Toyer Strategic Leads Forum in Spencer, Iowa

Toyer Strategic Consultant was in Spencer, Iowa yesterday continuing our work with the Grow Spencer Commission to create Spencer’s new economic development strategic plan.  The day concluded with a community forum where David Toyer made a presentation on the economic development planning process, the core planning components within the strategy, some of the targeted industries and a review of the community’s goals.  There is more coverage of the forum at The Daily Reporter and KICD AM 1240.

“Spencer is one of the nation’s 550 micropolitan statistical areas,” said David Toyer.  “We’re excited to be working with them on a plan to maximize their growth potential.”

Learn more about Micropolitans.

Learn more about the Toyer Framework® and our Micgrowpolitan™ services.

Overcoming Bias in Strategic Planning

Our company’s approach to strategic planning is changing, shifting from large public forums to assessments and interview.

Preface

Caution – this article is still a bit of a work in progress.  However, I believe it’s purpose is valuable in starting a dialogue on whether the open public workshops, board meetings and other ‘group-think’ planning sessions are beneficial to the development of strategic plans.  And investigating whether there are effective alternatives is important to ensuring the strategic planning remains not only relevant, but effective at producing results.

Finally, before I get into the details, I want to emphasize that the following is my experience and not a scientific study despite the parallels I personally think can be drawn between what I’ve seen and the scientific work in areas such as social influence theory.

About Traditional  Planning

For many years, I accepted that model for strategic planning needed to involve one or more meetings of a task force, board, etc., or a one or more open public forums or workshops.  As it stands, this model is the most common way communities, boards of directors, organizations, etc. go about developing any plan.

Such traditional planning processes are responsive to three key fears most all of us share:

  1. Trust.  How can a plan developed outside the group or public eye represent the group or public?
  2. Right vs. Wrong.  A community planning process without public input is inconsistent with our a core principle that we can’t have public planning without public representation.
  3. Narrowly-focused.  A plan can’t represent the group if it wasn’t developed by the group.

The ‘Group’ Challenge

Over the last several years, I’ve seen the traditional planning process be ineffective because of:

  1. The decline of the number of people that attend, let alone participate in, public workshops or forums (unless it’s a controversial topic, ‘wedge’ issue or a “not-in-my-backyard” reaction).  In these cases, the participation is more personally motivated by individual impact as opposed to broader vision, strategy, etc.
  2. The dynamics between individuals within the group are more frequently running counter to the group’s ability to develop forward thinking strategies using collaboration, cooperation and consensus.

For what it’s worth, my perception is that the influence of technology on our social behaviors and face-to-face interactions appears to be spilling over into the these planning processes.  Not many years ago I’d occasionally see one or two people affect group dynamics through loud or persistent commentary, but as a facilitator I could counter or at least account for it.  However, more and more I’m seeing the same scenario have a more profound effect that is harder to recover the process from.  While this perception is a large enough topic for a different article all together, the best example I can compare this to is how viewpoints and disagreements are now shared on Twitter and Facebook.

Stepping Back & Looking at the Process

Given all this, I’ve spent the last couple of years dissecting a few specific experiences and looking for relevant research and areas of study that help explain the dynamics behind the challenges I’ve seen – an odd combination of self-reflection, evaluation and reading.

I’ve come to believe:

  1. Part of the challenge may be that common biases that often influencing strategic planning are more engaged (I don’t mean consciously or purposefully engaged, but engaged as sort of a baseline that’s been normalized due to frequency of use).
  2. Differences of opinion appear harder to reconcile at a time when consensus solutions are more widely viewed as a loss instead of a win-win

So what are those biases and what alternative approaches am I using?

Common Biases in Strategic Planning

Some of the most common biases I’ve observed in previous economic development strategic planning engagements are:

Social Influence Theory
Theorizes that a person’s emotions, opinions and/or behaviors are influenced and affected by others.  Herbert Kelman in 1958 identified three varieties of social influence bias:

  1. Compliance – responding favorably to an explicit or implicit request or suggestion by others, but can also be represented as keeping dissenting opinion private due to social pressure
  2. Identification – being influenced by someone admired
  3. Internalization – acceptance of a belief or behavior based on a feeling of an internal reward

Cognitive Bias
Cognitive biases are a systematic deviation from rationality in judgement, arguing that individuals create their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of inputs.  Related to heuristics[i] (a/k/a cognitive short-cuts or rules used to simplify decisions), cognitive biases can be useful when timeliness of decisions is more important than accuracy.

Example:  ‘representative heuristic’ or the tendency to judge the frequency or likelihood of an occurrence by the extent to which the event resembles a typical case

Ambiguity Effect[ii]
Decision making is affected by a lack of information or “ambiguity” and people tend to select options for which the probability of a favorable outcome is known.

