Understanding How City Plans Fail

In my experience a City’s successful implementation of a plan depends greatly upon a their reaction to and investment in the actual elements of the plan.  For successful implementation to occur, a city must be mindful of the tendency for its performance to ‘default’ to status quo (generalization and avoidance), substitution (solving a less complex problem) or surrogation (substituting a performance measure for goal attainment).

Status Quo

Status Quo appears most typically in the forms of generalization and avoidance:


Generalization occurs when a plan is accepted or adopted at the Council level, but not integrated into the working operations of the city. Plan implementation may be added to council, management and department agendas, but on-going engagement in discussing both the plan and its implementation gets almost exclusively focused on existing daily operations or is skipped due to a lack of time spent on other matters. This tendency to generalize the meaning of ‘implement the plan’ leads away from the strategic discussions, decisions and actions required for real plan implementation. Drawing a comparison to small business, it’s like the owner always putting “do marketing” on their task list without a direction (e.g. promoting a special off), specific strategies (e.g. add content to social media, purchase radio spots) or a process of reviewing and measuring outcomes.

The result of this generalization is either (a) an abandonment of the plan (often arising from the feeling that the plan is too big) or (b) a sense that the plan is so comprehensive and well documented that it’s enactment is naturally occurring without an on-going focus (what we can only assume must be an evolutionary product of the common planner reference that a plan is a ‘living, breathing document’).

However, the truth is that generalization results in one outcome: inaction. The lack of on-going conversations at council, management and department levels about the specifics of how the plan and strategy are being implemented, the progress towards implementation, and the measurement of the results and adjustment of strategy leads to deprioritizing the importance of the plan and replacement by more pressing, emerging matters.

It’s a false expectation for a Council or Manager to assume that a broad directive of ‘implement the plan’ without frequent interfacing is enough for a department or individual to determine the who, what, how and why for each plan element that must be accomplished in additional to current operational responsibilities.

 TIP:  Hold regular implementation conversations and (at least) an annual workshop or retreat to make strategic decisions on assigning responsibility, monitoring progress, adjusting strategies, and evaluating success.


Avoidance occurs when a plan is accepted or adopted at the Council level, but due to the city’s present budget and general financial policy, Council and management avoid discussing, recommending, prioritizing and appropriating adequate resources (staff time, programmatic funding, etc.) to carry out the work.

This tendency is to avoid financial decisions (during and after budget adoption) while generally accepting that the community has the staff and financial resources to (at least) begin to implementation of the plan is a manifestation of the general notion that there are inefficiencies or underutilized city resources that will somehow adapt to carry out this responsibility.

The truth is that most cities have focused such great attention in recent years toward controlling expenses to limit property tax increases that existing resources are strained and often less efficient. From combining jobs and duties to asking departments annually to cut a % of their budget but maintain a similar level of service has made government ‘leaner’ but it’s also created an expectation that implementing new plans, strategies and services can be accomplished within existing operations and using existing resources.

It’s a false expectation to assume that successful implementation of a new strategic plan will occur without evaluating the resources (staff, money, etc.) required to succeed.

TIP:  Regularly discuss the delivery of services and allocation of resources to make more strategic decisions that support the plan’s implementation and the city’s broader priorities of government[i],[ii].


Substitution is defined as the act of replacing a more complex element of the plan with an easier action that is rationalized as having successfully met objective.  This occurs as follows:

Cities tend to respond best to emerging issues, emergencies, questions and requests. This ‘fighting fires’ approach is justified because it feels production and it can be rationalizing (subconsciously or not) as being related to or fulfilling one or more of the elements within a work plan.  Substitution takes the place of elements within the plan and is generally (at all levels) accepted as crossing that item off the list.  In practice this may look like the following situation.

The local newspaper starts a quarterly advertorial insert called “The Progress Edition” featuring local business stories and a significant amount of advertising.  The city responds by purchasing a year’s worth of ad space.  The purchase may be good for the city, the newspaper and the community, but the decision is often made by rationalizing the outcome as promoting economic development or marketing the city.  This can become a substitution for the actual marketing elements of the plan and be wrongly counted as fulfilling all or a portion of those associated plan goals.

