Better Questions Means Better Answers for Regional Economic Development
It’s about Attitudes, Projects, and Baby Steps
Economic Development is important and challenging work. Having just interviewed players in this field and surveyed some regional initiatives — it’s clear that innovative work is being done in regional economic development — by some.
I suspect that many in the field find the economic development challenge overwhelming. A bit like the Bob character in What about Bob, it’s tough to be creative when you are afraid to take a simple step. Thank you Bill Murray for a memorable character.
Let’s face it, some regions always seem to lose out on the new plant. Some cities struggle along and never seem to get over that post-manufacturing-exodus hump. On the flip side, you look at a city like South Bend and you see how things can be turned around with positive creative action. Ten years ago South Bend was on the brink of collapse. They still have a ways to go, but they’ve made some amazing progress.
If you’re trying to grow a rural region, or a town off the beaten track, or an area saddled with mediocre infrastructure, you’re behind the eight ball before you even start. Big city economic developers have a different set of issues — negative perceptions of the cities brand, lack of cooperation from key players, blighted areas, talent draining to sexier places to live, unions, etc.
Everyone wants a breakthrough idea, be it a clear point-of-difference, a “nowhere but here” claim, a rich talent pool, and an authentic and attractive brand. Breakthrough ideas are slippery and elusive in every domain — and economic development just might be the slipperiest of all.
Applying creativity to the economic development is where it starts — and that’s a tough place to begin. If you don’t think you’re creative (and half of all people don’t) the elusive idea becomes the impossible idea. Doing better with economic development might just start with personal attitude about creativity.
But it’s much more than an econ developer’s creativity. It’s about the collective creativity of the whole community.
Richard Florida states that creative people (the definition is far broader than artists, he calls creative workers “High Bohemians”) are the foundation for economic growth. How do you attract those classically creative types? Those young entrepreneurs, designers, engineers? How do you get them to bet their lives and careers on your region? What’s the compelling idea that has them putting down stakes? I’ll suggest that it’s not usually about money, it’s more about life style. What kind of life style does your region support? Is it open, tolerant, accepting, and fun? Does your region invite makers and entrepreneurs? Does your region support the arts and cultural events? Notice that all those touchy-feely things are essentially choices. The ideas flowing from these questions might require funding, but the choice and the attitude cost nothing.
Beyond attitudes, better economic development really gets going with better questions. Generating ideas on the platform of the same old questions is likely to get you the same old ideas that don’t quite work, or are not truly exciting and breakthrough. Better questions means better answers.
I have empathy for those folks trying to make something happen. It’s a given that creativity is hard to get your arms around. It’s a mushy concept filled with myth, mystery, and mayhem. It shouldn’t be such a mystery but for many it remains one. Here’s a starting point to rethink your view of creativity: Creativity is less about the arts and self expression and more about something Economic Development types do everyday — complex problem solving.
The good news is creativity is not that hard to understand with the new and more accurate lens of complex problem solving. The bad news is creativity alone gets you nothing. It’s innovation that turns a mountain spring into bottled water — a product on the shelf ready for purchase.
Make no mistake: innovation is complex and difficult. My colleague in innovation consulting crime Bob Eckert identifies twelve factors, somewhat akin to the Boy Scout oath (leadership, resources, experimentation, talent, technology, focus, etc.) any one of which can hose your innovation effort. We need look no further than Kodak to understand that money, resources, and talent do not necessarily win in the long run — Leadership can muck it all up. Lack of talent can take a well constructed effort and turn it to dust.
That’s why Innovation — in the realm of Economic Development — might be the toughest innovation challenge of all.
Why? Because the complexities are magnified by the scope.
All of us must come to terms with our personal creativity, that is, if we want to be more creatively effective. Then, as leaders, we must cope with the creativity and innovative capacity of a team, or more broadly, an organization. The more people involved the harder it gets because now you’re talking about culture. Culture change in an organization, say moving from an innovation resistant culture, to an embracing innovation culture, is a bear of a transition to make.
Then think about how an economic development group in a region, are in a sense are managers of the creativity and innovation for an entire area. With hundreds of other organizations and thousands of people, even millions of people, in an area. Moving the needle on creativity and inspiring meaningful real life innovation, in a region, is like tilting at windmills (cue music from Man of La Mancha). The thought is simply daunting. I would imagine that some think it impossible — and that’s a very bad headspace to be in if you’re trying to innovate. Take heart. Think Baby Steps.
The principles that drive successful innovation in an organization can also guide regional economic development.
It all starts with innovation projects. The only thing that changes culture is a project.
I repeat, the Only Thing That Changes Culture is a Project. Don’t take my word for it, listen to Joseph Juran the quality guru.
All improvement happens project by project and in no other way. — Joseph Juran
All the studies, theory, research, debate, and discussion is only helpful if they fuel a real world project. So, economic developers — Four Baby Steps for Economic Developers:
- Get a project in motion. Find a problem, start solving it with a structured process like CPS*.
- Create a small success.
- Then do another project. As Bill Murray’s character in What About Bob found so enabling — it’s about Baby Steps.
- It needs to be a continuous cycle of projects. Constant Baby Steps.
This is how you break down the complexity and take those baby steps that lead you up to that mountain top, that culture change, those elusive ideas and jobs.
I have more to say about the How, but I’ll end this by summing up my advice for economic developers: It’s about problem solving, it’s about better questions, and it’s about projects. Try my Four Things!
*CPS is easy to learn — read my business novel, Jack’s Notebook and in three hours you’ll have a complete understanding of this powerful framework for structured problem solving.