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Meeting high standards

How to make the most of your next strategic planning session

Dave Barry is a funny man and a cynic, granted. Still, those of us who have been through interminable meetings fueled by stale coffee and even staler doughnuts know where he’s coming from.

Yet in spite of some bad experiences, we also know that the mother of all meetings – strategic planning sessions – can be invaluable tools. Done right, they clearly define an organization’s mission and set tangible, realistic goals. They focus resources and fight waste. They bring together a credit union’s stakeholders in common cause, giving rise to a renewed sense of purpose.

“If you had to identify in one word the reason why the human race has not achieved – and never will achieve – its full potential, that word would be meetings”

—American comedian Dave Barry

What is less well understood is how difficult such meetings are to execute. At their worst, they can become unproductive time sinks that waste valuable resources in a competitive business environment in which financial services institutions need every edge.

Michael Hudson, founder and principal of the consultancy firm Credit Union Strategy, recalls being hired to help a credit union whose strategic planning sessions were continually falling short. “They had one very longtime board member who was widely recognized as the dominant speaker,” he says. “In my pre-session interviews I keep hearing that he dominates and dominates, to the point that the other members have just given up the reins.”

Hudson decided, over the client’s repeated objections, to scrap the standard U-shaped table in favour of a cluster of smaller round tables in order to focus on group discussion. The result? “It worked phenomenally,” says Hudson. “It got him engaged on a whole different level. It also encouraged all the other members to speak up and make substantial contributions. I’m now pretty much of the mindset that I’ll never go back to the U-shape ever again.”

The moral of the story is clear. When such a seemingly trivial factor as the configuration of furniture can make or break a strategic planning session, nothing should be left to chance. This invites two questions: how can credit unions ensure that their sessions meet the highest standards, and what are the common pitfalls to be avoided? Enterprise polled Hudson and other experts for answers.

Do your homework

Without proper preparation, too many planning sessions become information seminars, with a specialist at the front of the room explaining necessary concepts and issues for members before discussion can proceed. While these de facto lectures might have a useful function in in a different context, the purpose of a planning session is collaborative problem-solving and every minute spent on educating members is a minute taken away from that goal.

On the other hand, “It’s ludicrous to ask a group of people who volunteer [in] your organization to come together once a year and magically – in that one session – be able to process and understand the complexity of the issues we face today,” says Hudson. “[Strategic planning] is too important to expect the board, the volunteers and the members to get up to speed in two days per year.”

The solution? Make strategic planning an ongoing process, he says. In the months leading up to the session, circulate background information – white papers, trade journals, blog entries and so on – that will help familiarize the participants with the issues and technologies that will be under discussion.

Prior to the meeting, use this material to brief participants with outside factors that can affect your credit union’s performance. A good analysis might cover economic forecasts, industry developments and marketplace trends, as well as a review of the competition. Ask attendees to come to the table having formulated assumptions about the future. Challenge them to consider what impact those assumptions could have on your operations if they come to fruition. By presenting options and analysis early and on a continuous basis, organizations help to ensure that every member will be speaking the same language when they finally meet face to face. And in the long run, this approach effectively builds the board’s capacity for strategic thinking.

Hit the road On the face of it, holding a planning session in-house makes a lot of sense. Isn’t it logistically simpler to gather all concerned parties into the conference room down the hall rather than at some hotel? Won’t staying put keep the planning session from being overly disruptive to the credit union’s normal routine? The facilities are already being paid for, so why shouldn’t they be used?

Bad idea, say the experts. First, those facilities are probably not conducive to a good planning session, since they weren’t built with one in mind. Missing elements such as a room that allows for mingling, grouped tables, areas for multiple flip charts and even sufficient washroom facilities can pose serious obstacles to a seamless all-day meeting.

Second, the normal routine of the dayto- day workplace is likely to encroach on the planning session through sheer proximity. Members who should be contributing to the discussion may well be off handling logistical issues or placing lunch orders. Even worse, they’ll need to fight the temptation to do “just a bit” of regular work, whether that entails answering a quick email or contacting a client before the end of business. These laudable instincts can mean that many participants never fully engage with the material and fail to tackle the problems at hand.

Third, shared member experiences can forge lasting relationships that are worth more than dollars and cents. “A lot of credit unions have done a pretty good job of turning planning sessions into retreats where directors and staff can break bread together,” says Matt Davis, president of 6th Story, a strategic planning consultancy firm specializing in credit unions. “People get to know each other on a personal as well as a professional level. There’s a real value to that and sometimes you can’t do it on site.”