The truth is that not all city actions can or should be accounted for as actions related to adopted strategic plans. While these actions may benefit the city and community, their replacement (substitution) of more complex and resource intense plan elements won’t ultimately move the city closer to the achieving the established plan goals.

It’s a false expectation that every city action is an extension of the strategies within an adopted strategic plan.

TIP:  Allocate resources to carry out the plan’s implementation and determine how long-term projects will be sustained in the face of both daily operations and emerging requests for resources.


Surrogation happens when the measurement of a goal is interpreted (represented) as the goal.  A common example of this as applied to city operations would involve the goal of high customer satisfaction in the planning department where the speed (# of days) by which building permits are issued comes to singularly represent customer satisfaction.

In the context of implementing a strategic plan, surrogation is a method for simplifying plan implementation by reducing the scope of the strategy to either fit within a budget limitation or to avoid (revolt against) broader systemic change.

The truth is that the desire to prove progress and accomplishment drive a tendency to use performance measures (especially those that are positive) to not just represent how a goal is being achieved, but that the performance measure (if good) is the achievement of the goal. This is misleading and results in a failure to accomplish more meaningful, long term results.  Returning to the example from above, customer satisfaction with a planning department can neither be accomplished nor measured solely by the timely issuance of permits as such measurements may not reflect the difficulty in applying for the permit, the cost of the permit or the experience with permit related inspections.

Further, relying on the performance measures as the goal can lead to crazy interpretations of the performance measure, including (for example) that the timely issuance of permits should only measure how long the jurisdiction took to issue the permit, not how long the overall process took.  The city may have performed much worse when the latter was considered because the city frequently stopped the clock to seek additional information from the applicant.

It’s a false expectation to assume that a single performance measure can accurately represent achievement of a goal and the application of such is an invitation for surrogation to promote a false sense of achievement.

TIP:  Cities should adopt and evaluate performance measures, but such measures of progress and performance should not be singularly focused nor reflect the sole means of determining goal satisfaction.


[i] Washington State enacted a successful and innovative priorities in government budgeting approach in 2002 under former Governor Gary Locke (background: https://www.innovations.harvard.edu/priorities-government-budgeting)

[ii] For more details, see also The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis by David Osborne and Peter Hutchinson

[iii] Substitution as referred to herein is a more simplistic view of what’s known as “attribute substitution”

A Common Failure in Economic Development

In February newspapers reported on a city council that was discussing the potential of defunding their economic development department a mere 3 years after its creation and 12 months after it had become fully staffed.  Read Story

Even more troublesome?  The city completed a 62 page comprehensive economic development strategic plan on November 6, 2016 – just four months before this discussion took place.  We reviewed the comprehensive plan and it’s clear they spent a lot of money to develop the strategy.

Unfortunately, this is an all to common occurrence in many communities across the U.S.  Here’s five major reasons why city led economic development efforts are NOT WORKING:

  1. City funded economic development departments often lack an actionable strategy and the views of elected leaders on “what is economic development” often don’t align with how economic developers do what they do.
  2. To develop a formal strategy, cities usually hire a consultant to complete a comprehensive strategic plan with market analysis, a regurgitation of every community plan before it, design sketches of what areas of the community could look like in the future, and other ‘fluff’ that many consultants sell like candy to a toddler.  These plans are expensive and they are usually light on the actions that need to be taken and how those actions will be completed (implementation).
  3. Economic development isn’t cheap and when a city (or county) budget fluctuates, economic development is often viewed as a luxury best afforded when times are good.  When the choice is between public safety and economic development, you know who will win that battle.
  4. Economic development doesn’t happen overnight and without a clear strategy (with clear expectations and timelines) that elected leaders, staff and the public can understand, it’s nearly impossible to show a return on investment (ROI) in an era where everyone wants the pay-back on their investment to begin immediately.
  5. Cities often times fund economic development just enough to hire the qualified staff, leaving them without the resources to do their jobs effectively.

How can this be overcome?

