Excerpt: That Which Makes you Unique Makes You Valuable

This selection comes from an early chapter of The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  If you like it, you will probably like the whole book. You can learn more and order it in the format of your choice (print, digital, Kindle) right here.

 

That which makes you unique makes you valuable

 

My biggest difficulty in Christmas shopping (other than trying to remember which Lego set the younger kid said was the really wonderful one, and which one was lame),  is trying to find something that will be unique and valuable for the person who will get it.

To be sure, I don’t strive for that for everyone — the gift for Great Aunt Sophie doesn’t always get the same level of thought as others — but to the extent that I can, for the people who really matter to me, I am looking for something that is

  • different from what they will get from anyone else,grocery store shelf
  • different from what they already have, and
  • something that they will value.

So for my cool sister-in-law, I am looking for a funky necklace made out of natural materials.  For my niece, I am looking for an outfit that captures her free spirit and will look great on her.   For my kids… well, you know, we get a list, most of which is incomprehensible to me anyways.   Nevermind.

But here’s the kicker: I will probably be willing to pay at least a little bit more for the perfect funky necklace or free-spirit outfit than I would for a typical string of beads or a boring t-shirt and pants.

And because that’s what I am looking for, I am also more likely to stray from the beaten path and go shopping somewhere other than Target.

The germ of the thought is this: That which makes a place unique makes it more valuable to the people who want it. And since we harp constantly on the need to win and retain Talent (the potential employees who have the skills we value), becoming valuable to at least some subset of that Talent matter more than ever. Talent will typically value your community more, care about it more, invest in it more, if the experience you offer differs in a valuable way from what they can get somewhere else.

A lot of times it’s easy to see our communities as commodities, like the plastic toys on a shelf in a big store.  If I can get the same transforming thingamabob at Big Box A vs. Big Box B, then I will probably buy it where it’s cheapest.  That’s the general retail Race to the Bottom — if there is nothing that makes your store different other than price, then you will win or lose based on how cheap you are.  Any other factors go out the window.

But if you are the only store that carries the way cool thingamabob, then you not only win the sale, but you don’t have to charge the rock-bottom price, right?

It’s the same with our communities.   If we regard them – and promote them – as commodities, then the only way that we attract new businesses or people – or keep the people and businesses that have the wherewithal to go elsewhere (typically, that’s our Talent) – is if we make ourselves the lowest-price option.

That is what economic development incentives were about in the first place – making the costs of a location lower, or at least even with, the competition.

Think about it:  If my community sales pitch is that ” we are within 600 miles of 75% of the United States,” and hundreds of other communities can make the same claim, then what reason does any Talented entrepreneur or business operator have to come to my community – unless I am the cheapest?

And when I am no longer the cheapest, what reason do they have to stay?

Our communities’ ability to succeed long-term depends on our ability to capitalize on and communicate those features that make our community unique, and therefore valuable.

 

___

There are a lot of elements of any community that are nice but numbingly common – “we have a great work ethic,”  “we have rail service,” etc.    But it’s the unique elements – the ones that make your community different, the ones that cannot be replicated by someone else – that will make you more valuable to someone than anything incentive you can offer.  If you are not playing to your uniqueness, then you are joining the Grand Caravan of Commodities on the Race to the Bottom.

A couple of important words of warning, though.

 

  • First, what is unique and valuable to one person is a white elephant to another.  If you establish yourself as something unique, you become like a gourmet cheese — people will either pay more for your one-of-a-kind taste and texture, or they will drop you back on the shelf when they get a whiff of you.   If your downtown is renowned as the Victorian Antiques Capital of Your State,  a lot of people would consider  that a point in favor of moving there.  I myself, on the other hand, will probably look somewhere else
  • Second, fake uniqueness will hurt you worse in the long run than being a commodity. There’s a refrain/long Twitter hashtag that I’ll throw out in a later chapter: “#LookWhatYouCantGetAwayWithAnymore.” Trust me on that one for now.
  • Third, remember that your community has many aspects that make it unique, and it is that entire package, not just one Claim to Fame, that Talent will be looking for. And different elements will appeal to different Talent groups. And that’s a good thing. Relying on one Talent group would be like relying on one industry to employ everyone in town. We should have learned by not that that’s not the most prudent idea.

 

 

The Wise Economy Manifesto, version 2.0

This is a selection from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  If you like what you read here, you’ll probably like what you read in the book.  Learn how you can pick it up in print or for your Kindle, iPad or other electronic reader right here.  

In 2010, I left a Big Engineering Firm to start my own practice.  I knew there was stuff that was rolling around in the back of my head that increasingly conflicted with what staff in Big Engineering Firms usually get to do, and I’d reached a point where that conflict wasn’t sustainable if I wanted my brain to stay in one piece.

