The Tale of Two Cities

a-vs-bIn late 2009, we pursued the opportunity to assist two cities with their economic development efforts.

City A (who will remain anonymous) was looking to improve on its general position as a bedroom community to other larger cities and it wished to attract both retail and non-retail development.

City B (Webster City, Iowa) was faced with the announced closure of two Electrolux plants that manufactured washers and dryers, as well as central vacuum systems.  They were staring down the loss of 1,000 jobs in a community of 8,000 people.

Let’s compare the outcomes.

City A

City A selected a very large lead consultant firm primarily versed in architecture.  They conducted a year long process and used four additional consulting and engineering firms to round out the expertise of the consulting team.  Over the course of a year they held open community meetings, identified sub areas for additional planning and produced two very generalized documents with renderings of what future development may look like.  Since completing this plan, the city completed several annexations and has initiated efforts to complete planning for each of the subareas.

act-wait-buttonCity B

City B hired our firm.  We ’embedded’ ourselves within the community during the initial plan review and recognized that the city had to act quickly.  We interviewed key stakeholders; conducted a review of the city’s codes, fees and utility rates; and completed a ‘buildable land’ and key asset mapping assessment that were all presented to the City Council in four months.  After the presentation of our findings, we worked with the city and stakeholders over the next 30 days to develop an action plan, which the council adopted by resolution as its “Economic Development and Recovery Action Plan.”   It directed all city departments and resources to prioritize implementation of the plan.

We continued in our role as the consultant for City B and led implementation of the action plan, which included our assisting the city in evaluating, hiring and overseeing other consultants for select elements of the action plan (e.g. workforce assessment; development of a brand and a marketing plan).

The action plan was comprehensive and kept the city ahead of the curve in surviving and recovering from the closure of Electrolux.  Some of the highlights of what the plan accomplished include 100 Electrolux jobs were retained, incentives provided that encouraged new retail growth, multiple electric rates consolidated to simplify billing and encourage expansion of the remaining manufacturing base, and code amendments implemented to support home based businesses and an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

We think its clear which city got the better deal and the better result.

Is your community ready to take action?  Contact us today and let’s talk about what we can do for you.

You Call That a Plan

13727927 - office binders stacked white background

What is 562 pages long and calls for more planning and studies?

A failed opportunity. Let me explain.

I recently reviewed a 562 page long comprehensive plan. And to answer the obvious question, I didn’t do it because I was bored. In fact, I did it because I wanted to answer a question one of my friends posed while we met for coffee a few weeks ago. His question: “Why does it seem like our city has no plan, no vision?”

It was a reasonable question that peaked my curiosity. Over the course of the conversation we agreed that the City’s plan and vision were supposed to be what was in its comprehensive plan.

So, not long after sipping the last of my mocha, I was online and digging into that city’s 562 page comprehensive plan. The plan was both exhaustive and exhausting. So what did I find? Five problems that commonly plague the plans I see communities create.

With bowl games and the playoffs on my mind, I’ve put a football spin on each problem:

  1. The False Start. Who really has the time to read a 562 page document to understand where the direction a community is going? No one. That’s the problem. No elected official, staffer or planner is ever going to read, memorize and follow up on everything in a plan that long. Worse yet, it’s inevitable that a plan that long contradicts itself. Bottom line is the plan already committed a foul before it ran its first play from scrimmage. There is a reason everyone wants to read an executive summary of a long plan. That’s the bandwidth the average person has for digesting what the goal is, what the strategies are and what the outcomes should be. If that is the case, are the other 500+ pages really necessary?
  2. What’s the Play Coach?  Picture a quarterback in the huddle desperately going over a 562 page chart on his wrist band (it’s painful enough to watch when it’s just a simple flip sheet). So then how is a 562 page document supposed to be distilled into a crisp “vision” that can be shared with city employees, citizens and businesses so the priorities and future vision for the community are clear? It’s nearly impossible. When the ‘playbook’ is too long and the offense too complex to run efficiently, the result is a failure to get a first down let alone cross the goal line. I’ve seen good football coaches (think Mike Holmgren) take some grief for scripting the first 20(ish) plays from scrimmage, but when it comes to following up a comprehensive community plan with action – such a script is a must have.
  3. Team Captains. What happens when everyone is responsible but no one is in charge? At best, nothing. At worse, chaos. Communities have thinned their staffs over the last decade and they have smaller rosters of team members that are playing multiple positions. Communities like this need ‘team captains’ in charge of acting on the plan, but even more importantly the team captains need the time and authority to focus first on plan implementation. When this doesn’t happen the plan becomes just another document lost in the background noise of the daily grind.
  4. Free Agency Failures.  My guess is that a 562 page plan didn’t come by the cheap. I’ve yet to ask my friend what the plan cost them, but in my experience I’ve seen communities spend $100,000 on a consultant and assign 1-3 staff people to a process involving a less extensive plan that this one. Between fully burdened staff and consultants, it’s reasonable to assume the plan cost in the neighborhood of $200,000 – $250,000. Spending this kind of money on a plan that doesn’t create action is like giving a free agent guaranteed money only to cut them before the end of preseason. As the Boomer (Chris Berman, ESPN) would say, “Whoooop!”
  5. Diagnosing the Game Film.  Let’s go over a few ‘plays’ from the plan, as I want to call attention to some X’s (goals) and O’s (objectives/strategies). In one of the plan’s chapters, I found six goals and roughly two dozen objectives. However, six of those objectives specifically called for completion of another plan or a study. Six! Now imagine if each of the other ten chapters followed this framework (hint: most did). The result is a plan that calls for another 60+ plans or studies.  I can hear Steve Raible, the voice of the Seattle Seahawks, in my head, “Holy Catfish!” Even if each additional plan or study cost a mere $20,000 in either staff time or consultant fees, the result would be over $1.2 million in more planning and studies. It’s no wonder many small to medium sized cities struggle to find the money and resources to create a plan then begin to implement the plan.

