There are times when cities and organizations face a kind of abyss, when things they had counted on suddenly don’t work anymore. For a city, it might be when a major local industry shuts down. For an organization, it could be when its primary service is no longer valued. What usually follows (after a period of anger, recrimination, and denial) is an avalanche of ideas and advice about setting things right.
You can imagine how these ideas fly in from all directions: Let’s be a tourism city, or a high-tech center, or a retirement community—or all three. If it’s an organization, let’s try our old mission in a new way, let’s try an entirely new mission, or let’s try a bunch of missions and see which works out.
One thing seems clear in moments like these: You must focus your efforts. But on what? How do you decide which path to take when the past is no longer a reliable guide?
My advice is to search for a “realistic but hopeful place,” a place where ambition, success, and demand overlap. You find these places in the answers to three questions:
- What do we want to do?
- What are we good at?
- What does the world want or need?
If answered honestly, these simple questions will take you into a deep analysis of your community or organization and a focused look at the world. Be careful, though, to ask them in the right order.
The first question, “what do we want to do?” requires that you talk to as many people as possible who know and care about the city or organization. You can do this in person or in groups. (I advise both; start with in-person interviews with a cross section of respected leaders, then convene groups. The interviews will give you some starting points for the group discussions.) What you’re searching for is not so much strategic advice (that is, exactly what we should do) as insight into what motivates people. A good way of getting to it is to ask: “Given that we’re going to make major changes, what is the best that that our organization (or city) can be?” Consider it a quick form of visioning.
The second question brings some specificity to the vision by forcing leaders to look for current successes, however modest they may seem. Some research will help. If you’re concerned about a city’s economy, look for local employment sectors that are growing, especially among businesses that export goods and services (that is, that sell things to people elsewhere). If you’re concerned about an organization, comb through the financial statements and talk with employees: Are there things your organization is doing, perhaps as a sideline, that people are demanding more of?
Just by answering these two questions, you can usually see some possibilities. Let’s say your city has traditionally been an auto manufacturing center. When you talk with people, their hearts are still in making things. (“We’re still a great manufacturing town, and we ought to be the best one in the state.”) As you look around, though, you don’t see many big companies that are growing, only a handful of small ones, a few of which make high-quality bicycles. Could that be a growth industry for your city?
It works the same way for organizations. Let’s say you’re on the board of a human-services nonprofit that, because of a change in reimbursements, is threatened. The first thing you want to know is, do others (board members, staff, and those the organization has worked with over the years) want it to continue in this field? Or is there something else they’d rather the organization do? Second: Are you already doing something, perhaps in a small way, for which demand is growing?
The third question then takes a hard look at the bright spots. Will the world want or need high-quality bicycles in the future? Will your organization’s sideline services be valued in the years ahead? Be careful not to focus too much on present demand. If people in your city spent generations making cars, bicycles will seem inconsequential. If the organization provided health-care services with reimbursements in the millions, then providing services for thousands of dollars will seem like small potatoes. The thing to focus on is growth, not current demand.
And let’s be realistic. If you are fighting for your city’s or your organization’s life, the choices are bound to be difficult. Whatever you do (including doing nothing) will involve wrenching changes. The question is, at the end of those changes, will you be in a realistic but hopeful place . . . or still in crisis?
Asking what you want to do, what you’re already good at, and what the world wants will help point out that place.
Footnote: Knowing the direction and reaching the destination are, obviously, different things. Discovering the hopeful place is an important first step, but that’s when the real work begins. How does a city help a small but promising industry to grow faster? How do you turn an organization’s sideline into its primary service? What do you do with all the infrastructure and processes that have grown up around the things that are ending? These are the hard choices of strategic planning. But it starts with hope and a dose of reality.
This is part of a series of brief postings called Rules for Reformers. For an introduction to the series, please click here.