Seven Ways To Immediately Improve Your Strategic Planning Process

Mark Arnold
Seven Ways To Immediately Improve Your Strategic Planning Process

Strategic planning—now there are two words that can strike cynicism and frustration into the hearts of any bank or credit union executive. And with good reason.

Financial institutions spend a great deal of time, money and energy on strategic planning, all too often with sketchy results. The refrain goes a little something like this: “Year after year, it is the same old thing. We talk and talk and nothing gets done.”

Unfortunately, these are all too often the results of traditional or old-school bank and credit union strategic planning sessions. A group of well-intended and committed executives get together in a boardroom or somewhere off-site, share a good meal and brainstorm ideas for the future. Somebody takes notes, compiles the report, and shares it later with the participants. There are about 97 action items to complete, all front-and loaded into the first half of the next year.

This is about as inspiring as watching paint dry. And you can do a whole lot cheaper by actually watching real paint dry, for all the worth that too many strategic plans have.

But what if strategic planning wasn’t that way? What if you could shake the dust off of the typical strategic planning session, turning it into something from which real and substantive results could come?

Here are seven quick solutions to immediately improve your strategic planning process.

1. Use GEPO cards

GEPO is an acronym that stands for “Good Enough, Push On.” Everyone in the session has a “GEPO” card next to their name plate. At ay point in the session (for example, if the group is getting too bogged down in the details), someone can point to their GEPO card. Then talk on that topic is suspended and the group moves on to something else.

2. Don’t focus on the numbers

As Ray Davis, former CEO of Umpqua Bank says, “You cannot grow your business if all you are doing is worrying about the numbers.” Numbers are just measurements—they are not strategic. Some sessions devolve into spending too much time talking about ratios, numbers and balance sheets. Limit the amount of time on spreadsheet analysis and review will improve your overall strategy.

3. Interject fun and energy

One way to set the tone for the entire session is to start the meeting with a fun activity. Get participants up and moving around. For example, we’ve played games like Jenga and Toss Up with our planning clients. You don’t play a game just to play a game, however. You always tie the game back to strategic planning lessons (for example, how is strategic lessons like Jenga?).

4. Ask strategic questions

Great planning sessions start with great questions. Either as part of the pre-session work or during the meeting itself, here are five questions that need answering:

  • What two things (products, attributes, etc.) are we going to “own?”
  • If we want to accomplish just two strategic initiatives in the next 12-18 months, what are they?
  • How are we going to get younger?
  • If we could change one thing about our institution, what is it?
  • What current project, product or initiative should we cut?

5. Address hard topics

Some people tend to avoid conflict or difficult decisions. They want everyone happy and don’t want to rock the boat. You should banish those people (or at least their avoidance issues) during planning. One question you can ask ahead of time is “what is the elephant in the room issue that we must discuss during this year’s session?” Strategic planning is the perfect time to examine underperformance issues, brand gaps, lack of growth and other conflicts within the organization. No credit union or bank is perfect. So talk about what’s not. At your next planning session discuss the issue on everyone’s mind but no one’s lips.

Addressing hard topics forces you to make hard decisions. This year, there are certainly key decisions you must make. For a free resource on improving your planning, be sure to download the free “Four Decisions That Will Make or Break Your 2021 Planning Session.”

6. Prune your strategy

In most planning sessions credit unions and banks add tasks, strategic initiatives, timelines, and tons of data. How often do we actually cut things in our strategic planning sessions? Probably not enough. The reality is, true strategy means pruning.

Try answering this question at your next management team or board meeting, “What do we want to be the best at?” As noted in the Myth of Excellence, you can’t be great at everything. So stop trying. You have to choose your priorities. And that requires a great deal of strategic pruning.

Here are some tips when it comes to those strategic trim downs:

  • Prune, prune and prune some more until you get down to three or four strategic initiatives (with three being ideal).
  • When you cut don’t cheat: don’t combine two priorities into one or don’t put a bunch of sub priorities under one larger heading.
  • Cut to the core essence and priorities you are currently facing.
  • Communicate your priorities to your staff (don’t let them become overburdened with an overwhelming plan).

7. Use an empty chair

Many people attend their credit union or bank strategic planning sessions. Top-level executives, board of directors and sometimes supervisory committee members all come to the meeting.

Every person attending your strategic planning session is important. Everyone wants a “seat at the table.” The CEO, CFO, COO, board chairman, volunteer, marketing and lending vice presidents, etc. are all critical They all bring unique perspectives to the mix.

But is the most important person represented?

By that I mean the member or customer. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, famously kept one chair open during Amazon meetings “for the customer.”

One of the best things you can do at your next strategic planning session is leave one chair open for the consumer. It’s a great physical reminder about why we are even in business: for them. At a recent strategic planning session I conducted for one of my clients we left that empty chair there. I was amazed at the number of times during lively discussions about various strategic issues that board members and executives would point to that chair. That empty seat serves as a powerful visual tool.

Improving your planning process doesn’t happen automatically. It takes intentionality. Following these tips will immediately make your strategic planning process better.

Mark Arnold
Founder and CEO
Mark Arnold