I want to make it clear that I am not anti-planning. I’m pro-planning. However, a plan without strategy and deliberate implementation is just an ordinary document.

The most successful plans I’ve seen set forth a clear and concise set of actions that can be implemented by identified team captains who have the capacity and authority to take action.

A great plan can’t be measured by how long it is – it must be measured by how much it accomplishes.

Want another example, read our story: “The Tale of Two Cities”

Five Common Barriers to Action

We see it far too often.same-old-thinking

A business or community hires a large and ‘well-respected’ planning or consulting firm to help them decide on an objective and develop strategies that will lead to action and a result. The intentions are good in nature.  But the process ends up as just another document for which resources (time, money and stakeholder capital) were diminished without any real results.

So, why does nothing happen?

Let’s Look at an Example
The following is a recent news story that appeared on our radar.

The Daily News

Economic development officials and the local commission are expected to spend the coming weeks and months determining how to implement parts, or all, of the study recommendations.

“We’ll be keeping you posted as we go through this process,” he said.

Chairman Lewis said the months-long study process was the “easy part.”

“The hard part is moving and putting the plan in place,” he said to presentation attendees. “In order for us to do that, it’s going to take all of you participating.”

NOTE: in full disclosure we’ve edited the names and title of the paper and people to protect the innocent.

The Five Most Common Barriers to Action

  1. A study is not a plan.  A study is a process of acquiring knowledge.  A plan is a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something.  As shown in the article above, the two are often confused.  You don’t implement studies, you implement plans.  You’d complete a sewer study to understand what your capacity is and what improvements you need.  You create and adopt a capital facilities plan to finance and build the improvements.  The information from a study or studies should go into a plan, but a study’s recommendations can’t be your action plan.
  2. Action can’t be an afterthought.  Implementation needs to be part of the plan, not an afterthought or separate planning process.
  3. Full price for a fraction of the goods.  Recommendations from a consultant are just that.  However, we sometimes find that a consultant has a standard format it uses.  Such formats have built in biases and are more likely to produce irrelevant and in-actionable recommendations.  It’s the duty of both the consultant and the client to have regular communication so that the end result represents actions the client can take. The final product shouldn’t be questioned by stakeholders as being irrelevant or inaccurate.
  4. Follow the steps?  It’s human nature to think in a linear way.  We want to do Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, etc.  So the assumption is we must hire a subject matter expert to first give us a study.  Then we discern the information, call in the stakeholders, discern the information some more, start to develop a plan, reconvene the stakeholders, adjust the plan, and hopefully celebrate the plan.  Before we know it 12 months have passed.  It’s a long and disconnected process and its easy to see why momentum is lost.  Want to improve your chances of success?  Bring these processes together so they are concurrent, coordinated and concise!
  5. It’s your birthday. . .  Celebrate success.  It’s a catchy slogan we see everywhere.   But to keep momentum, this is critical.  While its customary to make a big to-do when a plan is finalized, little usually happens after the fact.  Celebrating success shouldn’t be like celebrating a leap year birthday, it needs to be a regular thing for each milestone reached.

Our company has a different approach to economic development planning and implementation. We’re confident we can help you succeed.  Contact us today for a confidential conversation about your next project.

Technology Changed the Game

tech-world-picAs we work with businesses and communities we frequently hear the phrase: “Technology is a game changer.” To that we pose the question, “Hasn’t technology already changed the game?”  [Hint: yes]

Here is what we know:

  1. Technology is changing at a pace faster than you, your business and your community comprehend.
  2. The implications of these technological advances mean strategic plans, such as comprehensive land use plans and economic development plans, are insanely obsolete in a short period of time.
  3. To compete in this brave new world, you need a bold, new strategic plan.

Not convinced?  Take our technology quiz.

The Technology Quiz

Happened or Not?

  1. A gene-editing tool can be injected into humans to repair broken DNA to fix things like cancer
  2. Bionic brain controlled arms are the new prosthetic and allow the user to have full sensory to touch
  3. Using only our brain activity, we can fly airplanes

Get the Answers

What are the Implications?

