How to Warm Up for Strategic Planning

a runner stretching to warm up
Lisa Hochgraf Photo
Senior Editor

5 minutes

Review external data and trends in addition to internal results. Plus, ask lots of questions.

Athletes warm up because it raises the temperature of their bodies and their muscles, readying them for high performance.

Similarly, board members and executives will perform better in your next strategic planning session if they first warm up their thinking.

Experts in strategic planning suggest that reviewing external data and trends is a good place to start. After doing so, leaders can ask better questions to help move the organization forward.

“Assuming the board is a strategic-thinking board and has input and insight into strategic planning, versus a rubber stamp, there is a lot for a board member to read and study before the (strategic planning) session,” says Deedee Myers, Ph.D., MSC, PCC, CEO of CUESolutions provider DDJ Myers Ltd., Phoenix. “Beyond the data, the board should be prepared to ask numerous what and why questions about data etc., versus accepting the data.”

Topics to Explore

Les Wallace, Ph.D., says the biggest risk credit unions face when doing strategic planning is “not considering bold ideas.”

“Too many credit union planning retreats are a warmed-over rehash of past plans and ideas with little to no consideration of the really big, longer-term issues facing most credit unions,” says Wallace, president of Signature Resources, Aurora, Colorado, and a speaker at Directors Conference in December. Wallace suggests credit unions review such issues as the following before they undertake a strategic planning session. He also recommends leaders consider the speed with which their organizations should be approaching each of them:

  • attracting younger members
  • neobank trends
  • entreprenuerial credit union service organizations
  • member insurance products
  • the future makeup of your board to be younger, more business savvy and more strategically aware

President of Global Bank Training, Palm Springs California, John Oliver says he’s a great believer in board members undertaking a high-level trends analysis before going into a strategic planning session.

According to Oliver, such trends would necessarily include:

  • The competitive environment, including both traditional and non-traditional providers
  • Behavioral economics, reviewing shifts in consumer buying behaviors on both a micro level (the credit unions’ members) and a macro level (the consuming public)
  • Technology drivers, understanding the seismic changes resulting from artificial intelligence, digital transformation, data analytics, machine learning and cybersecurity
  • Pandemic-driven trends, such as the future of work and the shifts to convenience

“The goal of such trends analysis is to more completely understand the context of the institution’s relative position within the entire financial services sector,” Oliver says. “Without such perspective, it is almost impossible for board members to offer guidance in the development of strategies intended to keep their organization relevant.”

Myers recommends strategic planning session participants read up on such external impacts on planning as:

  • The credit union industry 
  • The economy and the Fed
  • Politics as they affect the credit union
  • Merger trends
  • Hybrid/work-from-home trends
  • Fintech trends
  • Lending trends, including commercial lending for the millions of small businesses started during the pandemic
  • Vaccine mandates

Myers also suggests understanding “the data that tells the truth about your organization and its readiness for change.” This could mean doing surveys about organizational alignment and strategic opportunities. 

Looking at internal metrics can also help you see where you are as an organization before you start planning for the future, according to Tim Harrington, president of T.E.A.M. Resources, Tucson, Arizona. 

“Certain standard measures are the capital-to-assets ratio, return on assets, loan-to-share ratio, delinquency and charge off ratio,” Harrington says. “It’s important to understand why anticipated results are different from actual results. This will help you understand how you got to where you are today.

“It’s probably important to look at how members are accessing services from the credit union,” he adds, “what is happening to digital transactions, what is happening to in-branch transactions, what is happening to call-center transactions, what is happening to plastic card transactions. These are just some examples of delivery systems that are going through changes.”

Questions to Ask

Once leaders have looked at a wide variety of information about market trends and the state of the organization itself, asking some warm-up strategic questions can help prepare the team for the kind of strategic discussion that will elevate the resulting plan.

The 10 questions below are designed to get a strategic conversation started. They are drawn from an article by Bo McDonald, president of Your Marketing Company, Greenville, South Carolina.

  1. Do your goals still make sense? Are your credit union’s goals still relevant? 
  2. Is your leadership team all rowing in the same direction? If there is confusion around your goals and strategy, it’s hard for everyone to do their part to accomplish the goals.
  3. What three things do you hope will remain consistent over the next 12 months?
  4. What three things do you hope you can change over the next 12 months?
  5. Are there windows of opportunity your credit union needs to take advantage of quickly?
  6. What action could be taken within a week to produce the greatest good in the shortest time?
  7. What is the biggest problem within your credit union that most people know but no one talks about?
  8. Have any solutions created new problems as bad or worse than the original problem?
  9. How much does the board and top leadership know about how the credit union really operates at the lower levels?
  10. What are the most dangerous assumptions you’ve made in the last six months or are making now?

A final thought is that while getting ready for a session involves a fair bit of reflection on the past, strategic planning is focused on the future. 

Harrington puts it well: “The most important thing about a planning session is where you’re going, not so much from where you have come.”

Lisa Hochgraf is senior editor with CUES.

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