Strategy Traps

The time to think about strategy is not limited to the fall right before the new year’s budget proposal. Strategy is an all-year discussion. Boards can (should) shift to this kind of thinking with conscious effort. It’s also critical to avoid the all-too-common strategy traps. Be thoughtful in how you differentiate.

By Kevin Smith


Strategic planning discussions?! Now!? In February?!

Ya sure. You betcha. (To quote my Norwegian/Wisconsin in-laws). The snow is falling outside and I’m putting off shoveling with this blog post. So, for some of you, those clues suggest it’s not the time of year to talk about strategic planning. But Tim and I want to push back on that. We want you to be thinking about strategic planning EVERY month. Not just in the fall right before the new budget proposal. So, let’s check in on a few things so that we can keep the strategic planning muscles in shape all year.

I do a lot of reading on a variety of topics, one of them strategy. And a lot of what I read is often very vague. It’s written to apply to any company, in any industry, of any size. This is how authors sell books, by appealing to a very wide demographic. This can be fine and I typically pull nuggets of value out of anything I read, even if limited. Some of what I read on strategy is clearly geared towards very large corporations. (It may be that their own sales strategy is to focus on MBA students ready to jump into the big time.) Again, all fine and good, but sometimes I don’t see enough value for the credit union industry that we support. But one book that I found valuable is the seminal, Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, by Roger Martin and A.G. Lafley. There are a number of great lessons and I recommend the full text, but what stuck with me most is their Six Strategy Traps to Avoid. Let’s review:

Six Strategy Traps to Avoid

  1. The Do-It-All Strategy
    Failing to make choices and making everything a priority.

  1. The Don Quixote Strategy
    Taking on the strongest competitor first. (“Walled Cities.”)

  1. The Waterloo Strategy
    Wars on multiple fronts with multiple competitors.

  1. The Something-For-Everyone Strategy
    Trying to capture all segments at once.

  1. The Dreams-That-Never-Come-True Strategy
    High level aspirations that never get translated into concrete how-to-play and how-to-win choices.

  1. The Program-Of-The-Month Strategy
    Generic industry strategies that all competitors are using.

I’ve seen credit unions that have tried all of these approaches over the years. What I see most commonly are number 1 (The Do-It-All Strategy) and number 4 (The Something-For-Everyone Strategy). And they ARE traps, making organizations feel like they are onto something to pursue when in fact they are just chasing a vague vision. And shockingly, there are a couple of shops out there that were more or less trapped in all six of these at once!

Review and Connect the Dots

Board members – review your strategy documents. Then think about the six traps above. Are you in one of them? Or in danger of falling into one? Do some critical analysis, as strategy documents can become very complex and have the appearance of a differentiation. Make sure that you can articulate your value proposition in plain language, and in a few sentences without too much jargon. If you’re not sure, bring it up in a board meeting, or as a discussion on your board portal software. You may need to start working through this now so that you have all of your strategy ducks in a row by the time the new budget is proposed next November.

And remember – it’s much easier to say “yes” to lines of business to pursue than it is to say “no.” But most credit unions can’t be all things to all people and must become excellent at one thing rather than mediocre at many. Which means that there are things, somewhat profitable angles, that need to be cut off. It’s a difficult decision but an approach that gives much more clarity for making decisions about resources, purpose and priorities.

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