“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

—Henry David Thoreau

Talk Like TedThoreau probably wasn’t thinking about strategic planning when he wrote the words “simplify, simplify, simplify.” But he well could have. The reality is we overly complicate strategic planning at credit unions and banks.

The best strategic plans are not necessarily the most complicated. In fact, the most successful plans are the ones that are the most simple.

One way to simplify your strategic plan is to implement the “rule of three.” According to Carmine Gallo, author of Talk Like Ted, “the rule of three simply means that people can remember three pieces of information really well; add more items and retention falls off considerably. It’s one of the most powerful concepts in writing and communication.”

It’s also a powerful concept when it comes to strategic planning. Rather than making a list of five, seven (or Heaven help you) 10 strategic initiatives, focus. There is true power in focus.

Think about how the number three is effective in many different aspects: there were three little pigs, three musketeers, three wishes granted to Aladdin. The U.S. flag has three colors, there are three medals in the Olympics and three wise men brought gifts to baby Jesus.

Sticking with the “rule of three” concept, here are three ways to apply that rule to your next strategic plan:

(1)    Focus on three strategic initiatives—That’s it. Three. Max. Once you get more than three large projects, items get diluted, tasks go uncompleted and staff becomes overwhelmed. Maybe it’s grow loans, reinvent your brand and increase operational efficiency. Once you nail the top three, stop adding and adding.

(2)    Communicate three points to your staff—Make your plan simple for your staff. Perhaps you even boil the plan into three words. For example: branding, lending and selling. If your staff gets “tired head” because you have too many initiatives, then important strategies will fall through the cracks.

(3)    Condense your plan to three pages—Some strategic plans are so large they don’t even fit into a three ring binder. Scrap all the data (even though it’s important). Then reduce your plan to three pages: one per strategy. Insert some bullet point action items, rough budget and expected outcomes. Focus on keeping your plan skimmable.

Applying the rule of three to strategic planning sounds easy. However it takes a great deal of discipline to implement. You can’t accomplish everything you want to in 12, 18 or 24 months. So stop trying. Focus on three.