Strategic planning is hard work.

Assembling a group of people and asking them to peer into an uncertain future and make decisions that will dictate the success or failure of an organization is daunting to say the least. But what puzzles me, is how people tend to make it more difficult than it actually needs to be, particularly the process of making decisions about the future.

There are at least three scenarios that tend to emerge when decision time comes during planning sessions:

1. Shortening the Time Horizon. One of the more natural tendencies that arises when decision time comes is that the team backs away from the more challenging decisions, the ones that will truly impact the long term success of the credit union. Instead they commit to a number of short term decisions and create lengthy action plans to be accomplished within the next 9-15 months–a time frame that feels more comfortable for everyone.

The Downside: The operations team becomes deeply engaged in the day-to-day and month-to-month efforts necessary to achieve the action plans the team has defined. Activity is confused with accomplishment, and the organization is left open to be blind-sided by developments that were not anticipated because they are outside of the decision time horizon.

2. Debating the Future. Planning teams that are committed to thinking seriously about the future can sometimes bog themselves down in endless debates about what might or might not happen in the future. In doing so they avoid the decisions that need to be made, and instead expend their energies arguing over what will or will not occur and how it will or will not impact their credit union. Typically the most persuasive voices will dominate these discussions and action plans will be defined that focus on trying to better understand what might happen in the future, rather than on what the credit union really needs to do to succeed.

The Downside: The future is inherently uncertain and cannot be accurately predicted, but by pushing for agreement on what might or might not happen, action plans are compromised. Too much weight is given to the case which was argued most persuasively, and the organization is put on a path that may work out, but which may just as likely fail miserably if one of the other futures emerges.

3. Postponing the Decision. Often masked as a decision to gather information and do more analysis, this is perhaps the worst of possible outcome for a planning team. It leads to the operations team focusing on data gathering and manipulation, rather than on the day-to-day business activities that will grow the credit union. The added burden of coordinating future sessions to review results, and the endless drive for more and more known information to fill the gap created by the uncertainty does little to create and achieve a vision for the future.

The Downside: Paralysis by analysis often becomes the reality of the situation. This allows the debate to be refocused on the data, method of analysis, and meaning of the results–all of which take attention away from establishing a clear vision for the future of the credit union and a pathway to the achievement of that vision.

ACTION ADVICE: Remember that to decide not to decide is to decide. Credit union planning teams need to face the realities and rise to the challenge of making the critical decisions about the future. By exploring alternative scenarios that might occur, a vision of what the organization needs to be to succeed in the future can be shaped. From there an action plan can be defined that supports achievement of the vision, with appropriate contingencies to allow for unforeseen or less likely outcomes. After all, the best way to predict the future is to create it yourself for your credit union!