Credit unions face a challenge typical to many small- and medium-sized businesses: how to make the annual Board of Directors/Management micro retreat an engaging session that sets the strategic direction for the organization. I call these “micro” retreats because small businesses do not have the time or resources to devote more than a day — and sometimes less — to the entire strategic planning process. So everything has to be scaled down, miniaturized.
Critical success factors
Too often, a board and management team show up for a strategic planning event to find a facilitator and blank chart paper. There has been little preparation and the decision-making process is opaque. The team grinds through the day, fails to agree to priorities, and finishes spent and frustrated.
Alternately, a successful micro retreat depends upon four key factors:
- A lean strategic planning process
- Preliminary research and detailed preparation
- Dynamic group process and skilled decision support
- Strong, consensus agreement to act
I will use a case study to illustrate each of these factors. Since 2003 Bridgeway Federal Credit Union has used Prism Decision Systems to facilitate its strategic planning. According to CEO P. J. Walker: “I contact Prism whenever I am ready to schedule a strategic planning retreat with my Board of Directors and executive staff. Not only is Sean Brady an excellent facilitator, but he utilizes the most advanced technology to arrive at critical consensus and decision points for the group.”
Factor #1: A lean strategic planning process
First, we need to determine which strategic planning process steps are most critical, can be skipped or can be completed before or after the micro retreat. For example, Bridgeway has a vision and mission they consider appropriate. No need for time spent there. Instead, because they typically faced a fork-in-the-road strategic decision, we customized the lean process to make that decision, and then to agree to a set of long-term targets and robust strategies to implement it. Project planning, identification of key milestones and a progress monitoring plan were assigned to be completed at a later time.
Factor #2: Preliminary research and detailed preparation
The CEO and his team determine the key information to be researched and the critical presentations to be prepared. Some research and preparation is “boiler plate,” common across business sectors:
- Five-year trends and three-year forecasts of key performance indicators
- Updated progress implementing key strategic priorities
- Current and emerging issues related to legal, regulatory, information technology, competitive environment, customer demographics, governance, mergers and acquisition, etc.
However, some is very specific to the organization. For example, Bridgeway prepared detailed presentations of alternative business case scenarios and financial plans to support the strategic decision they needed to make.
Factor #3: Dynamic group process and skilled decision support
Often without expert group process support, retreats ramble unproductively, leading to high levels of participant frustration and poor decision-making. Groups begin debating before they fully understand the available alternatives. They move to decision-making before they have evaluated the costs and benefits. They leave without explicit agreement and a strong, consensus commitment to act.
Prism’s efficient group process avoids those pitfalls. For example, after CEO Walker presented the business case scenarios, there was a structured question and clarification session to ensure that all 16 team members fully understood the alternatives. The group then went through a formal process to evaluate each scenario. They challenged key assumptions and assessed cost-benefit ratios. Only then did the team move to decision-making, which is accelerated and improved using Prism’s Group Decision Support System™. The Bridgeway team participated in a number of consensus votes, as well as a strategic profile (see chart above). Strategic profiling helped the team distinguish between high- and low-leverage strategies – and therefore to identify immediate priorities. By not considering all strategies to be equal, Bridgeway targets its limited resources at those opportunities providing the “greatest bang for the buck.”
Factor #4: Strong, consensus agreement to act
Finally throughout the micro retreat each key decision is tested by a deliberate consensus process. For example, as the Bridgeway team began to converge on what appeared to be the group’s preferred fork-in-the-road decision, we voted to determine the degree of consensus support. The vote revealed that 14 members supported the decision but two absolutely could not. The process then required the two to articulate their irreconcilable issues. After the rest of the group listened respectfully, the whole team problem solved, addressing the “deal breaker” issues. Not only did the group then achieve consensus but they agreed that the final, modified decision was stronger as a result of the deliberate process.
The consensus chart below shows 12 members “strongly supporting” and four members “supporting” the final strategic plan. This public, explicit consensus assured that Bridgeway emerged from their micro-retreat focused and ready to act.
For additional information about Prism’s strategic planning with credit unions, see the blog post, Credit union vision and strategic planning, and case studies with GHS and First Heritage federal credit unions.