational project boils down to the company’s mission and vision.

It’s from these fundamental building blocks of a company’s decision-making that the difference between a strategic initiative and operational project flow from.

As we discuss in this article, a company’s mission, vision, and values are a north star of sorts that guide a company’s decision-making. Without them, executives, managers, and support staff can easily fall prey to shiny-object syndrome.

A company’s mission statement is, in essence, a proclamation of why it exists. Therefore, it is a statement that should be driving the things the company does day-to-day.

On the other hand, a vision statement is an aspirational description about the future and where executive leaders see the company in 10, 20, or even 50 years.

To achieve this vision, the company will develop a strategy and will look over the next 1-3 years to see what “initiatives” can be undertaken to close the gap between where things are today and that vision. As C. Davis Fogg explains in his book Team-Based Strategic Planning: A Complete Guide to Structuring, Facilitating, and Implementing the Process, a strategic plan:

“…provides a road map, direction, and focus for the organization’s future – where it wants to go and the routes for getting there.”

Therefore, strategic initiatives are the baby steps the company will take over the strategic timeline to achieve or work toward that vision. These initiatives cannot be done in a haphazard way since the future is, by default, uncertain.

Besides being done in pursuit of a long-term vision, strategic initiatives will require coordination between multiple departments internally and maybe even external stakeholders to be successful.

Also, an initiative isn’t just one effort or single task but instead tends be a more complicated combination of several different efforts that function or coordinate together to reach a vision.

And while an organization will no doubt work tirelessly to achieve a vision, there is still its current mission to carry out – its day-to-day operations.

Say a department needs to put in a new system – this is operational in nature. These types of process improvements that refine the way the company operates day-to-day are not strategic initiatives, but rather operational projects.

Something that can be accomplished inside one department within a “short” amount of time should be considered an operational project, especially if the project is within the purview of what that department does already.

As compared to strategic initiatives, operational projects don’t require near the level of collaboration, and there are little to no other stakeholders.

So to recap, strategic initiatives:

  • Focus on helping close the gap between the present and a future vision
  • Involve multiple departments and requires extensive collaboration
  • Occur over multiple years

On the other hand, operational projects:

  • Focus on company operations and its day-to-day mission
  • Only involve one department and require only minimal collaboration
  • Occurs within a short time


Although they may appear to be the same on the surface, it’s important to remember these differences when communicating both up and down the corporate ladder. This is especially important when, according to Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager, employees spend 60-80% of their time on operational projects. Hard to believe when these tend to fly under the radar while strategic initiatives get all the attention.

It is therefore imperative for managers and executives to be absolutely clear on whether they’re talking about strategic initiatives or operational projects. Give your team members the clarity and support they need to be successful in both.

Not having this clarity can create chaos and confusion in an already challenging environment.

After all, the mission matters today…the vision matters tomorrow.

Does your company use the terms strategic initiative and operational project interchangeably? If so, does it create mass confusion?

Please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts on this important topic. You can either leave a comment below or join the conversation on LinkedIn.

And if your company is struggling to understand the difference between a strategic initiative and an operational project, please don’t hesitate to reach out to discuss your situation and potential options for helping you move forward.

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Meet Carol Williams, SDS Founder & Lead Strategist

To our readers:

This blog was launched to provide strategy and risk practitioners with a go-to resource to better guide their efforts within their companies. Thank you for bringing me and my team along to be part of your journey towards better risk management, strategic planning and execution, and overall decision-making. Happy reading!

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