By that point, I had worked with communities in the U.S. doing assorted kinds of planning for a lot of years.  I’d stood in the midst of places that were thriving, and I’d walked with staff and residents through places that were collapsing.  From what I saw and what I knew about economies, planning, organizations and psychology, I found myself in a small but growing army of folks advocating for a deep-seated reset to how we who deal with communities do the important work we do – convinced that the needs are bigger than a new program or a new method.

And because my experience had covered so many different kinds of situations, I was inclined to seek a holistic approach – a sort of universal theory that made sense of the fundamentals that seemed to underlie what was going on.

So I wrote a thing called the Wise Economy Manifesto, and in it I tried to encapsulate everything I was thinking.  Which is usually a really bad idea.  And while I thought at the time that the Manifesto part had a cool ring to it, now it strikes me as a little pompous.  But like most of what we put on the internet, it’s out there, and it’s my own baby, goofy as it may look.

So it’s not perfect, but I think it gives a decent framework for the big issues we’ll be discussing.

  • Communities are human ecosystems. Everything we do, whether a land use plan or an economic development incentive, or any other public policy, isn’t going to stay in the silo where we put it.  What we do will have wide and deep, and often unintended, repercussions, and we need to change how we work and think to anticipate those as best we can.

 

  • That which makes you unique makes you valuable. Communities cannot offer everything to everyone, and they shouldn’t try to.  The great challenge of planning and economic development is to uncover, brush off, and illuminate those characteristics that make a place deeply, meaningfully unique.  There is little value in being a commodity, but much opportunity in a well-defined niche.

 

  • We have to focus on cultivating our native economic species. The thing that grows naturally where you are can, with a little help and protection, provide more long-term benefit (and fewer of those unintended repercussions), than the exotics that we try to transplant at great cost.  In this era, the chase after the flashy, the big, the long shot, is too costly and too risky to deserve the lion’s share of our attention.

 

  • Beware the magic pill. We all want easy answers; we all want there to be a simple solution.  There isn’t one.  We have to get used to it, and commit ourselves to incremental, complex, messy change.

 

  • Crowdsourced wisdom is the best way to find a real solution. We have tough challenges in front of us, and we need all the bright ideas that we can get.  Our communities are full of those bright idea sources, and they know things that we don’t.  But just like water needs to be guided into a channel before it can drive a turbine, we have to take the lead in guiding our community’s wisdom into fruitful efforts.  An open mic in the middle of the room ain’t gonna cut it.

 

  • We who have the job of helping communities work better have to be brave. We have to reconnect to the reasons why we got into this, before the rules and bureaucracy and politics tried to beat it out of us. Whether we want to or not, we are going to be on the front line of the fight for new solutions, and we are going to be useless if we are just punching the clock or wandering from election to election.  We have to critically re-assess our professions and organizations and communities, and find the fortitude to break through the walls that are keeping our communities from being successful.  We cannot be foolhardy, and we must admit that we don’t have all the answers.  But we have to be brave enough to do our job, and to lead the expedition.


This is a selection from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  If you like what you read here, you’ll probably like what you read in the book.  Learn how you can pick it up in print or for your Kindle, iPad or other electronic reader right here.  

 

Random Excerpt: Economic Development Isn’t About Increasing Jobs. We Know That.

This a random selection from The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help.  It’s intended to give you a little taste of what you’ll find inside the book.  Like one of those little tester spoons of ice cream, but this one isn’t going to trick you into thinking you want the triple sundae that will give you a stomachache and a big dose of regret.  At least I hope it won’t give you a stomachache.  Hm.  

If you like what you read, check out the book here.

_______________________

Economic Development isn’t really about just increasing the number of businesses or the number of jobs.  We all know that.

The reason why communities do economic development, why they invest time and resources in it, is to make sure that the local economy has what it needs and is doing what it is necessary to support the health of the overall system.  The purpose of economic development, at its core, is to help the community become stronger by making sure that the economic part of the ecosystem is fulfilling its role adequately.

Here’s the hard truth, though: it’s a hell of a lot easier to define our economic development work, and to measure our achievements, if we cast our work in terms of “winning new businesses” instead of “facilitating the health of the local economy.”

It’s a lot easier to count new jobs, or new employers, or hits on the web site, or hands shaken at the International Shopping Centers Conference, than it is to evaluate whether we are actually creating a healthier local economy.  That is, unless we have a clear plan and are measuring the right kinds of improvements.  We can certainly do a clear plan and accurate measurements—there are a lot of resources out there that can help us do that.

