Tools Won’t Do the Thinking for You


Training and consulting at credit unions go through different phases. A few years ago, it felt like most requests from credit unions were for help in finding general numbers, meaning we simply had to direct them to specific tools. As time has gone on, credit unions are now asking for something more detailed: strategy and analysis.

At first, we’d respond with, “here are tools, the numbers they can show, and the analysis they’re capable of providing you.” Then, we switched from primarily focusing on the tools themselves to instead exploring specific ideas using tools. We look at ways to study indirect memberships, review loan delinquency, explore fee income, etc.

This requires us to think strategically and adjust our way of thinking. Instead of looking at one single number and focusing on that, focus on the other numbers that surround and influence it as well. Instead of asking “How many fees are we charging?” the new questions that emerge are “What fees are we waiving on a regular basis? Should we change our procedures? Do some employees need further coaching on when to waive fees? How can we help more members avoid these fees?”

Looking at the bigger picture and influences

There are plenty of ways to adjust our thinking when studying different data points, but there are plenty of tools to assist you in adjusting this mindset. Now, the tools won’t think for you, but they’ll guide you to asking the right questions, and they’ll point you in the direction of taking action. You will still have to work through that strategic thinking on your own to ensure that you’re taking the necessary next steps.

In the example above, we’re no longer simply looking at the amount a credit union made from fee income in the previous month. We start looking at fees that were waived, why those were waived, etc. We could also look at a trendline of how much we’ve made or waived in previous months, and see if there’s an established pattern or if there are certain times of the year

The same basic principle can continue when we look at other data sets and ideas as well. Instead of asking how many memberships are opening vs closing each month, we should adjust this to include other questions such as, “Why did we experience such a high number of new memberships or closed memberships last month? What did the members who closed their membership do in the months leading up to their membership closing? How are we ensuring that our new members get and stay engaged?”

By asking these secondary questions, and even some leading questions, we now have shifted from “give me the numbers” to “how do we find the narrative behind the numbers, and change this for the better by taking relevant actions?” It’s when we start asking those secondary questions that we get the chance to dive deeper into analysis and take action.

How to start asking the right questions

I’m often asked by credit unions where each team should start when looking at data. While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, here are a few concrete steps you can take to get started:

1. Choose up to three initiatives that you want to focus on right now. It can just be one if that’s easier for you, but I would limit yourself to no more than three. There will be plenty of analysis and action to take with three initiatives to keep you and your team busy for months, if not longer.

2. Start with analyzing the data and asking questions. This can go back and forth for a while. The more you analyze, the more questions you ask, leading to more analysis, which can lead to more questions, etc.

3. Once you’ve done that initial analysis, it is important to act on what you find. If you are at a loss for what to do, brainstorm with related departments. Is it related to loans? Talk to your lending team. Related to new members? Talk to your tellers and member service teams. The pressure does not always have to completely be on you alone—that’s part of the reason there are multiple people working in organizations.

4. After taking action, it’s time for more analysis and more questions. How did our marketing efforts pan out? What do we consider successful? Is this consistent with past results? What did and did not work? Is there a specific group in our target audience this performed better with?

5. Then it’s time for more action, and before you know it you have this entire process on a train schedule for each topic, and each topic has a place in your weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annual calendar.

All data analysis starts somewhere

I might make it seem almost too simple, but everyone starts somewhere. This is where a lot of us started, and it is actually how I got into data analysis. Ask questions, review the answers, and take action based on what you see. You’ll be using strategic thinking with the tools available in no time.


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