Anchoring Bias
The tendency to rely too heavily, or “anchor”, on one trait or piece of information when making decisions (usually the first piece of information acquired on that subject)

Bandwagon Effect
The tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same.

Conservatism Bias[iii]
The tendency to revise one’s belief insufficiently when presented with new evidence.

Authority Bias[iv]
The tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure (unrelated to its content) and be more influenced by that opinion.

Availability Cascade Bias
A self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse (or “repeat something long enough and it will become true”)

Confirmation Bias[v]:
The tendency to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.

Shared Information Bias
Tendency for group members to spend more time and energy discussing information that all members are already familiar with (i.e., shared information), and less time and energy discussing information that only some members are aware of.

Many of these biases have been stymieing strategic planning more than they have previously.  And more and more open public engagements are failing to attract diverse community or board opinions and the perception that those who want to complain are more likely to show up has never been more accurate.

Use of Interviews & Assessments as an Alternative
I (and my firm) am now relying more and more on assessments and interviews (even earlier in our engagements) to identify both the individual and group values, themes (components of a shared vision) and inputs (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) needed to structure draft plans and project group engagement.

Our approach relies on a modified Delphi method a/k/a Delphi Technique), being that the modification comes from using interviews to both support and supplement a comprehensive assessment (a/k/a survey) as opposed to Delphi’s typical use of multiple rounds of surveys (assessments).

In our recent experience (purely observational), the group consensus formed in through this approach more often resembles a ‘group conscious’ than ‘consensus’ – a distinction explained by the definition of  ‘group conscious’ as the individual awareness of the identity of the group’s shared believes, thoughts and feelings and ‘consensus’ as the general agreement of a group.  Further, ‘consensus’ typically involves negotiation, elimination or substitution of parts from the whole based on individuals making decisions.  By contrast ‘group conscious’ involves individuals making choices based on their awareness and understanding of common beliefs, values, thoughts and feelings (e.g. a town’s vision) without that same level of individual decision making.

In a recent project example, I used interviews and an assessment, plus a more traditional public workshop (which took place during the assessment).  The result was an 18% participation rate in the assessment, which was nearly double the 10% participation rate in the public workshop.

In additional to attracting more participation, the assessment also yielded a greater depth of opinions, community insights and ideas for projects and goals.  Subsequent use of this approach thus far appears to have produced similar outcomes, yet more analysis is required.

For those interested, below is more specific information on the Delphi method (also referred to as the Delphi technique).

Delphi Method[vi]
A communication technique or method, originally developed as a systematic, interactive forecasting method which relies on a panel of experts. Experts answer two or more rounds of questionnaires. After each round, a facilitator anonymously summaries the experts’ forecasts and reasons for their judgments. Experts are then encouraged to revise previous earlier answers in light of information from other experts.  It is believed that during this process the range of the answers will decrease and the group will converge towards the “correct” answer.  The process concludes after reaching a predefined terminus (e.g. number of rounds, achievement of consensus, stability of results).

Developed[vii] by Project RAND[viii] in the 1950s for a report on the future technological capabilities of the Army Air Corp, its purpose was to overcome situations where experts were often influenced by cognitive biases.  The method relies on using of a series of questionnaires to narrow the range of focus and arrive at an expert opinion.

Footnotes/Citations
[i] Originally discovered by cognitive scientist Herbert Simon, heuristics were studied further by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the early 1970s and became the subject of a well-known paper, “Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” published in 1974 in Science.
[ii] First described by Daniel Ellsberg in 1961, it was part of his dissertation on decision theory looking at decision making under conditions of uncertainty or ambiguity and how the outcome may not be consistent with well-defined probabilities.  This work is now a part of what is referred to as the Ellsberg Paradox and it later influenced other approaches including Choquet’s info-gap decision theory.  Mr. Ellsberg was a U.S. Military Analyst and for RAND Corporation employee; however, he is most known for his role in releasing the Pentagon Papers.
[iii] Ward Edwards, 1968.  Underweighing new information because of an existing belief of base distribution of information.
[iv] Reference Milgram experiment in 1961
[v] Identified by Psychologist Peter Wason (1960s).
[vi] Wikipedia; International Economic Development Council
[vii] Attributed to Olaf Hemmer, Norman Dalkey and Nicholas Rescher
[viii] a/k/a RAND Corporation

Toyer Strategic Granted Trademark

It’s official!