  • In economic development the speed at which technology is changing will require infrastructure to be rethought and redeveloped to ensure you can compete for the type of projects that will replace existing, traditional industry.
  • In comprehensive planning and land use the speed of technological advancement require changes in how we view allowable uses, mixed use development and community design.
  • In education the rapidly changing technology will mean rethinking how we teach, including looking at what we teach and how we relate it to the real world.

The Technology Quiz Answers
It may seem crazy, but all of these amazing things have happened and continue to evolve into new breakthroughs.  Don’t believe it?  CRISPR is a gene editing technology invented several years ago that relies on simple simple and repeatable DNA cutting enzyme to be combined with a molecular guide to edit broken genes that can be reproduced and injected back into the patient.  This month it entered human trials in the U.S. and China.  The Modular Prothetic Limb is a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Agency) study that has developed robotic limbs with full sensory feeling of touch.  In 2015, a quadriplegic woman became the first to fly an F-35 simulator with only her thoughts.

What’s Next?
3-D printing is about to evolve, rapidly.  Did you know that the patents for Selective Laser Melting (SLM) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) are set to expire in December of this year?  According to many reports, this may be the huge step forward that allows for more reliable production, but also ushers in the mass production and use of “desktop” printers that will allow the common citizen to be part inventor, part manufacturer and potentially the next emerging business in your community.

Technology has already changed the game, are you ready to play?

Is Your Plan Dialed In?

strategic-planning-dialWe’ve all got big plans. Lots of them. Our businesses, organizations and communities have plans ranging from simple business plans to comprehensive growth plans and from fundraising plans to economic development plans.

Yet despite all the plans, we’re making less and less progress towards our goals. Lack of funding, lack of people and lack of time are what gets the blame when plans fail to deliver results.

So what’s really wrong with planning?

Consider the Law of Inertia
Physics’ law of inertia makes clear that an object at rest will stay at rest and an object in motion will stay in motion. In applying this theory to what’s wrong with current planning practices, our company believes:

Strategic planning has been mistaken as the “force” that puts a plan (the object) in motion.  That is simply not true.

In reality strategic planning is not the force, but rather the process of creating the object.  A successful strategic planning process is only complete when implementation (aka a “force”) is initiated. This mistake is why so many planning documents are just an object perpetually at rest.

6 Common Planning Mistakes
Here are a list of the six most common mistakes we see in planning:

  1. PPV – You assumed we were talking about Pay-Per-View didn’t you?  Gotcha.  This acronym is even more expensive.  It’s called Pay-Per-Verb.  Strategic plans have become crazy long and we can only assume that either you’re charged by the verb or you equate length with greatness.  War & Peace may very well have been an excellent novel, but Dr. Seuss likely has had greater impact on you and your children.  Impactful, memorable and successful plans keep an eye on brevity.
  2. The Statue of David tries Cirque de Solei – Many strategic planning processes take too long in an effort to produce masterpieces, making them inflexible and unable to adapt to change.  Could you imagine the Statue of David trying to perform Cirque de Solei?  Great plans are nimble, adaptive and toe the line between what’s possible and what’s impossible.
  3. A Chorus of Crickets – Stakeholders: your employees, your investors, you community.  They are a fundamental element of any strategic planning process and ultimately the key to successful plan implementation.  But there are different kinds of stakeholders and if the stakeholder portion of strategic planning is not managed correctly, you’ll have a room full of crickets.  Which depending on your geography could be a euphemism for either silence or a cacophony of chirping.  Stakeholder selection, stakeholder roles and expectations, and stakeholder participation need to be defined prior to initiating a strategic planning process and monitored throughout.
  4. Christmas at My House – Everyone present on Christmas morning in my house gets presents.  Probably too many of them.  Many organizational and community strategic planning processes lose focus when they try and make their plan a wish list for Santa that is neither realistic or sustainable.  This may make the process of planning go smoothly, but it can quickly start to feel like buyer’s remorse when you get the first bill.
  5. 13727927 - office binders stacked white backgroundThe Lost and Bound – If your strategic plan is so great that it needs a binder to hold it’s contents in place, you’ve failed.  Your plan needs to be found, adopted and championed by your employees, your investors, your community (aka “stakeholders”).  In today’s world big binders of stuff are great paperweights, but nobody is going to read them or rally around them.  Your plan needs to be discernible and digital friendly.  Because if the plan isn’t clear or present, your results are in danger.
  6.  Only Fine Wines Age Well –  Too often we see communities go through 9-18 months of process to create a five year plan.  Five years!  That’s an eternity given the pace at which technology is exponentially changing (See: Technology Changed the Game).  If five year economic plans couldn’t work for the USSR when there were fewer variables impacting the outcome, it’s clear that lengthy planning exercises and rigid planning horizons in today’s world only limit the ability of your business, organization or community to adjust to change and embrace innovation.  Great plans reflect the inevitable reality of change and are conditioned to embrace and evolve to meet each new challenge.

We want to help you succeed.  Contact us today to discuss how we can help you with your next strategic plan and its implementation.