The 7 things you must do to ensure the success of your next strategic planning session

It’s that time of year again—strategic planning season for credit unions.

Across the next several weeks volunteers and leadership teams of credit unions large and small will trek from their homes and lock themselves in rooms to discuss, deliberate, and debate the future paths of the organizations they lead.

Some of these sessions will go well. But some will not.

With that in mind here’s a list of the 7 things you must do to ensure the success of your next strategic planning session:

  1. Choose the right facilitator at the right time—It will come as no surprise that I recommend using an outside facilitator. From my perspective this is imperative if you are serious about engaging everyone on the team in the kind of idea-focused debate that drives strategic planning success. The independent and disconnected perspective an outsider brings into the room is critical in pushing the team beyond its comfort zone by breaking the usual patterns the group has established over time.

Equally important is the timing of the facilitator selection. My recommendation is that you select your facilitator 4-6 months prior to the planning session (if not sooner). Effective facilitation requires more than just showing up armed with a PowerPoint presentation, a few markers, and some flip charts. Your facilitator needs adequate time to learn about the credit union, to review relevant information, and to work with you to map out a process that will engage your team.

  1. Select the right off-site location—There is one thing facilitating planning processes for over 30 years has taught me: You cannot get people to think about the future if they are sitting in the same room (in the same seats) where they regularly think about the present. That’s why your planning session needs to take place at an off-site location (not in your boardroom or training room). Consider using a regional resort where you can get the team away for a couple of days, a nearby hotel conference center or a meeting room at a local country club or college. Just make sure it is not a place that feels slightly unfamiliar for the entire team.
  1. Set the stage for success with the correct room—Nothing derails effective planning more than being in the wrong room. The challenge here is that the sales teams who book events focus on how many people you have when making room recommendations, not on what you plan to do in your meeting.

Here are five things you need in a meeting room to set the stage for strategic planning success:

  • Open Space: The worst planning sessions occur in small spaces where the mind feels confined. Look for high ceilings and choose a room that can handle three to four times the number of people you will have at the planning session.
  • Clear Walls: You’re not there to look at the artwork; you’re there to create the artwork. Look for a room that has plenty of wall space to post the flip charts you use to track the discussions.
  • Outdoor Access: Although you don’t want an outside door into your meeting room, you do want the ability for people to venture outside during breaks (and for meals if the climate permits). Look for rooms that make it easy to get outside for some fresh air and with at least some windows that bring in natural light.
  • Low Traffic: Nothing is more frustrating than when the conversation is really rolling and the room next door takes a break and everyone files into the hallway for refreshments. Look for a room that is away from the high traffic areas of the property (and ask about what else will be going on nearby while you are there).
  • Good Ergonomics: You are going to be asking people to be in a room together for an extended period of time. If they are not comfortable or don’t have sufficient space, they won’t be able to focus on what matters. Look for rooms where you have options with respect to the types of tables and chairs that will work best (and consider actually asking to see the chairs and tables so you can test them out).
  1. Get the right people in the room—Historically the usual suspects for inclusion in credit union strategy sessions are the board and the senior leadership team. More recently many credit unions are opting to expand the group to bring in new ideas and perspective. Members of the supervisory committee and managers of key areas of the business are increasingly being included, whether they attend the entire planning session or participate only in a segment where their insight can add the most value. The key is that the people in the room have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the topics being discussed to support sound decision-making.
  1. Manage the process and the people—Often more effort is put into managing the room assignments, meal choices, and fun activities than is put into managing the work sessions. Shift the focus of effort before the planning session to preparing the team for success during the work sessions. Communicate throughout the process and keep the team informed starting long before the actual planning session. Be clear about the expectations and the need for everyone to come prepared to participate, to support one another, and to focus on the future of the credit union.
  1. Provide down time for thought processing—All members of the planning team are not created equal. Some process information quickly and make decisions with ease. Others need time to process what they have heard and evaluate the options. That’s one reason why one day planning sessions are less effective than multi-day sessions—people need down time for thought processing (both consciously and subconsciously). Including an overnight in the planning process helps, as do slightly longer breaks between work sessions and meals.
  1. Focus on a limited set of action outcomes—Effective planning is as much about deciding what you won’t do as it is about deciding what you will do. Set the expectation from the outset that you are looking for a limited number (less than 5) of action outcomes. And don’t allow yourself to fall into the trap of taking a long list of possibilities and combining them all under a few headings. Commit to make the difficult choices and to focus your decisions beforehand, then follow through and do it.

Though this list isn’t exhaustive, these are the key things you must consider if you’re seeking to conduct a successful planning session. What’s missing that you’ve found works for your credit union? Please post a comment and share your insights and experiences.

Michael Hudson

Michael Hudson

Dr. Michael Hudson started his first business when he was just 7 years old...riding his bicycle from house to house selling greeting cards and holiday gifts. Since then he ... Web: Details