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has granted Toyer Strategic Consulting a trademark on the Toyer Framework® – our signature approach to economic development strategic planning for communities 50,000 population and under.  We specifically designed the Toyer Framework® to ensure that economic development strategic planning in these smaller communities is structured to:

  1. Catalog a community’s physical and other assets
  2. Articulate a community’s SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities & threats)
  3. Define a community vision and identify priority projects
  4. Resolve inconsistencies among past plans and differing community visions
  5. Define the roles and responsibilities of key community stakeholders
  6. Establish an adoptable, actionable 1-3 year work plan

Click to learn about the Toyer Framework®

Toyer Framework® is a registered trademark of Toyer Strategic Consulting, LLC.

Planning Has Gone to the Birds

Given my title, I already know what you’re thinking:  “Planning has gone to the birds, huh?”  “Have you lost your mind Toyer?”  “What is your beef with planning?”

Answers (in reverse order to your questions): I don’t have anything against planning, but I am concerned about how we are planning.  No, I’ve not lost my mind.  Yes, this is a story about planning and birds.  Intrigued?  Then read on.

Last week I was a small community’s economic development plan while my wife was taking down a wreath on the front door of our house in the Midwest.  My wife loves to decorate for every holiday, change in season, or occasion that Hobby Lobby says exists, buying a new wreath to hang on the front door.  I never knew so many wreathes exist!

The problem develops every April when birds are looking to build nests and an unsuspecting bird family thinks the wreath is a great spot to build their nest.  But after several years of seeing this happen, I have begun to believe there’s something wrong with the birds’ planning process.

In fact, what I’ve seen on my porch combined with what I see regular when I sit down to review plans has convinced me planning has a problem and it’s not just a bird thing.

But, sticking with the story, imagine if birds knew about modern planning and related processes like SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) assessments.  If they did, would they not figure out that the wreath was a lousy location for their next home?

Problems with SWOT

Let’s be the birds for a minute.  The wreath resembles a snag of brush or tangle of tree.  It’s tucked back from the open elements and, at least in appearance, offers a higher level of protection from the severe thunderstorms and daily wind that adjacent foliage does not.  And being perched higher than much of the area around with a roof above and a wall to one side, the area to be watched for approaching predators is greatly reduced.  Strengths.

But on the downside, the location is a further from their conveniences (grass, flowers and trees where food is) and being more in the shade means the days and nights will be cooler.  Weakness.

As far as the design of the nest goes, there’s a strong likelihood that building the nest here will require less effort, fewer resources and a shorter time frame for construction, giving the birds more time to do other bird things.  Opportunity.

Now about the threats.  (Head Scratch)  None, because the strengths kind of outweigh the weaknesses and everything seems to be otherwise perfect.  Right?

Unfortunately no.  Here’s what goes wrong for the birds:

Unless you’ve experienced the weather in this location you wouldn’t know that the prevailing winds come from the west, catching the north corner of the porch and swirling back toward the corner where the wreath is located.  In fact, if they had observed this, they’d know the winds can circle so strongly that they lift the wreath up and drop it against the door like a old brass door knocker.

While we don’t use our front door often, we occasionally have a visitor or package delivered and the door must be opened.  With higher Spring humidity swelling the door a touch, opening the door requires a bit more of a tug.  As the door opens, this creates an action that causes the wreath to separate from the door like being pulled back in the seat of an accelerating car, but followed immediately by crashing back into the door like the car hitting a jersey barrier at 65.

Things have never gone well for the birds at this location.  They wind up building and rebuilding the nest.  And even when they’ve had eggs, they’ve rarely had any hatch.

This story highlights two of the biggest failures with SWOT in planning:

  1. Unacknowledged Unknowns.  Most SWOTs fail to identify what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously referred to as the “Unknown, Unknowns.”  And while they are unknowns for a reason, they are also the blind spot from which  “disruption” typically appears.
  2. Predispositions. The failure to anticipate unknown, unknowns is a matter of our being predisposed to see our surroundings a certain way as well as to value strengthens above weaknesses and threats.  Added to the fact “Threats” are usually discussed last, further devalues the significance of considering what the worse things are that could happen to a plan.

Overcoming these obstacles requires more attention to “threats” and a willingness to accept a condition that something bad will happen.  This requires strategies for the execution of a plan that frequently look for emerging threats and strategies that all plans to be adjusted timely.

But it’s not just flawed SWOT that is bringing down the nest.

Looking Deeper at Planning Predispositions

Planning has become part of life, literally.  Liking brushing teeth.  Both of which we aren’t necessarily done as frequently as they should be.  Why?

