Before you know it, strategic planning season will be in full swing. Every bank or credit union takes time to build their plan for the upcoming years. But do they do planning well? Sometimes we leave those strategic planning sessions frustrated, uninspired or even disappointed in the outcomes.

How do you take those strategy sessions from boring exercises in futility to engaging moments filled with hope and a positive sense of direction? Besides throwing out the SWOT, there are several practical steps you can take to improve your next meeting focused on long-range issues.

Here are five practical suggestions to have the best planning session ever:

  • Address issues honestly—Nothing will ruin a planning session more than a group of people who agree on every issue. Make sure your team engages in lively debate. It’s okay to disagree. And the key word here is “honestly.” Too many times we hold back in meetings. Some people are afraid to speak their mind. Eliminate that attitude in your session. One way to address issues honestly is before the meeting have everyone write down their answers to this question, “What is the elephant in the room issue we must address in this session?”
  • Prepare before the session—If you expect an amazing planning session to just happen magically, then keep right on wishing. Because it’s not going to happen without a lot of preparation. And by prep, I’m not referring to the location and meal details. Make sure everyone involved in the session completes a pre-meeting survey of key issues. Also circulate a few articles about relevant issues. Have everyone bring a list of talking points or issues they think you must address. One key to having the best planning session ever is to start that session way before it actually begins.
  • Put away electronic distractions—Nothing kills a meeting more than someone’s cell phone ringing or text alert buzzing. But taking your session seriously is more than just turning your phone to vibrate or do not disturb. How many times have been in a meeting and half the people are glancing at their devices every five minutes? That means they are not fully engaged. And you’ll never have a great session without full engagement. One suggestion is to put all the devices on a side table so that no one is even tempted to look at them. If you take this drastic step then be sure to allow everyone to check those electronic leashes every hour or so.
  • Use an outside facilitator—Some things in life are made for your “Do It Yourself” projects. Strategic planning is not one of those things. Am I biased on this point? Of course. But I can tell you from first hand experience when I was an executive at a financial institution that during the years we hired an outside facilitator the sessions were always better. Why? Because we could focus entirely on the key issues and the facilitator could expertly guide those discussions.
  • Plan off-site—You don’t necessarily have to go out of town (although it helps) but at the very least don’t hold your sessions at one of your offices or the boardroom. That type of setting breeds familiarity. People will sit in the same seats and have the same views. Which means you might get the same results. It’s amazing how simply changing up the setting can impact how differently people think and how much more engaged they are.

Having the best planning session ever means doing that meeting differently. Take those five simple steps above and you will set yourself and your financial institution up for success.