In a previous opinion article I co-authored with Gordon Dames, CEO of Mountain America Credit Union a few years ago (CU Times, 12/17/97), we advocated a new planning paradigm. Unfortunately, we see many well-meaning boards and management teams still falling prey to a variety of planning myths – and therefore underperforming. This tendency is rarely rooted in indifference. More often, we sense that fearfulness is perpetuating counterproductive planning practices. These anxieties are usually expressed as 1) satisfaction with the status quo, 2) the need to minimize expenses, and/or 3) one or more of the following myths: Myth #1: "Our annual 1-day board planning/golf retreat is good enough." Truth #1: It may be a popular and comfortable way to enjoy golf at the owners' expense, but it's only a token exercise. It's not enough to re-bless your Mission Statement and list/approve the hot projects for the year. This approach just perpetuates complacency and mediocrity! With only two to two-and-a-half days of real work, a strategic process like 80/20 Planning can take your board and management team through a comprehensive, paradigm-busting experience. With this springboard, your management team can quickly complete and implement high-impact tactical plans. Other credit union clients are achieving first-year net income increases of 31-36%. Myth #2: "Someone from inside our organization would make the best facilitator." Truth #2: Never – you compromise much too much if you don't select an outsider – the built-in incentives work against you. An insider is more likely to be a `good soldier' and less likely to challenge established thinking, confront inefficiencies, or otherwise risk their total livelihood by bringing up politically sensitive issues. Just because someone is afraid to address an issue, doesn't mean you don't need to. A skilled third-party, on the other hand, can push you out of your comfort zones, make it safe to talk about delicate issues, and help you discover what's in your blind spots. There is no conflict between their personal interests and the organization's best interests – your prosperity is their best advertising. Myth #3: "Our CEO, EVP, or board member should lead our planning sessions." Truth #3: Even worse than the risks associated with `good soldier' facilitation, having someone with formal authority at the front of the room is the biggest blunder of all. First of all, the CEO (or other formal leader) is deprived of the opportunity to creatively contribute to synergistic discovery as a co-equal participant. Worse, yet, the integrity of the process gets compromised – no matter how democratic the CEO's management style may be, just the perception the leader already knows the `right' answer before discussion begins damages the credibility of the session and fuels cynicism. The first time the CEO lapses from `facilitation mode' into `tell mode,' or taints what they're recording on a flipchart with their own spin, it's over. Sensing risk, participants will immediately retreat to their foxholes to avoid getting shot. If they don't fully participate, they won't fully commit to, and take ownership for, the plan – and ownership is the key to follow through. Myth #4: "An expert in our industry would be the best strategic planning facilitator." Truth #4: Respected industry experts are wonderful sources of input for your planning session, but, by virtue of their expertise, lousy facilitators. They're anything but unbiased consensus builders. Even worse, if you anoint them the de facto visionary/leader of the organization, the result will be `so-and-so's plan,' rather than something your team owns and is deeply committed to. Although they can keep you current on which trends you must respond to, their data and opinions need to be weighed in balance with the experience, beliefs, and intuition of the participants who will ultimately be responsible for the decisions. After all, the `expert' isn't accountable for short- or long-term results – your team is. Myth #5: "One external facilitator is pretty much the same as any other." Truth #5: The quality and effectiveness of third-party strategic business planning facilitators varies widely – there are no official industry standards. Their effectiveness hinges largely on the quality of: 1) the planning process they are facilitating, and 2) their skills in facilitating discovery and consensus with diverse participants. Strong group process skills aren't too hard to come by, and can be verified by checking references. Unfortunately, most of what is passed off as a planning process (especially by the Leagues) is either lame or prohibitively time consuming. Make sure that the expected impact will produce the greatest possible return on the time and resources you will be investing. Compare other processes to the combination of 14 criteria met by the 80/20 Planning process, for example (see, then compare guarantees and actual client results. There are big differences! Myth #6: "It's too expensive to do a better job of planning." Truth #6: You're already paying for it anyway, with nothing to show for it! Every time staff has to re-do something that wasn't done `right' the first time, you're paying for ineffective planning. Every time someone antagonizes a long-term or prospective member, you're paying for it. Every time someone who should become a member, doesn't, you pay for it. Every unexploited opportunity to cross-sell or systematize your operating processes costs you. Every employee working on something other than the MOST important thing they could be doing, at any moment in time… costs you. Whether you are paying for it in lost revenue, increased expenses, or inefficient operations, the bottom line is still smaller than it should/could be. You can keep pouring money and opportunities down a hole, or you can leverage a small investment into something that will easily pay for itself many times over in the first year. Which choice makes the most sense to you? Solid planning doesn't cost, it pays! Has your credit union's health been compromised by blind adherence to `religious practices, the origins of which have long since been forgotten?' Have you actually been falling behind, rather than thriving? Sure, you've been growing, but a rising tide raises all ships. Compare your 5-year asset growth rate, for example, to your local peers. If you're not in the top quartile, maybe it's time to depart from `the way we've always done it.' A proactive leader enjoys determining their own fate, while a reactive guardian limps along, victimized by competitors – unknowingly responsible for eroding membership quality and the very capital base they were trying to protect.

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