Banks And Credit Unions: What Are Your Priorities For 2011?

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The Harvard Business School’s new dean, Nitin Nohria, recently spelled out the school’s top 5 priorities for 2011:

  • Curriculum Innovation. Nohria believes that HBS needs to “up the ante” on the value of a MBA, and said that the school needs to “take the wide range of pedagogical experiments our faculty have been piloting up a notch.”
  • Intellectual Ambition. Recognizing that the difficult challenges facing the world today will require solutions that cut across existing boundaries and disciplines, Nohria noted that the School must find ways for its faculty to develop, support, and generate important new thinking.
  • Internationalization. Nohria commented that HBS is already a global thought leader, but that the school “should strive to enhance that position in the years ahead.”
  • Inclusion. According to Nohria, HBS must be a place in which “the best talent from all over the world can come and fully thrive.” He added, however, that “it troubles me deeply that this School is experienced by some as not providing a level playing field.If HBS is to continue as a leader in business education, we have to address this issue here first.”
  • Closer ties to the University. Noting Harvard’s leadership in science, engineering, health, and other fields, Nohria foresees opportunities for HBS faculty to join forces with their University colleagues to create entrepreneurial ventures to help commercialize innovative ideas.

I couldn’t tell you if these are the right or wrong priorities for HBS. But the list strikes me as a good model for other organizations (especially banks and credit unions) to draw upon in determining their own priorities for the next few years. To me, Nohria’s list of priorities is:

  1. Sufficiently specific. As far as marching orders go, the priorities on this list are pretty good. They certainly don’t go into the detailed level of what exactly will get done or how those things will be done, but they shouldn’t. While “curriculum innovation” may seem broad, it’s at least a step closer to specificity than the cries we hear from so many for the “need to innovate.” The list provides an acid test for any proposed project or initiative: How will that project support one (or more) of the five priorities.
  2. Aspirational. Innovation, ambition, inclusion — they’re things that people can get emotionally connected to. Good leaders know that trying to dictate priorities from on high is no way to get organizational buy-in. Strategy development is like a marketing campaign — you’ve got to appeal to people’s emotions as well as their reason.
  3. Realistic. Too many firms’ strategic objectives are too pie-in-the sky, and too divorced from the realities of the current environment. “We will strive to be the global leader in our industry” after a year in which heavy losses occurred, product demand was down, and capital for improvement initiatives are tight hardly seems realistic. But Nohria’s list clearly alludes to some of HBS’ challenges, specifically around inclusion and developing closer ties to the rest of the university.
  4. Comprehensive, yet manageable. Business author Jim Collins once said “If you have more than three priorities, then you don’t have any.” (h/t @elliotross) Gotta disagree w/ Jimbo on this one. With a little finagling, Nohria could have easily positioned his priorities as the “5Is” for HBS (innovation in curriculum, intellectual ambition, internationalization, inclusion, integration w/ the university). Easy to remember, and comprehensive enough to touch pretty much everyone at the school. Artificially whittling this list down to three to meet Collins’ arbitrary limit would have lost some of the specificity, aspriration, and/or realism.

It’s also interesting that Nohria chose to call these priorities instead of strategic “objectives”, “imperatives”, or “thrusts”, words that the strategy geeks love to throw around. “Priority” is a much more direct word, less open to interpretation, and connotes a sense of urgency.

There are a lot of banks and credit unions that I’ve talked to in the past year that could really benefit from going through the effort of defining their top 5 priorities for 2011. For too many of them, their strategic planning efforts produce a list of projects and initiatives with either: 1) no glue that holds them together, or 2) a set of strategic objectives that could be the objectives of not only any bank or credit union, but in some cases, any company in any industry.

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