The fall strategic planning season is upon us.  All across the country, credit union boards and leadership teams will be gathering in the coming weeks to define their strategic visions for 2011 and beyond.

One of the key challenges for planning teams this fall will likely be not allowing the ‘gloom and doom’ to dominate the discussion.  That’s not to say that they should ignore the realities they face, or that they should avoid the discussion of negative things.  Those issues and topics need to be discussed.

But equally important is to invest time in exploring the possibilities and considering the opportunities that come from challenging times.  Remember that many of the most successful businesses of all times have been launched during less than booming economic times.

Here are five tips you can use at your upcoming planning session to keep from getting bogged down by doom and gloom thinking:

1. Start with the Good Stuff. No matter what has gone awry in your credit union in the last 12 months, there have been some things that have gone right.  Kick off your planning session with a quick brainstorm where the team is challenged to identify as many good things as they can that have happened in the past year.  No matter how big or small, post every idea and insight on flip chart and post it in a prominent place for the remainder of the session as a constant reminder that good stuff is occurring every day.

2. Focus on Tomorrow, Not Just Today. The tendency when difficulties arise in a market where a business operates is to over-discuss current issues and avoid the discussion of longer term possibilities.  It’s a natural reaction–information everywhere tells us about today’s situation, but looking ahead requires a different level of thinking because we know far less about tomorrow than we do today.

The key action step here for everyone on the team is to keep asking question like these:  “What can we do to overcome this in the future?” “What will this mean to our credit union in 5 years?”  “How does this impact our long term strategy?”

3. Spend Some Time Wishing. One of the most powerful ways to get people’s minds focused on the possible futures that can be created for your credit union is to take their minds to a new place.  One easy technique for doing this is the “I Wish” Exercise.

Here’s how it works.

Explain to the team that your goal for the next 30-45 minutes is to dream about where the credit union can go in the  future.  Invite them to think in new ways, to consider things that may seem impossible that they would like to see in an ideal world, and to consider all possibilities and ideas that pop into their minds.

Then conduct a brainstorming session where every idea is captured on a flip chart, but where the ideas must be stated using the format “I wish XYZ Credit Union _____.”  Give it a try, push the group to come up with at least 25-30 wishes, and watch the creativity emerge and reveal the possibilities.

4.  Figure Out How. The most daunting task for many planning teams this year will be figuring out how to move beyond the current challenges to build a foundation for success moving forward.  In fact, you will probably find it easier than ever this year to identify the concerns that people have, the issues they worry about most, and the things that they think may threaten the very existence of the credit union.  And it’s important to get these topics on the table.

But as you do that, try this approach to engage the minds at a different level.  When someone shares a problem, issue, or challenge, always ask “How can we deal with/overcome/avoid/fix _________?”  This allows you to bring the tough topics into the discussion, but it also forces thinking about how to address them versus just sharing them for the sake of sharing them.

5. Commit to Action. Uncertainty too often leads to inaction.  With the continued uncertainty in the economy, there will be a tendency for many planning teams to postpone difficult decisions or to adopt a wait and see attitude.  Some will even want to wait until there is more certainty to make any decisions regarding the direction the credit union should take.  Either approach is a mistake right now.  It is time to make the tough decisions, time to define your plan, and time to take action.  Nothing will limit your future success more right now than not committing to a direction for action.  Leadership is about making difficult decisions when you don’t have all the information, and this is a time that leadership is needed by your credit union.  Challenge the team to commit to action and follow through to create the future proactively instead of reactively.

ACTION ADVICE: Share these five tips with your planning team and your planning facilitator.  Use them to keep your planning session focused on defining the future for your credit union, not on lamenting the gloom and doom that can all too easily dominate in the midst of the current economic uncertainties.

It’s Your Turn…What does your planning team do to keep it focused on opportunities and options?  Do you have any tips, tools, or tactics that you have found work well in your planning sessions?  Please post a comment and share them so that others might adopt them as well.