The big barrier isn’t technique.  The big barrier is that meaningful action and evaluation to determine if you’re actually improving the local economy take more honest thought and stronger leadership than just chasing anything that moves and claiming every minimum wage job as a “victory.”

So more often than not, we count the web site hits and handshakes, we shoot what flies and claim what falls, and assume (or take on faith) that our trumpeted achievements are somehow supporting the community’s ecosystem.  But we never ask how, or check whether that’s really happening.  And then we wonder why it seems like the big picture never gets better.

Economic developers are starting to figure out that “quality of life” has something important to do with the ability to grow a local economy, but until our understanding of the interdependence of the economy on the rest of the community ecosystem takes root, it’s going to be far too easy to default to old measures — measures that often hide whether our efforts are helping the larger community or hurting it.

I pick on economic developers a lot — and the goal of this book is to get people who deal with economic development to change how we work. But the truth is that there is more than enough blame to spread around.

When urban planners fall into the trap of assuming that a single physical strategy, such as Complete Streets or New Urbanism or Urban Renewal or any of the other catch phrases through the years, will have a “catalytic” effect on the local economy, it’s the same error at work: we are not fully thinking about the entire ecosystem.  People who do not have good economic prospects or are insecure about their jobs may use the bike lanes out of necessity, but may not shop in the stores by the bike lane like we anticipated.

Silos. Not only can you not get from one to the other easily, but — they’re airtight. Can’t…breathe…. From wikipedia.

We oversimplify the ecosystem, we stay in our silos and stick to our simple solutions, because it’s intellectually easier.  It’s easier to say “My stuff is important, yours isn’t” than to try to look rationally at the whole range of issues and understand how My Stuff fits into the whole system.

If we pretend that we don’t have to worry about those overlapping impacts, if we pretend that our communities are nice simple frontier towns with lots of empty land to absorb those impacts and a small group of people to accommodate, then perhaps we can continue to pretend it’s all simple.  After all, if we screw it up too badly, we can move out into the scrub another five miles and start over.  All we need are new subdivisions, right?

We did that.  And it basically worked, until we ran out of empty land, or until those people that we were trying to accommodate become more numerous and more complicated.

But that’s where we are today.

If we are honest about the complexities of our communities, then we have to be honest about the fact that there are few, if any, simple solutions.  Economic Development issues don’t just impact businesses, and when we don’t see these related impacts, we will certainly feel their effects.  If we want to facilitate the health of the ecosystem, we have to work on a wide range of elements in concert.

Ideally, this is what planning of any stripe should do, whether economic development strategic plans or community comprehensive plans or any other variant on the theme.  It’s part of why it becomes increasingly important to plan for multiple possible futures – with this many moving parts, a certain level of uncertainty is inescapable.  But too often we only plan for My Stuff, not for the role our bailiwick plays in the larger system.

Random Excerpt: Vive la Revolucion

This random except actually comes from the foreword of The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help .  Sometimes random takes you to the beginning.  Go figure.  

Change sucks.

 

None of us want to live in a world where the basic assumptions that we framed our lives and work around are changing.  Methods that used to do what we wanted just fine stop working, assumptions we used to be able to rely on don’t apply any more, our carefully-guarded proverbial apple carts end up dumped all over the ground.

 

No wonder we often want to just stick our fingers in our ears and insist that everything’s fine, we just need to wait ‘til the good old days come back.

 

But in our guts, I think we all know: our economies and our communities are different now. When whatever good times come back if they come back, they’re probably not going to look like what we have today.

 

And frankly, that sucks.  And it especially sucks if you have responsibility for your community’s economic health — whether you’re a professional economic development or public administrator, an elected official, a board member or just one of those people who give a damn about the future of the place where you live.

 

It would be awful nice if the programs and incentives and tools and tricks we’ve been using since the 2000s, or the 1990s, or the 1980s or earlier, still worked. After all, we know what they are, we know what they do.  We like being able to point at simple success stories, cut ribbons, make the Mayor happy.  And that stuff makes our local economy better, right?  Isn’t that what we’re all about?

 

But what about when it doesn’t?

 

What about when it’s not?

 

This book is about helping all of us who care about our local economies recognize what’s changed and help us make a difference.  That’s scary, and yes, sometimes it sucks.  We’ll try to deal with that.

 

At the end of the day, though, I don’t think we have a choice.  As I’ll tell you in the next section, I’ve spent almost all of my life in the opening rounds of this change.  It’s affected pretty much everything I’ve encountered, both personally and professionally.  I think it’s past time to take the scales off of our eyes, own up soberly to the way the world has changed and is changing, and get on with the job of the Economic Development Revolution.