Keep your focus

Credit unions can really benefit from taking full advantage of a rare opportunity: getting all their best thinkers in one room. To make the most of the occasion, it helps to have a contained series of actionable objectives that will tangibly strengthen the organization’s position once accomplished. Keep in mind, of course, that the strategies and tactics that you choose will have a direct and lasting impact on the bottom line. Think as big as you like, but keep the budget implications in mind.

In other words, an equal measure of innovation and focus is the goal, and those ephemeral qualities are best encouraged with a well-organized format. A structured agenda goes far to ensure that each issue is tackled in turn and while it may seem counterintuitive, a rigorous limitation of scope can actually encourage creative thinking.

“If you’ve established the theme – by the end of this meeting we need to accomplish A, B and C, we have this much time, we have this many people, we want to make sure everyone’s voice is heard – structure leads to innovation,” says Davis. “Everyone’s on the same page, they know what the outputs need to look like and they understand that they need to roll up their sleeves and get it done.”

Bring in an expert

Of course, there does need to be a certain amount of latitude to enable the problem solving process to develop organically. Managing that process to best effect is best handled by experts and most of the time that expert will come from outside the organization.

Bringing in an outside facilitator can make all the difference to a planning session, particularly for credit unions. When an organization assigns the role of facilitator to someone within their own ranks, the person in question is usually very bright, engaged with the issues and great at problem solving. In other words, someone with the precise qualities necessary to make valuable contributions is pulled out of the discussion and tasked instead with jotting down everyone else’s ideas.

Expert facilitators do more than simply prevent credit unions from poaching their own talent. “Having an outside facilitator ensures that the right questions are being asked, and that nobody leaves without a clear picture of what the mission, the values, the future of the credit union is going to look like,” says Davis. “It’s difficult to do that without an intermediary to make sure everyone’s on the same page, and to ask the hard questions without damaging existing relationships.” The mere presence of a facilitator can do much to shake up an existing interpersonal dynamic. Many credit union boards don’t change for years on end. While that stability is good for day-to-day operations, getting the same people together in the same room tends to result in the same conversations.

You’ll want to break out of the mould when planning strategy. An outsider, fluent in the language of the industry but with no existing biases regarding the credit union’s procedures, can offer fresh perspective and insight into problems that the board may have written off as intractable. Similarly, when hiring facilitators, try to avoid the same-old, same-old syndrome. “I’ve seen credit unions fall into the trap of saying, ‘We’ve used John Jenkins every year for the last 10, why stop?’” says Davis. “The reason you would stop is maybe at some point you’re not getting asked the right questions any more and the planning session has become way too predictable.”

Get moving – and talk to everyone

Try to avoid the death-by-PowerPoint phenomenon. Use visuals, certainly, but have participants create them on whiteboards or in their own groups. As well, get attendees up and moving from time to time. Break them into small groups, then mix and match to ensure everyone has a chance to share ideas and hear those of others. Eyes tend to glaze over when too many concepts are circulating while feet remain firmly in one place.

Planning sessions also often fall prey to the same power dynamics that dominate the corporate environment. The participants with the greatest authority tend to control the discussion and their subordinates dutifully fall in line. Objections to any solution proposed by a very senior participant are advanced tentatively, if at all. More junior members stay silent regardless of their relative expertise or ideas. The result is a fundamentally vapid discussion with very few novel ideas being explored.

This top-down dynamic is a result of the standard business hierarchy. Credit unions have a natural advantage here: vertically integrated cooperation and a respect for common consensus is baked into the model. “We need to recognize that there’s knowledge and information which we have because we work in this business day in and day out and that we need to bring it into these conversations,” says Hudson. “For a long time in strategic planning, we’ve done environmental scans to see what else is out there on the horizon, but the place we sometimes miss is in the organization itself.”

Members on the front lines frequently have a strong grasp of what potential customers value most and back-end specialists understand problems that have been faced in the past and how they’re likely to affect future plans. Organize your credit union’s objectives and tactics into key areas – then, well before the next strategy meeting, ask for agenda input from everyone on those specific topics.

Up your game

The complexity of the issues facing Canada’s credit unions shows no signs of abating. Having a reliable and creative membership on whom to rely is one of the foremost advantages of the credit union model. Depending on the wisdom of that membership to solve today’s problems and prepare for tomorrow makes more sense than ever. No session will ever be 100 per cent productive, but following these trusted guidelines can up your game to, say, 85 or 90 per cent. And the better you learn to conduct a good team huddle, the more likely you are to have a leg up on the competition.