Thoughts about business and economic development in rural areas.


October 2008
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Archive for October, 2008

Attitude: A Community Issue?

Recently helped a community with a business planning session. Nothing unusual with that. Many of us have led or participated in countless sessions like this. What I found different about this session was the results.

Out topic was, “Building a Better Business Community” and we used a modified version of the Storyboarding planning method. Under the header “Obstacles” the group listed 70 items. The group then combined the ones that they felt were so close in meaning as to really be the same and they then voted in response to the question, “Which of these obstacles are most likely to stand in our way as we try to build a better business community.” I have them individually choose their top three and use a weighted voting system (3 points for their first choice, 2 points for second choice, etc.) and we then tallied the results.

The results showed two obstacles that rose head and shoulders above the rest. One was a contentious local issue that they had long faced. No surprise there. The second was “Resistance to Change”. Now attitudinal obstacles regularly show up in planning sessions like these but in my experience they rarely command center stage. I was even more surprised when I compiled the follow-up report and saw that over half of the 70 obstacles brought up during the initial brainstorming session dealt in one way or another with attitude.

I later discussed the results with an area economic development specialist who was familiar with the community. She said that a similar thing had happened as she helped a different community develop their comprehensive plan.

Ok, you’re probably saying, “So what?” Well here’s the deal. In my 20+ years of community development work the focus was almost always on physical things. And we responded. We build industrial parks, added infrastructure, spruced up the downtown facades, identified available buildings and provided job skill training. ‘Attitude’ was thought about but the focus was always on developing actions that resulted in something we could touch. Something we could see. 

And now we have community business leaders saying the lead obstacles they face are things we can’t see or touch but involve more of a sense of ‘feel’. Is this a real shift in priorities or is this an isolated incident? Have we made so much progress in addressing the physical obstacles that we now have time to give attitudinal ones some extra attention? Or have attitudinal issues increased to the point that they have pushed their way to the front and can no longer be ignored?

Whatever the case, dealing with these issues offers a whole new set of challenges. How do you benchmark attitude? How do you measure improvements? How do you incorporate a program for attitudinal change into your economic and community development efforts?

In comparison building an industrial park begins to look easy. And I never thought I’d ever say something like that. Will ‘Improving Attitude’ become the hot new community economic development issue?

Somebody oughtta…

Went to a community meeting recently that was well attended by folks who felt that something should be done about an issue. Great to see the enthusiasm but by the end of the evening it was obvious that something was missing.

OWNERSHIP! Not leadership, but ownership. There were many very capable leaders in the audience but what has not surfaced to this point is the group that will agree to passionately ‘own’ the idea. Everyone had opinions and shared them willingly but it was obvious at the end of the evening that everyone was looking to someone else to take the issue and run with it.

I think floating ideas is a great exercise but if there are no passionate champions at the end of the discussion we have to be ready to walk away even if everyone agrees that the idea is a basically good one. Pointing a finger at someone else and saying ‘Somebody ought to…’ is not the solution. In fact, assigning the task of implementing an idea to a group or agency that hasn’t taken ownership is a complete waste of time and money.

So what should we do?
1) Get people who are interested in the idea together for a discussion
2) If there is something worth pursuing, start a basic planning process.
3) If at the end of the basic planning process no one has expressed passionate ownership of the idea, admit it and go on to other business.

Life’s too short and money’s too scarce to spend either on even good projects that don’t have passionate champions and real owners.

The final line should never be, “Somebody oughtta…!”

Welcome to……..

I never cease to be amazed by how easy it is to miss the basics. I was recently reminded of this on my last visit to Wal-Mart. Several years ago when they were new to our state, a Wal-Mart came to a nearby community and everyone had to go check it out. And when folks came from their first visit what do you think they were talking about? The size of the store? The low prices? The tons of merchandise? Nope. Everyone was talking about the greeter and how he welcomed them to the store when they walked in.

Wasn’t it sad that this simple courtesy had become such an unusual occurrence in our lives. Wal-Mart gained a big advantage over many local businesses by starting with the basics.

Well guess what? Wal-Mart is losing that edge. I’d like to say that all the other businesses got the lesson and now extend a friendly greeting to all who visit their stores but no, sadly it seems to be working the other way. Wal-Mart’s greeters are still there but the smile is gone and the greeting is perfunctory at best. I can almost see the replacement ‘Welcome’ sign coming to those sliding doors.

But our desire as customers to be greeted with a smile and an enthusiastic welcome hasn’t gone away. Last I checked it was stronger than ever.

And here’s another place we can use this simple courtesy. A while ago I talked about the importance of economic developers getting out of the office on a regular basis and personally visiting the communities they serve. Well, one of the best things you can be doing on those visits is to stop in to welcome the folks at any new shop or business you encounter. Sure the Chamber may have already had a ribbon cutting or presentation of a ‘first buck’ plaque, but that doesn’t mean you can’t welcome them as well. And bring the mayor or village president along. She may have been at the ribbon cutting but another visit to ‘see how things are going’ will be appreciated by the new business. (And by the mayor as well.)

Powerful, powerful tool. And it doesn’t cost you a dime.

The UNIQUE Factor

Sometimes we forget what makes our communities and businesses special. We get so accustomed to what we have that we either don’t notice it at all or we think that every community or business has the exact same things to offer. When we try to market ourselves we trot out the same brochure, the same webpage and the same trite phrases as everyone else. Oh, the photos and logos differ but that’s often about the extent of it. Then we wonder why our clients fail to see us as special. From their viewpoint we all end up looking pretty much the same.

Had a couple of reminders of that recently. I worked with a community center that is trying to expand its use by community members. We did a quick listing of advantages the center had to offer and I think most people were actually surprised by the length of the list.

I was also able to contribute one or two that others may have considered unique due to my experience as a trainer and speaker. The place has great acoustics and hearing a speaker is easier there than at almost any other venue in the area. That’s something I notice because of my personal background and am even more conscious of as I begin to suffer some of the hearing related issues that go with the aging process. If we hadn’t done the list would their attempts at promotion focus on what can really be quantifiable differences from the client’s perspective or would the group wind up doing the ‘same old, same old?’

Yesterday I took a drive to a nearby community that is on the Mississippi River. I stopped along the river dock and noticed an excursion boat about to take on a load of passengers. I asked if they had room for one more and after paying my fee I was off on a beautiful relaxing 2 hour river trip. Not a big deal but I’m sad to admit that I’ve lived relatively near the Mississippi for over 20 years and this is only the third time I have been on it. One of the greatest rivers in the world and I just take it for granted, rarely thinking of it as an asset to the area. The rest of the passengers were all from much farther away and were amazed to get close looks at five Bald Eagles and a falcon during our voyage. I see them all the time and I’ve forgotten what a thrill it can be.

Several years ago we had a client in from Germany. We were in the middle of the standard tour of industrial parks, buildings and communities when I asked if there was anything else we could show them. They immediately asked about the Mississippi River and whether it would be possible to see it. The river was only a half mile from where we were standing and there was a road that led out on a peninsula extending to near the center of the river and offered a stunning view. Our resulting trip out there ruined my schedule but provided our client with the most memorable part of his visit.

To them it was unique. A once in a lifetime experience. To me it was commonplace and I had never even thought to mention it. Duh! I made the mistake of not remembering to look at things from my client’s perspective.

Are you identifying the real unique factors that your business or area has to offer and more importantly, are you taking advantage of them? Or are you trying to sell the same stuff as everyone else? Guess which approach will make you unique in your client’s eyes?