 

The good thing is that people are starting to do that — people all over the country and all over the world.  You’ll meet some of them here.  But we need more, a lot more.

 

So I hope you’ll join us and grab that change by the horns.  Perhaps more importantly, I hope that by the time you finish reading this thing, you’ll know that this deep change is possible.  And that you can help.

 

Vive la revolution.  Let’s go make it happen.

Random Excerpt: The Logic of Failure

Every week I crack open The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help to a random chapter, and copy what I find there into here.  If you like what you see here, you will probably like the book.  And if you don’t like what you see here, you might like the rest of the book anyways.  Ya never know until you try, right?

 

 

The Logic of Failure: Making better plans

When our plans fail us, it’s often because our blind spots, our limited assumptions and our overlooked mis-interpretations equipped us with a wrong or faulty strategy.  We often set ourselves up for that failure because we didn’t know and could not see all the things we were missing.

One of the books that has been most influential on my thinking over the past few years is a 20-year old volume with the catchy title The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations  by Dietrich Dorner.  The book details the results of a series of studies examining how people made decisions in complex and ambiguous environments.

Complex and ambiguous… sounds nothing like the communities we work with, right?

Add to that the fact that the participants were typically given economic development and public policy scenarios, and it starts to hit uneasily close to home.

In some respects, it’s a depressing read.  Participants in Dorner’s studies make a lot more mistakes than correct decisions, and much of the time they fail, miserably.  By studying the participants’ choices and assumptions closely, and doing that a mind-numbing number of times, Dorner develops a pretty reliable differentiation between those who made consistently good decisions, and those who set themselves up for disaster again and again.

Dorner illustrates a large number of differences in how successful and unsuccessful participants approach and manage the tasks.  Here is one that particularly stood out for me:

Both the good and the bad participants proposed with the same frequency hypotheses on what effect higher taxes, say, or an advertising campaign to promote tourism in Greenvale [an imaginary city] would have.  The good participants differed from the bad ones, however, in how often they tested their hypotheses.  The bad participants failed to do this.  For them, to propose a hypothesis was to understand reality; testing that hypothesis was unnecessary.  Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated “truths.”[i] [emphasis mine]

How often do we test our hypotheses?  How often do we assume that a project will have a certain impact without taking a hard look at whether those assumptions are sound?

How often do we go back and re-examine the basic assumptions that we built our last plan on?

How often have we generated our own “truth,” expended enormous resources on that truth, and then acted surprised when something hits us that we didn’t see coming?

Admitting that we might not have the Truth takes bravery.  Taking apart and examining the foundations of the structures we have built feels rightly dicey.  But the termites work silently until the structure falls down.

Since we know that even our best ideas can create unintended consequences, one of the most important things we can do is test our hypotheses – regularly, not just during the plan development phase, but before, and after.   We are perfectly capable of that.  We just need to do it.

___

A follow-on piece of guidance from Dr. Michael Roberto of Bryant University, from the Art of Critical Decision Making,Teaching Company lecture series. During the series, Dr. Roberto walks through two critical decision points of the John F. Kennedy presidential administration. During the first, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Kennedy made the decision to invade Cuba on the basis of advice from a small, relatively ad-hoc group of public policy advisors — a small group with so much “expertise” on the topic that they missed key information that fell outside their expectations… and set the invasion up for disaster.

When the Cuban Missile Crisis came along in 1962, Kennedy learned from that mistake, and he set up a completely different process for building his advisory team, establishing their objectives and enabling them to work through to a conclusion. More specifically, a conclusion that didn’t end with a nuclear war.

Dr. Roberto provides this summary of a key lesson from the Kennedy experience:

Many leaders fail because they think of decisions as events, not processes… We think of the decision maker sitting alone at a moment in time, pondering what choice to make.  However, most decisions involve a series of events and interactions that unfold over time.  Decisions involve processes that take place inside the minds of individuals, within groups, and across units of complex organizations.

When confronted with a tough issue, we focus on the question, “what decision should I make?”  We should first ask, “how should I go about making this decision?” [emphasis mine]

In most cases, the source of what happens probably lies in how we decided to decide.

 

[i] Dietrich Dorner, The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations.  Basic Books, 1996.  P. 26.

Random Excerpt: the Paper Machine and the Gardener

This is a random excerpt from The Local Economy Revolution.  Yes, it was really randomly selected.  But the book is not random.  Want to learn more? Check it out here.

paper machine

This is a paper machine. My husband ran one in the 1990s.  I’ve often said it’s the only job he ever had where I actually could say what the heck he did all day.  He made paper.

