What is a strategist? What is strategy?
I’d suggest the concept has become the buzziest of business terms. Everybody has to have one — or several — but no one really knows what they’ve got. “Strategy” now seems to cover everything from multi-year, enterprise planning to the smallest task. In other words, from real strategy to its own trivialization.
Back in the ’90s, management consultants decided there should be strategies for everything and every well-run company should have several. They laid out a structure where every major objective would have its own “strategy,” every “strategy” would have its own measurable goals, every goal would have a set of tactics to reach it, and sometimes every tactic would have its own set of strategies in turn.
Chris Howard, Senior Vice President, Callahan & Associates
Today, that approach produces “Seven Strategies to Reduce Drive-Thru Traffic Jams” and “Thank You Note Strategies that Work.” It’s not that these are bad things, or unimportant, it’s that they are operations, not strategy. Likewise, the structure above works very well, but the component parts — important as they are to enabling strategy — are not themselves strategy.
To be fair, there’s a traditional view of strategy that’s just as troublesome: A detailed set of specific plans that ends up compiled, bound, and last seen gathering dust on a shelf. Even today, too many credit union leaders believe strategic plans limit vision, impede agility, and guarantee missed opportunities and suboptimal outcomes. As a result, strategic planning is often nothing more than a fancy name for basic business planning and budgeting, or worse, just an event for the board of directors.
Managing day-to-day operations effectively requires a strategic mindset, but making time to talk about strategy is difficult. Learn how Callahan can help your team focus on the most important topics for your credit union based on long-term goals and member environment.
In this difficult time, when credit unions are under attack from every corner, that’s not good enough. To survive and thrive, credit unions need real strategy — big picture, long-term, and grounded in mission.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, perhaps the greatest strategist of the 20th century, depending on how you feel about winning World War II and driving on interstates, famously observed that plans are useless but planning is everything. That nicely frames the approach credit union strategists need to take to ensure viability and prosperity, not just next year but next decade and longer.
They need to understand the real value of strategy is in the process of developing it — Eisenhower’s “planning” — not in the details. To be useful, strategy must be flexible and adaptable so it can enable the agility critical for credit unions to seize opportunities as they arise and respond to challenges before they threaten survival.
So back to the initial question, “What is strategy?”
In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.
Michael Porter, Harvard Business School legend and dean of business strategists, says strategy is deciding what not to do. Not a bad rule of thumb in a world where no company can be — or should even want to try to be — all things to all people.
In practical terms, this means setting the critical path from where your credit union is today to a vision of where you want it to be at some point in the future. Strategy sets direction to get you there, enables detailed business planning to keep you advancing, and serves as a guide to keep you headed along the right course with every big decision you make.
Good strategy has five basic characteristics:
It is fundamentally cultural, starting with mission, aligning with priorities and values, and reflecting your distinct characteristics as a cooperative.
It is visionary, looking over the horizon to frame your long-term future, five to 20 years or more out.
It is big picture, covering your entire organization, your operating environment, and how you interact, internally among employees and externally with member-owners, partners, your community, and competitors.
It is condition-limited, reflecting your focus, circumstances, operating environment, and your understanding of what your credit union can and cannot accomplish.
It is conceptual, designed and used as a guide, not a roadmap, as a test for initiatives, investments, and other major choices, and as a source of inspiration for employees, member-owners, and the communities you serve.
Strategy is a robust tool that supports business planning, operations, marketing, community engagement, and yes, even budgeting, but its greatest value is in its constant use and refinement. Real strategy is never static because nothing today remains the same for long.
In these times of uncertainty, things are changing in ways we struggle to imagine, and the very viability of our business model might be at risk. Strategy — real strategy — is a key survival factor. Today, we all need to be thinking like strategists.
Chris Howard is senior vice president at Callahan & Associates. Among other engagements, he is the facilitator of Strategy Lab, a new Callahan program featuring onsite, interactive discussions that spark strategic thinking among credit union management teams. Find out more at Callahan.com/executive-education-strategy-lab.