I recently had the opportunity to interview Tim Harrington, founder and president of TEAM Resources. Tim is a strategic planning expert and author of Eisenhower On Enlightened Leadership. Tim has worked with banks and credit unions since 1988 and his unique approach to strategic planning and training helps financial institutions achieve their growth goals. We focused our discussion on the strategic planning process for financial institutions. Below are Tim’s insights into all things planning.

What makes a good strategic plan?
Limited focus. You can’t plan for everything but you need to plan for the most important things. Your strategic plan has to be built around where you are establishing market advantage; where you are going to be better than everyone else at something. Then how you tie the organization into advantage. Staying focused on the significant few big things is what makes a good strategic plan.

What is the best question to ask at your strategic planning session?
What do you do better than anybody else? If credit unions don’t know, I can guarantee you their members don’t know. When asking that question, I  often get a lot of “nothing—we don’t do anything better than anyone else.” If “nothing” is the answer, then then you need to spend time on developing what you “want” to be the best at. What could you establish as the best at what you do? It may be something new or it may something you are already good at but not great.

When you boil it down, there are only five things you can really be the best at:

  • Physical convenience (tech convenience does not create and advantage; everyone matches tech so fast; physical convenience is hard to match)
  • Best price provider
  • Highest quality service provider
  • Best marketer and brander
  • Most innovative products  & services (which is hard to do)

Each one can give you market advantage. Most credit unions will usually say service quality but they can’t prove it or measure it. Many fail at service by not establishing member engagement. What good is your best service if you don’t ask for more of it?

What are three strategic issues credit unions must address in the coming year?

  • How they are going to make up for declining non-interest income?
  • How they are going to deal with the narrowing spread and make it up?
  • At what point are they going to eliminate tellers?

How do you avoid your strategic plan becoming tactical?

You have to ask the group “does that sound strategic or tactical.” You have to hold the group accountable; a good facilitator helps with that.

What are three tips you can give credit unions to improve their strategic planning process?

  • Be prepared to think outside your limitations—so many of us talk ourselves out of things (we can’t do this). Why can others do something but you can’t? The planning process only works if you are willing to expand your horizons. Nothing is impossible. It may not be practical but nothing is impossible.
  • Have a tactical discussion at a separate time—deal with strategic issues first and then do tactical at a later date. Keep the strategic planning discussions on big picture issues.
  • Hire a facilitator—either of us will do a great job!

Tim concluded our conversation about strategic planning with the following words of advice:

“The whole point of strategic planning is to raise your head as high above the water as possible to see as far into the horizon as you can. You have to see what is coming.”