Sometimes the words we use get in the way of our ability to think.

Here’s why.

Words that we use repeatedly take on a context and meaning that we believe everyone knows and understands. That is a good thing, unless it stops us when we are trying to think of new ways to do things.

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Take for instance the word branch as it applies to your credit union. Chances are that everyone in your organization (and most of your members) shares a common view of what the word branch means. They see it as the way the credit union reaches out into the community to serve its members. It’s where you go to transact your business with your credit union.

Logical. Intelligent. Accurate.

BUT, it is a term that imposes artificial limits on strategic thinking about the future of your credit union.

The reality is that when you use the word branch, it evokes an immediate image in the minds of those who hear the term. They see a branch as having a certain design and layout, a certain flow of interaction between staff and members, and a whole range of other things from marketing materials, teller stations, ATMs, loan officer offices, member service stations, and so forth.

So what’s the problem?

The branch of the future is not likely to look like the branch of the past, and when you try to discuss the future of your community-based member touch points and use the word branch to refer to them, you are inherently limiting what people envision.

Not everyone agrees regarding what the branch of the future will look like, but if Umpqua Bank’s flagship location in San Diego is any indication, branches will look like, operate like, and be called stores.

“Umpqua customers are encouraged to actively engage, not just transact and get out,” writes David Kerstein in an article at bai.org. “You are encouraged to sit down, have coffee and use the Wi-Fi. When I was there, several people were doing just that at computer stations that resembled what you might see at a Starbucks rather than a bank. Conference rooms are not only available for customers and prospects but are also actively utilized for everything from business meetings to meeting friends for lunch. Umpqua provides the coffee – and even wine glasses if you bring your own (no corkage fee either!).”

Incidentally, Umpqua’s store earned international recognition as the Retail Design Institute’s 2013 Store of the Year. It is the only financial institution ever to receive this award.

Although, the award isn’t nearly as interesting as the fact that one of Umpqua’s employees is a former Apple Store employee who said his job at Umpqua was just like his job at Apple – helping people solve problems and digging deeper to get to their core needs instead of the symptoms they described.

That’s real issue we should be discussing from a strategic standpoint–what form our member interactions will take in the future.

Will we build stores where members come to acquire the product and services they want? Will we build apps to provide members with access to the products and services they want? Will we create _______ to provide members with the convenience they want?

We need to start using different words to fill in the above blank so that we are discussing the right issues as we make decisions about how members will connect with their credit union in the future. It’s a starting point for moving your thinking out of the traditional context of the business, and it is a critical step to take.

The bottom line: Semantics matter. The words we choose to discuss the future can be limiting and the word branch is framing the conversation in a way that is not helpful.

Action Advice: Think of your future branches, stores, touch points, or whatever you envision calling them in terms of how members will access what you offer, not where they will go to do it. What is your vision of how that will look? How will it differ from what it is now? What is the first step you will take to move toward this new vision?