Thoughts about business and economic development in rural areas.


June 2009
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Archive for June, 2009

Defining the Discussion?

Defining the limits of a discussion can be as important as having it in the first place. Last night I spoke to a group of volunteers for a project involving the “Moving Wall” Memorial to Viet Nam Veterans. Just the mention of the term ‘Viet Nam’ can still bring people to the edge of immediate verbal and even physical confrontation. I know this personally as a veteran from that era. I agonized over what to say and more importantly as a speaker, how to say it.

A day before the presentation I finally found my solution. I needed to acknowledge the strong emotions that are still associated with the Viet Nam era and then clearly define for all involved what the “Moving Wall” Memorial is about. The “Celebration of Heroes”, as the community event is being called, isn’t about the war. It isn’t about whether it was right or wrong. It isn’t about whether it was good or bad. It’s not about ANY of that.

It’s about those 58,228 who died, those 303,400 who were wounded, those 2,600,000 whose boots touched South Vietnam’s soil, those 9,087,000 who served during that era. It’s about honoring the dead and understanding the pain of the living. Those who served, those who had family members or friends who served, those whose lives were forever changed and still affected by that time in our history.

As I defined the discussion in this manner we found that we had much more common ground, even hallowed ground, than we had imagined.

I suspect that the same is true with most of the discussions we have. The process of defining the discussion is not an easy one, but it is critical if we are ever to make progress on any topic. Fortunately most of the topics we agonize over as community or economic development issues aren’t tainted with the depth of passion that still surrounds Viet Nam.

If we take the time to clearly define the discussion, we are well on our way to having a productive one. And that is indeed, ‘hallowed ground’.

It’s Not the Numbers…It’s the People!

All too often we judge the success of things we do based primarily or even solely on the number of people involved. Hold a meeting…how many people showed up? Hold an annual conference…did we have more attendees than last year? Conduct a training session…how many were registered? And on and on.

While I understand the power of numbers in each of these situations and I certainly understand the necessity of ‘paying the bills’ that are tied to making some of these things happen, the numbers should NEVER be the only factor determining the success of anything we do. Note, I said the ‘only’ factor. Yes, they count, but they aren’t everything.

Case in point, I just spoke to an Entrepreneur and Inventor’s Club in Black River Falls. It certainly wasn’t a big crowd but that’s OK. These types of groups rarely draw ‘big’ crowds because of the simple fact that at any one given point in time there aren’t hundreds of people actively seeking to start a new business or bring a new product to market. The important thing to keep in focus is the fact that each of these individuals in attendance is important and worthy of the attention they are receiving.

I’ve been involved in civic organizations all of my life and I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve heard the president or chair person start the meeting by complaining about how few members are in attendance. Great way to fire up the troops. Let them know that you aren’t as important to him as the folks who didn’t attend. And since there aren’t enough people in attendance we can’t expect this to be a productive meeting…I can hardly wait to get to the rest of the agenda. Not! All too often we let numbers drive what we do and what we offer and in rural areas in particular this can mean people who need our help get left out. ‘Not enough people to make it worth it!’ ¬†Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

So what do we do when there are small numbers? You can start by letting each person who DID show up know that they are important and that they matter. You then proceed with the same quality program that you would have had if the place were overflowing with attendees. Actually you can take this opportunity to give them an even better program because you can customize things to fit those who are there and spend much more time developing individual involvement.

Years ago a good friend of mine, Marcella Finder, related this story about Patrick Lucey. Both were involved with the Democratic Party in Wisconsin. Marcella was the long-time secretary of a small county group and Pat was involved in developing a stronger statewide organization. Pat had been invited out to a small community in Marcella’s county for the monthly meeting. There was a near blizzard that evening but Marcella bundled up her two kids and drove 15 miles to the meeting place. Pat drove all the way from Madison, some 70 plus miles and none of it was interstate (they didn’t even exist back then). Come meeting time they were the only people there. Marcella said that if Pat was disappointed he never showed it. In fact, Pat made Marcella and her kids feel like they were the most important people on earth. Marcella never forgot that and it was obvious when she told the story that she was tremendously impressed with Pat’s attitude and there was no doubt in my mind that Marcella would do anything for Pat Lucey. Well, the Democratic Party went on to become the dominant party in Wisconsin and Patrick Lucey served two terms as Governor and later was named Ambassador to Mexico.¬†

And I truly believe that it was because he never lost sight of the fact that it wasn’t the numbers that were important…it was the people that mattered.