Baby Steps To Breakthrough In Regional Economic Development

    What_About_Bob__001Creativity, Innovation, and Economic Development — Embracing the Challenge

    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:

    1. Get a project in motion. Find a problem, start solving it with a structured process like CPS*.
    2. Create a small success.
    3. Then do another project. As Bill Murray’s character in What About Bob found so enabling — it’s about Baby Steps.
    4. 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.



    Want Innovation? Ask.

    Not everything about innovation is complicated. I recently gave a creative problem solving workshop to a group of scientists who all worked for the same outfit. It was a lively session. In addition to learning structured creative problem solving (Osborn-Parnes-Basadur framework) we did some short bits of ideation around new business concepts. This was more as a sampler than it was a real session. It wasn’t the goal of the session to reinvent their business, nonetheless, in a short time there were some relevant business growth ideas with potential on the table. An executive with the company remarked after the session that “nobody ever comes to me” with new business ideas. Talking more with this man a reason why emerged:

    Read More..

    Four Criteria for Hiring an Innovation Speaker

    Four Criteria for Hiring an Innovation Keynoter Let this post work as a guide for meeting planners. You don’t have to hire me as your innovation speaker, but if you hire one, you’ll be well served if you pay attention to these four criteria and my comments in bold. Innovation is a complex, wonky topic and it has some special requirements that go beyond the classic things meeting planners look for in a speaker. Let’s keep this simple and as neutral as possible — my shameless personal plug is at the very bottom. I’m even going to suggest my competition here. So here goes, in my view an Innovation Speaker should: 1. Have a background as a successful entrepreneur and/or

    Read More..

    Rural Broadband Necessary for Rural Innovation

    Tuesday– September 23, 2014 It’s nice to see that people are recognizing that innovation isn’t always in Silicon Valley. Writing you today from the countryside in Three Oaks, Michigan, aka “Michiana” — where my poky web access is satellite based. Steve Case’s article earlier this week in the Washington Post  – Why innovation and start-ups are thriving in ‘flyover’ country –  is spot on. Case, you may recall, was co-founder of AOL. He correctly identifies the reasons why Chicago, Denver, Cincinnati, and other smaller cities are becoming vibrant centers of start-ups. He’s asking for investments of time and money to be made in order to further the trend. I agree, and… He didn’t go far enough with his article — he missed one

    Read More..

    Big Imagination is Blind Spot Remover

    Coming back from a trip to Toronto (visiting with the amazing Min Basadur) I spotted an interesting billboard at O’Hare airport. IBM suggests they can help “Remove the Blind Spots from Your Business” — by using Big Data and analytics. The visual of a man at a kind of virtual desktop that has visibility to ships, trucks, retail, and factories indicates that if you can just know more about what’s going on out there you’ll have nothing to worry about. If only that were so. I’m not bad rapping IBM here, I’m sure they can indeed provide lots of interesting insight using Big Data and analytics. Many companies would be well served to do a better job with this. Using

    Read More..

    Training is an Innovation Accelerant

    Creativity and innovation training is a highly effective accelerant for business results. When I step into a room to facilitate an innovation, strategy, or idea generation session I nearly always find a great deal of energy. What I also often find is inexperience — in the kind of thinking necessary to innovate. Successful managers and leaders are promoted up the ladder because of their great analytical thinking skills. Day to day, operationally, that’s what’s called for and that’s what’s rewarded. The bad news is the more imaginative and divergent thinking required at the front end of innovation is rarely used and almost never rewarded. That’s why those sessions often start with a great deal of pizazz but fade into lethargy

    Read More..

    Support RAMI

    We Can’t Get Serious About Manufacturing Soon Enough. I support RAMI. I read with interest a post on the congressional blog The Hill. In a rare example of cross party cooperation it would appear that the Senate is taking action on supporting growth in our manufacturing sector. Do read the piece but in essence the idea is to set up a national network for manufacturing innovation. This would build on the pilot center/hubs for innovation already set up by the Obama administration. Kudos to Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Roy Blunt (R-Missouri). I like your style gentlemen — first for working in a true bipartisan manner, and secondly for doing it on something so important. The bill is called Revitalize American Manufacturing and Innovation Act (RAMI). Congressman Tom Reed (R-New York) and

    Read More..

    Eleven Weird Ways to Create Innovation Culture

    Eleven Weird Ways to Create Innovation Culture Lately I’ve been seeing the glass half empty when it comes to innovation topics. I want everyone to know that, wow, can I ever be positive. In fact, highly creative and insightful, when it comes to inspiring innovation. Are you an empowered leader who wants to make something innovative happen? Try these Eleven Weird Ways — they work to improve the innovation culture. Surprise and delight the team. There’s nothing like a good surprise to inject new energy into a group. It can be really simple stuff. I once gave everyone on the staff a pair of Ray Bans. Smiles everywhere the rest of the day, and they wore those shades for years. Have

    Read More..

    Minimum Wage Boost in Silicon Valley Ups the Cinderella Factor

    Let’s put politics aside for a moment and pretend the minimum wage is not a party-centric issue. Let’s look at it from a pragmatic perspective if possible. Raising the minimum wage in Silicon Valley (beyond San Jose which has already done so) is a very important and rational thing to do for the economic health of the valley, California, and the USA economy as a whole. I’m sure a lot could be written about the class warfare aspect of this, but to me, the innovation guy, that’s not the key issue. The issue is continuing the incredible innovation that happens in Silicon Valley. As of March 2014 it’s 87% more expensive to live in Silicon Valley than the USA average.

    Read More..

    Six Reasons Why Employees Shun Innovation

    Leadership is Uninvolved with Innovation. Yes, I just said that. Take me out to the wall and shoot me — but in many companies this is a major problem. I used to frequent a bagel shop on the south side of Chicago. It wasn’t a chain. Just a small business with great tasting bagels in a good location. I popped in one day about 9:00 am for a raisin bagel with cream cheese and was a bit startled to find myself the only customer in the store. I remarked to the young lady behind the counter that it was pretty quiet for that time of day. She said, with no irony, “isn’t that great!” I’ll skip the fake ‘I’m so

    Read More..