I’ve seen a lot of odd things in my years as a strategic planning consultant. A LOT!

But I have to admit that even I was caught off guard recently at something I heard about a credit union…it was ‘dinged’ by an examiner because its strategic plan lacked heft (the actual wording used was that it was “too short.”)

Image from DollarPhotoClub.com

Image from DollarPhotoClub.com

Are you kidding me? That’s how we’re assessing financial institutions today…like college students who get points for meeting the minimum page count on a term paper!

Let me perfectly clear: The length of a strategic plan is an absolutely irrelevant measure of its value.

I have seen many one-page strategic plans that have more meat in them than lengthy plans with dozens (or in a couple of cases hundreds) of pages, and here’s why…

Words mean nothing without commitment, intent, and action.

Details matter, but they can also limit innovation and creativity. If you attempt to script every action, the plan is too limiting, and the results will be compromised (not to mention out of date before the process is completed). More important, in a world of collaborative leadership, you need to let people use their expertise and given them room to innovate and improve every chance they get.

The essence of strategy is defining limited focus on a well-defined destination at a defined point in the future. That doesn’t take a lot of pages.  In fact, when strategic planning is done right the plan’s focus ought to fit on the back of a business card.

“The most successful strategic plans are not the ones that are the longest or the shortest; they are not the ones that are the best written or have the most data; they are not the ones that look pretty or have nice graphs,” said Mark Arnold, president of On the Mark Strategies.

The truth is that many organizations that don’t have the expertise on their staff (or the money in their budget to outsource that expertise) often get overwhelmed with the planning process. Personally, if I had to choose between a short strategic plan or no strategic plan, I would go with the short one. It would at least be something in writing that employees and leaders can refer to for guidance.

Take a look at this 2011 strategic plan for the city of Kent, Ohio. It says everything it needs to say in one page, while helping to keep its employees focused and giving its citizens a clear understanding of what the city plans to accomplish.

This other sample strategic plan uses what its creator James Atkins calls the how-where-now framework ­- being clear on where your business is NOW, determining WHERE you want to be, and developing strategies on HOW to get there.

“One of the biggest failures in strategic planning is not the qualities of the strategies developed but the lack of effective implementation,” writes Atkins. “One-page planning enables a line of sight to be developed from the overall business strategic plan through to teams, projects, and individuals.  All aligned and easily verified that you are on track. Add to this regular reviews and updates on progress and you have a simple process that can engage your teams and be easily monitored.”

Financial institutions (and their regulators) should not be questioning how long their plan is. They should be questioning how to make their plan most effective and whether it is the right plan for the organization at this point in time.

That starts by focusing on the creation of a compelling vision that engages the team in its pursuit and guides their decisions and actions. That is what strategy is about–defining your destination and what you are not going to do, then getting to work mapping out action plans that leveraging the resources of the business in pursuing your strategy.

Action Advice: Don’t worry about how long your strategic plan is, worry about how good it is. Does it define a clear focus for the future of your credit union? Does it communicate what you will not do? Will it engage and motivate the team to pursue the vision? When the result is achieved will your members be better off and will your credit union be a stronger business?