Strategic planning vs. strategic thinking

Creating a unique and valuable strategy is pivotal to your credit union’s success in a highly regulated industry where it is challenging to stand apart from your competition. Hence, the annual “strategic planning” retreat. But I think calling it a planning retreat is misleading. You’re not there to create a plan. You’re there to develop a strategy. There is a big difference.

It is a “strategic thinking” retreat

Strategic thinking involves evaluating the organization’s current position, reviewing past performances, and scanning the environment for opportunities. This process demands a high level of analytical thinking and creativity from senior executives, enabling them to determine strategic directions that will enhance membership growth and improve competitive standing.

The five levels of strategic thinking

Level I: Solid business acumen: This requires a deep knowledge of the credit union industry, economic trends, regulatory changes, and the fundamentals of how a credit union runs. An excellent strategic thinker must study, read, listen and learn from every source possible. If you’re not spending at least 10% of your time gathering new information, there is little chance you will be able to add real value as a strategic thinker.

Level II: Personal experience: Coming from a guy who reads over 100 business books a year and has for the last 20+ years, I know that all the answers are not in the books. Once you discover new information, develop innovative ideas, and learn new concepts, you must compare it to your real-life experience and decide what information has value for you and your business. Most of you reading this article have likely spent decades in the credit union industry. You have an incredible wealth of experience to bring to the table.

Level III: Pattern recognition: Next, you combine your business acumen and personal experience, then look for patterns. Where is there an anomaly in the data? Do you see a trend emerging? Are member expectations changing? It’s easy to connect the dots looking backward. Great strategic thinkers have the ability to identify patterns and connect the dots going forward.

Level IV: Strategic insight: You gain a strategic advantage if you identify the patterns sooner than your competition. Your insights allow you to develop strategies that will position your credit union to take advantage of opportunities and avoid threats. This is at the very heart of why you hold a strategy retreat. You’re not there to build the plan. You’re there to determine the 3-5 core strategies that will drive the success of your credit union.

Once you have identified the strategies, it’s time for your organization to build a plan to achieve them. I firmly believe that the people who have to implement the plan should be the ones who create the plan. Of course, there are discussions, negotiations, and adjustments. It is an iterative process. At its foundation, strategy is simply the allocation of scarce resources. Your strategic plan is how you invest your limited resources of time, money, and people for the highest possible return for your credit union.

Level V: Disciplined execution: This is where many organizations fall down. They have a good plan. They develop excellent products and services. They have talented people. They roll out the plan, and almost nothing happens. Based on my over three decades of strategy work, I would estimate that most organizations only execute about 50% of their strategic plan. If you could get to 75%, you would crush the competition. Remember, even the best strategic plan in the world is useless if you don’t effectively execute it.

So there you have it, my argument for changing your off-site from a “strategic planning” retreat to a “strategic thinking” retreat. This small change in vocabulary should significantly change the focus and outcome of the meeting.

John Spence

John Spence

John Spence is widely regarded as one of the top executive coaches and business experts in the world. Over the past 15 years John has helped several credit unions to ... Web: Details