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

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

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[iii]

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

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.

Endnotes:

[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”

Got the To-Do List Blues?

You’ve worked hard and reached the end of your day, but your to-do list hasn’t budged.

Were you distracted?  Maybe.  Too many fires to put out?  It’s possible.

But if you want to really understand what happened and why you didn’t accomplish much, you may need to look deeper.  According to psychologists like Daniel Kahneman, your day may have succumbed to a cognitive bias called the “planning fallacy.”

What is it?  It’s when your brain thinks you more capable than you are, tricking you into not accounting for how long things will actually take you.

A Business Insider article written by Shana Lebowitz on April 23rd explains.

Want to Succeed? Ditch the Stakeholders!

If I had a dollar for every time I saw a community bring together a group of “stakeholders” I’d be comfortably retired and if I had a second dollar for every stakeholder process that ended without an action, I’d be on one of Fortune Magazine’s money lists.

Now before you finishing lighting your torch and locating your pitchfork, let me explain.

Good Intentions Don’t Spark Action

The intent behind stakeholder committees/groups is very laudable: involve the public in a process, educate them on a challenge or opportunity, record their input and diffuse potential objections.

But most stakeholder processes today are generally failures.  They are poorly attended, poorly managed and orchestrated to be very limited in scope.  Stakeholders are usually limited to a position of review and respond – completely missing the opportunity to re-imagine processes and plans, rewrite strategies and goals, and resolve to take real actions.

This is why even out of the best plan or idea. . .stakeholders fade away and big ideas never materialize into results.

The Wrong Audience

I have come to believe that stakeholders may be the wrong audience.  Unlike investors or shareholders, they typically are not personally vested in an outcome.  Instead, by definition, a stakeholder is someone with an interest or concern in something.

This is the problem.  Having an interest or a concern doesn’t often merit action.  I’m interested in history.  I like to read about it, I like to watch programs about it.  I’ll even occasionally reference it.  But, my interest alone doesn’t compel me to take action.  For example, I am fascinated by presidential biographies, but at age 40 I just visited my first one and it is only an hour drive away from where I live.

A stakeholder is no different.  They are curious, they may have a question about the topic and they may want to offer an opinion.  But they generally have no desire to be responsible for the outcome.

A New Concept for Results: Coalitions

I believe it’s time to gather fewer stakeholders and instead build more coalitions.  It’s time to move away from asking people to serve in an “advisory” capacity and ask them at the outset to serve in an “achievement” role.  And even more importantly, put them in a role where their recommendations carry some actual weight in not only creating the plan, but initiating the action.

My only worry is that the term coalitions too often creates a negative reaction or visual depiction of being either “activism” or “political action” or, in rare cases, “extremism.”

However, we need to remember that real coalitions are far from this perception.  A coalition is simply individuals or groups that, in their own self-interest, cooperate in joint action.  The keywords in that sentence being “cooperate” and “action.”

What do you think?

 

 

 

 

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.

Four Ways Your Plan for 2017 Will Fail

action-plan-2017So you’ve had the annual executive retreat, analyzed your business and carefully put together a plan for 2017.  You’re feeling good and you’re ready for the holidays.  Bring on the egg nog.

Not so fast.  Here are four ways your plan for 2017 will fail. (And how you can change your thinking to change the outcome)

  1. Too Much Optimism.  No one wants to be negative.  And unless anointed the role of ‘contrarian’ no employee (even your best executive) wants to assume that title.  But, if you’ve gone through a process to develop a plan for the next year and none of your conversations have delved into uncomfortable territory or produced thoughtful disagreement, then you’ve got problems. Inevitably there are some sacred cows holding you back.  To be successful, everything has to be on the table and everyone has to be empowered to state the obvious.  No pain, no gain.
  2. Those Darn Comfy Pants Again.  I’ve been around enough Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to know there are really two kinds of pants.  Comfy pants and stretch pants.  Comfy pants are a favorite pair of jeans that make you feel good.  Stretch pants make you feel better, but only because they offer you comfort when you’ve pushed the limits of yourself for a short period of time.  Ask yourself, when the invite went out to create the goals for your 2017 plan, what was the suggested dress code?  Did everyone put on their comfy pants, relax and go with what feels good?  Or did they pull out their stretch pants and challenge themselves to take on a little more and get a little uncomfortable in the short term?
  3. Rephrase, Rearrange, Repeat.  Is your 2017 plan really just an extension of your 2016 plan?  If so, ask yourself if you are really putting yourself in a position to grow?  Set your 2016 plan next to your 2017 plan and compare.  Similar?  Far to often we see companies and organizations fall into the trap of “rephrase, rearrange, repeat” when it comes to planning.
  4. Your Budget is Your Plan.  Do you need a plan?  Yes.  Do you need a budget?  Absolutely.  Is a budget a plan?  Not even close.  Budgets are a reflection of the past.  They are the setting of future expectations based on what we know today and what we have most recently experienced.  In contrast, planning represents where you want to be in the future.  Budgets are inflexible, while plans are adaptive.  And tracking a line item budget month to month doesn’t measure progress, it measures restraint.