We have made planning into an image of what we think a great plan is supposed to look and act like.  In fact, we are convinced great plans:

  1. Must be comprehensive, because what’s the point of planning, if not to be exceptionally thorough
  2. And by comprehensive, we are certain planning must feature:
    • Months of process and the involvement by groups, teams and/or committees of colleagues and/or stakeholders
    • Plans need to be explained, so prefaces and forewords are inserted to describe past plans and how this plan was created
    • History can’t be repeated so a description of everything prior to this plan’s creation is described ad nauseum to prove the “context” of the present is understood
  3. There must be lots of data.  A full and complete regurgitation of historical and current information collected or quantified at the time of the plan whether it relates to data points the plan should measure going forward or not

In regards to data, I liken it to my middle school Algebra teacher in my head reminding me, “Show your work.”  Because you can’t simply have the right answer, you have to demonstrate how you got the right answer.  However, such a philosophy is to a degree correct, but taken to this extreme in planning, it’s a waste of time.

This vision we’ve created is thus often justified (wrongly) by assuming that “comprehensive” plans are like luxury cars: expensive because they look better, have more features, and impress others.  But that doesn’t answer why we plan this way.

The deeper answer is that we have allowed “self” (both individually and collectively) to influence planning.  In this context, “self” as a participant is not seen as a double-edge sword.  While it brings diversity of thought, experience and opinion to the table, it also invites three dangerous influences to the party:

  1. Fear of judgement. Deep down we fear being judged.  In planning, we/I fear that someone, sometime will read the plan and we/I want them to be impressed with the work we/I did.  We/I want validation that the time and resources spent on planning were worth it.  Conversely, we/I fear someone will read the plan and see a failure because [______] was left out.
  2. Pride and Ownership. Whether the motivation is pride or ownership (or the desire to leave a legacy), we/I want to be a part of creating something grand.  This can influence planning as we/I start to view of the plan as the action or the accomplishment, and believing falsely that the plan is legacy we create (by the way, it’s usually not a great legacy when this is the thinking).  In contrast the real legacy of planning is the movement of a business, organization or community closer to its vision – movement that takes place when goals of the plan are accomplished.

By the way, when I see a list of the planning participants in the first five pages of a plan, it’s a strong sign that this error has been made.

  1. The Naivety of Wishing. As we got older we had to reconcile the difference between needs and wants.  But like the magic of Disney’s when we wish upon a star. . . our inner, raw optimism comes out too often in planning and we shift the focus of the plan towards wishful thinking.  A process that leads to seeing the future of the business, organization or community as something that it cannot realistically become.

Conclusion

Planning is critical and necessary, but it’s become more of a commodity than a strategy.  Like milk, it’s a so-called “staple” of our daily diet.  Something we generally have to share with others.  And if handled improperly or kept too long it goes bad.

Now is the time to refocus planning around three key elements:

  1. Avoid the trap of “comprehensive” planning.  Refocus the planning process develop a strategy that’s appropriate, actionable, and adaptable.
  2. Respect real-time data and leave the irrelevant past behind.  We are in a new world and historical data has limited value. Focus instead on how evaluate real-time information and the processes you need in place to adapt to current and emerging conditions.
  3. Set an expiration date and refresh or replace the plan.  A plan is only good if you use it and all plans have a self life.  Plans needs to include ways to evaluate and measure what is finished, processes to adjust the strategies and a reasonable time period for completion or replacement.

About the Author
David Toyer is the founder of Toyer Strategic Consulting and an entrepreneur, economic developer, land use adviser and recovering lobbyist with nearly two decades of experience turning ideas into finished projects. He’s also the creator of Toyer Framework™ – an approach to creating more efficient and effective economic development plans in communities 50,000 or less in population.  For more information about David Toyer or Toyer Strategic Consulting, visit www.toyerstrategic.com.

 

 

Pellerin Annexation Hits Milestone

Click here for a map of the Pellerin Annexation.

David Toyer, founder of Toyer Strategic Consulting and a native of Lake Stevens, is leading several annexation efforts to finally unite Lake Stevens as one community around the lake.

The first of the annexations to achieve a 60% petition is a 27 acre area known as “Pellerin.”

Here’s an overview:

  • On October 3, 2017 we submitted a 10% notice of intent to annexation the area known as “Pellerin” to the City of Lake Stevens.
  • On December 12, 2017 the City Council for the City of Lake Stevens adopted Resolution 2017-021, authorizing circulation of a 60% petition.
  • On December 21, 2017 we submitted a 60% annexation petition to the City of Lake Stevens, seeking annexation of approximately 27 acres.
  • Submission of the 60% petition now requires the City of Lake Stevens to hold a public hearing to formally consider annexation of the area.
  • If annexed, the Pellerin area would have a comprehensive plan designation of medium density residential (MDR) and zoning of high urban residential (HUR).
  • We expect the public hearing to occur in late January or early February of 2018.