It’s that time of the year again.  Credit unions Boards and Leadership teams across the country will soon be gathering for weekend retreats to discuss the strategic direction their credit unions should take in the future.

It’s a valuable and important process, and it can be greatly improved by investing some time and energy in planning to plan. Here are five important steps for every credit union to consider to make this year’s planning session more successful:

1. Connect with Your Facilitator. Odd as it may sound, there have been a number of occasions in the past where clients have preferred to limit my interaction with the planning team prior to the planning session.  This is short-sighted and compromises the outcomes.  My preferred, and recommended, approach is to speak the CEO about the desired outcomes from the planning session, and then to have individual conversations with each member of the planning team to gain their insights and to better understand their perspectives.  This allows me as the facilitator to draw people into the conversations at the planning session and to bring issues to the table that are sometimes hard for individuals to bring up.  The process takes time, but is it time well spent.

2. Scan Your CU’s Environment. Scanning the environment is a critical step in developing a strategic plan for any business, and credit unions are no different.  Task every member of the planning team to look around and gather information that might be relevant to the discussions that you will have at the planning session.  Push them to go beyond what is being written and talked about in the credit union industry–that is important, but you need to go deeper.  Look at your geographic market area, prepare a demographic profile of your membership, map that market where you compete, talk with business leaders and economic planning…gain a broad-based understanding of what people see coming down the road in your market so that you can better determine the pathway to success for your credit union.

3. Listen and Learn. One of the missing elements in most credit union planning sessions is the input of people who are not in the room. This is a big mistake. Your employees and members have ideas that should be considered in your discussions. It’s important to find ways to learn what they are thinking. Even if the ideas seem operational or pie in the sky, they can reveal important insights that the planning team should be considering. Perhaps even more important, when you invite the input of staff and members, you remind them that the credit union is a collaborative place and you gain a bit of buy-in to the planning process because they feel they are a part of it.

4. Plan Your Agenda. Too often the agenda for the planning session is left up to someone who won’t even be at the event–it gets worked out by an administrative staff member and a sales rep from the property where you hold your planning session.  Occasionally the facilitator will be asked for some input, but more often the flow of the meeting is set up the same way it has been in years past.  Don’t let this happen anymore!  The last thing a strategic planning session needs in 2010 is the same old, same old.  Be creative with the agenda and find ways to make people realize the goal is to think differently.  Simple things like using breakout sessions if you don’t normally do that, or starting the sessions at times other than the top or bottom of the hour, or having a couple of hours of free time in the afternoon and including an evening discussion…all of these are ways to break the normal patterns and bring some fresh thinking into the process.  And don’t forget to include some planned downtime where people can engage in informal conversations to build the relationships that the team needs in order to work together effectively.

5. Plan the Communication Process. Too often the planning process appears like some odd mystical ceremony to those who are not involved with the actual planning session.  Though that may sound a tad over-dramatic, think about the way it appears to those who don’t participate.  The Board and Leadership team go away for a few days and return with a plan that the team is tasked with implementing.  Don’t let this be the way that your team sees the planning process.  Before you even hold your planning session, define a plan for communicating the outcomes to the entire team and the membership.  They all need to know what happened at the planning session and why the decisions were made, and they all have a stake in the outcomes.  Define a clear and easy to implement process to inform them and engage them if you really want your plan to succeed.

ACTION ADVICE: Share this post with your planning team and allocate time to plan to plan before you hold your planning session this year.  Take action to make sure the investment of time, energy, and money pays off with a strong strategy that everyone is engaged in pursuing.

It’s Your Turn…How do you plan to plan?  What steps are you taking to make sure you hear what others have to say and that the plan is communicated to everyone after the decisions are made?  Do you have any examples of things you have done that have worked effectively?  Please take a moment to post a comment and share your insights…