  1. Clarity.  A city investing in an economic development department must have a clear and common vision for what economic development means for the community.  For example, is it retail development or tourism or new industry attraction?  Each of these requires a different approach, comes with a different set of actions and happen over different timelines.  If that isn’t reconciled first, then expect trouble ahead, especially if a city (or county) believes economic development is all of those things.  That’s when priorities need to be established, because no 1-3 person staff can expertly focus on all of it at once.
  2. Simplicity.  Spending 6-12 months and $100s of thousands of dollars on complex market studies, sub-area plans, design standards and all the rest that cities (and counties) typically ask for in a comprehensive economic development strategy can be too complicated for the first action and create unreasonable expectations.  Thus, before biting off a comprehensive plan, a city (or county) needs to adopt a basic and implementable strategy that flows from the common vision (discussed in “Clarity” above) and addresses the top economic development priorities.  This establishes a short term work plan and is the precursor to additional planning and analysis.  Vague strategy like “develop the retail corridor” is bound to fail.
  3. Prioritize results over extravagance.  Cities (and counties) should prioritize results and momentum over more elaborate, extravagant and expensive planning projects.  Starting with the comprehensive plan may be a good idea when you are a well-funded private (or semi-private) economic development organization, but when you’re a newer, publicly funded economic development program the public perception is your spending lots of money and then the expectation for results ratchets up and quickens in urgency.
  4. Planning isn’t an accomplishment.  Cities (and counties) need to realize that completing the plan isn’t an economic development “accomplishment” nor is how much you spent on the plan and measure of how good your program will be?
  5. Another way.  Here’s an alternative to starting with comprehensive planning efforts.  Hire a consultant (or facilitator that understands economic development) to lead elected leaders, staff and a few citizen and business stakeholders through the creation of a vision and common understanding of economic development followed by prioritizing some initial action items and a timeline implementation of additional planning steps.  At fraction of a cost, this truncated strategy can help a city avoid the pitfalls we’ve discussed and more quickly demonstrate progress, build momentum and produce early wins.

Disclosure: we are not working for the city referenced in this example, but we are confident we could help.

Smart Goals Aren’t Always So Smart

I remember my first strategic planning process like it was yesterday.  The direction I got from my manager was:

  1. Start a planning process
  2. Get your group to agree on a vision
  3. Create SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely)
  4. Identify the action you’ll take to achieve the goals
  5. End with consensus

I had been worried, dreading the need to develop a strategic plan.  But, in what my manager shared with me I found hope.  It seemed easy enough and it was.  And after that first plan was done. . .I felt comfortable.  There was even a satisfaction that accomplishing the plan’s goals wouldn’t be too hard.

Fast forward to today.  I have a very different perspective on what embodies “SMART” goals.

It’s time to create ambitious goals, not attainable goals

Why?  Because when an organization puts together a plan with “attainable” goals, it often artificially limits what the organization can accomplish.  Attainable sets the tone by saying goals should be “within reach” or “achievable” which stands in contrast to the intensity typically associated with the vision an organization first establishes at the outset of the strategic planning process.

Attainable is the small fish sitting in a river waiting for food to be carried to it.  Is it strategic?  Sure. . .  Is it certain?  Yes. . .  But is the fish achieving more than basic survival?  No. . .

Attainable is the small fish sitting in a river waiting for food to be carried to it.  Is it strategic?  Sure, the fish has chosen to save energy and capitalize on what can be seen.  Is it certain?  Yes, inevitably food will come downstream.  But is the fish achieving more than basic survival?  No, the fish isn’t taking any risk to find a better source of food and pursue its vision of being the “big fish” someday.

The alternative goals are those that are ambitious.  Meaning they require greater effort and ability to be successful, but nonetheless can still be successful.

The bottom line is this: focusing on attainable goals is still a strategic decision, but its a strategy that focuses on accomplishing obvious outcomes that would be nearly impossible not to reach.  That’s great news for the individuals charged with being responsible for implementation.  However, its bad new for growth.

It’s time to stop being ‘real’ and start being ‘transformative’

Judging goals on a criteria of “realistic” also artificially limits what can be accomplished.  Because the opposite of reality is fantasy.  And fantasies are categorized in our minds as wishes and falsehoods, making the use of imagination a bad thing.  As soon as someone says, “the reality is that this will be difficult. . .” in a strategy session, a group will navigate away from talking about ambitious goals that require more intense analysis and resources.

Viewing strategy and goal setting through the lens of  reality therefore becomes an opportunity to back down from a challenge.  In fact it’s the last opportunity to make a U-turn in the planning process and return to a place of comfort.

So what does a more successful approach look like?