A paper machine is a huge hunk of equipment.  The whole machine usually extends about a thousand feet from one end to the other, so it’s about the length of an urban city block.  It has lots of parts that whizz and hiss and rumble and make noises so loud you need ear protection, and sometimes the paper coming off the end of it breaks and sends clouds of fuzzy confetti flying everywhere. It looks like controlled chaos, managed power, in action.  It’s really kind of cool.

 

Despite looking so impressive, paper machines do something that’s basically pretty simple: they take a slurry of water and paper pulp, and they suck out the water and squash the pulp together to turn it into paper. There are several steps to the process, and sometimes there’s lotion or scent or something that gets introduced into it along the way, but fundamentally, that’s what the paper machine does.  Evaporate and squash.

As you might imagine, a machine this size has tons of controls — levers and inputs and electronic doodads, and the technicians who run the thing have to be pretty well trained to keep it all working.  But fundamentally, all the pieces that they can manipulate do one of two things: they take water out, or they squash paper fibers together.

We tend too often to think of our local economies as paper machines.  We have a handful of lever and dials that we know that we can push or pull, and we assume (or tell ourselves) that we can get the outcomes we want for our local economies by twiddling those controls.  Sometimes we call those controls incentives, sometimes they’re sewer lines or land that we can sell at a deep discount, sometimes they’re slick marketing materials designed to show potential businesses that “Hey!!! We are awesome!!!”

The problem is, our communities aren’t much like paper machines at all.  They’re more like forests or farms or gardens.

For a plant to grow requires a wide range of conditions — the right soils, the right amount of rain, the right amount of sun or shade, the right pollinating insects and the absence of the right kind of pests.  Some plants have higher ranges of tolerances than others — some of the flowers in my yard, for example, wilt when the temperature gets above 90, while the weeds could apparently survive a nuclear blast.

The main thing that makes a garden different from a paper machine, though, is the degree to which we lack direct control over many of those factors.  I can’t change the number of hours in a day that the sun shines, and I can’t ensure enough of a supply of the pollinators that my fruit trees want if something in the next yard over keeps eating them.

Not only do we lack direct control, we have to accept the fact that we lack direct control. Berating the sun to stay in the sky longer, or trying to pollinate each apple blossom by hand, don’t sound like helpful solutions.

Random Excerpt: Externalities R Us

Every so often, I open The Local Economy Revolution to a random location and copy down here what I find.  Intrigued by what you read? You can get the whole book here.  

The easiest unintended consequences to figure out are those that will impact me directly – the ones that will come back to bite me in the butt.  If I am thinking about putting an addition on my house that I really can’t afford, and doing so will put me at risk of being unable to pay all my other bills, then the potential unintended consequences of my choice to add onto my house are pretty obvious. Since I will have to deal directly and immediately with those unintended consequences, they are part of my system – that means that these consequences should be relatively easy to see, if I am honest with myself about what all might happen.  I might delude myself into thinking I can have it all, but that’s not failing to think ahead.  That’s just being a dumbass.

The hardest, and potentially most troubling, types of unintended consequences fall into a group that traditional invisible-hand economics call “externalities.”   These are the impacts of a decision that accrue to someone or something else — the impacts are external to the person or organization that made the decision.

Traditional economic theory placed externalities outside of the economy – the externality was experienced by someone other than the economic actors, so it was not part of the economic activity.  Terming something an “externality” was a way to exclude it from the equation.

Of course, it’s not that simple.

As I mentioned, my father and grandfather ran a small paint company in the 1960s and 1970s.  In those days, there were few rules regulating hazardous materials, and most of the compounds in paint hadn’t been officially recognized as hazardous anyways.  Like most paint factories, theirs generated lots of garbage – batches of paint that didn’t come out right, test pots, empty containers, broken equipment, etc.

The company was located on the edge of a steep gorge that ran through town … and standard operating procedure at the factory was to toss the cans, pots and other garbage over the hillside.  This wasn’t uncommon – people used to use that gorge to discard a lot of types of refuse.  I remember 1950s-era car fenders and mattresses in the brush along the hillside farther downriver.

The company closed in the early 1980s, and as far as I know all of the officers and stockholders are dead.  But the old paint cans on the side of the gorge are probably still leaking – my brothers, who still live in the area, have heard friends talk about seeing rainbow-colored scum on the creek surface downstream from the factory site.

When the day comes when that property gets cleaned up, it won’t be my dad’s company doing it.  Instead, it will probably be the state Environmental Protection Agency.  Which means that, even though I didn’t do the polluting, as a taxpayer, I and all of my neighbors across the state will pick up the tab.