The Strategic Planning Problem

There’s plenty of good advice out there on how to run a strategic planning session or offsite. As it pertains to credit unions, check out Mark Arnold’s blog or CU Insight.

Mark encourages CUs to address questions about the organization’s value proposition and how it engages members. The CU Insight article, penned by CUES’ Charles Fagan, suggests that CUs identify the right planning horizon, get artistic, and leave time to incubate ideas.

No argument from me. All great ideas and suggestions for what to focus on in a strategic planning effort. Charles even goes on to recommend that CUs “include key players from all areas and levels in the organization”:

“CUES is small enough that we were able to include every staff member in the brainstorming sessions. This was a great professional development opportunity for our young professionals and others on the team who don’t think organization-wide on a day-to-day basis. Being inclusive also helps get staff buy-in for the ideas generated and the resulting strategic plan.”

Being inclusive is important. I had a boss at a consulting firm who told me that “only senior execs formulate strategy” and as a result we had to ignore the front-line managers who really understood what the day-to-day issues were.

But regardless of how you structure your organization’s strategic planning process, regardless of which questions you address, and regardless of whether or not you get artistic and leave time for incubating, it’s likely that you’ll still have a strategic planning problem.

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The problem is a people problem. At the risk of oversimplification, you will likely have two distinct personalities participating in your strategic planning process: Dreamers and Solvers.

An employee’s job description might be a predictor of which strategic planning process role they play, but it isn’t 100% accurate. Their job description notwithstanding:

1. Dreamers look for greenfield/blue ocean opportunities. The dreamers are those who want to address (and even create) the potential market opportunities. Their contributions to the strategic planning process tend to focus on suggesting new products and services the firm could/should offer, the new consumer segments to go after (Gen Y is our future!), and the new emerging technologies that promise to make the organization orders of magnitude more effective and efficient (a billion people are on Facebook!).

2. Solvers want to fix today’s problems. Solvers are problem solvers. They see and feel the pain of the weaknesses of the existing system and want the organization to fix them and fix them now. They use the strategic planning process to advocate for these fixes, if for no other reason that there’s usually no other process that organization has in place for allocating resources to fix these problems.

The problem that results from this dichotomy in roles stems from two issues:

  1. Dreamers are not always particularly good at figuring out the “how do we get there from here” question.
  2. Solvers’ time horizon is usually too narrow and their content focus is a whole lot more tactical than strategic.

If you work at a credit union, you might have a third type of contributor (and another problem): The board of directors. In my experience, many of them — while highly committed to the success of the CU and often quite successful business people in their own right — aren’t particularly good contributors to the strategic planning process.

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If you’re the CEO (or member of the senior exec team) at a credit union, planning your CU’s strategic planning process/offsite, you’ve got some challenges to deal with:

  • How do you balance the focus of the effort between the truly strategic and the tactical?
  • How do you incorporate input from both the Dreamers and Solvers?
  • How do you evaluate the skills of a facilitator who may be better at Solving than Dreaming (or vice versa)?
  • How do you overcome (or at least recognize) your own inherent biases in this process?

No easy answers here. The first step is to recognize that there is no “formula” or “recipe” for successful strategic planning. 

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