In a strategy session with a board of directors that were also the organizations main investors, I asked, “What would make you feel better as a director and investor.  An organization that hits every goal as if running up the score or one that fails to accomplish every goal but accomplishes something that is transformative?”

The answer was clear to those directors.  The purpose of the organization was to be transformative and impactful.  In that context they had to redefine what success would look like as they developed their plan.   Success couldn’t be about measuring and accomplishing every goal in the plan.  Instead, it had to be about realizing their vision to be something different down the road.

To make that happen, being ‘realistic’ meant having a discussion about risks, resources and a range of results as opposed to dismissing an aggressive, ambitious goal as being a fantasy because it’s cutting edge, innovative or imaginative.

Redefining S.M.A.R.T. Goals

If I were to redefine S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely) goals, here’s what it would look like:

S – Straightforward (understandable; unambiguous; plain-spoken)

– Maturity (due date; time when fully developed; period in which obligation to perform has come due)

A – Ambitious (aggressive; requiring greater effort and ability)

R – Recognizable (easily identified by those responsible for outcomes)

T – Transformative (a discernible change; something different than the present)

Why Nothing Happens . . .

48077572 - close-up view on conceptual keyboard - implementation (blue key)We see it far too often.  A community hires a consultant and invests time and money in creating a new plan. The plan is presented, the vision is celebrated, people are excited and hopeful, and . . .

Nothing. . .

Sometime down the road the same community (not wishing to repeat the inaction of its last effort) hires a new consultant and invests time and money into a new effort to create a buzz-worthy “action plan” or “strategic plan” and . . .

Still nothing. . .


Because planning is an exercise.  Yes, planning is an action , but it’s also measured, defined and limited in effort to achieve a singular outcome: the plan.  Planning is not an accomplishment.  Planning is defined very clearly:

The act or process of making a plan or plans

Implementation is a separate beast.  But, implementation produces accomplishment.  Defined, implementation means:

The process of putting a decision or plan into effect; execution.

So what is the solution for the community that never seems to stop planning?  Implementation.

Our approach (and the advice we give our clients and prospective clients) is that any time they create a plan, they need to seamlessly follow up on that process by defining how that plan will be implemented and who will be responsible for implementation.  And for our clients that want to be overachievers, we advise them through the process of taking the first few steps of implementing the plan.

Want more resources?

Before Strategic Planning, Read This

The Tale of Two Cities: the Planner and the Achiever

Before Strategic Planning, Read This First


In a play off the words of Henry Nouwen, we believe “You can’t strategize your way into action, you have to take action on your strategy.’

We spend a lot of time addressing the topics of strategy and planning as they pertain to businesses, communities and organizations, helping them to create strategies and follow through on them.

The problem we see all to often is today’s strategic planning and comprehensive planning processes fall short of dealing the unknowns of reality and they lack the oomph (power, energy and attractiveness) to achieve real results.   More often than not, strategic planning efforts can’t adjust to changing technology and fail in their execution.

If your business, community or organization is about to embark on a new “strategic plan” or “comprehensive plan,” we suggest reading two articles that point out why what’s become labeled “strategic planning” doesn’t work.  Then we suggest you work with an outside firm that will advise you on how to avoid the failures of strategic planning as we’ve come to know it.

First, in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article titled “The Big Lie of Strategic Planning,” Roger Martin addresses the common misconception between what strategy is versus what planning is and why ‘strategic planning’ comes up short.

On typical strategic planning processes, Martin says:

This is a truly terrible way to make strategy. It may be an excellent way to cope with fear of the unknown, but fear and discomfort are an essential part of strategy making. In fact, if you are entirely comfortable with your strategy, there’s a strong chance it isn’t very good.

Second, in a March 2014 article for Forbes titled, “The Death of Strategic Planning,” Bill Conerly addresses the inability of strategic plans to be flexible and responsive to change.

In describing the inflexibility of strategic planning, Conerly says:

The central problem, of course, was that the future didn’t cooperate. In 2008, the economy dove when it was supposed to fly. Technology drove the world in surprising directions. For example, importing liquefied natural gas looked great until technology made exporting look even greater.. Social attitudes sometimes changed too quickly for business, as when companies went bankrupt due to the uproar over pink slime (or “finely textured beef”).