Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Three Leadership Responses to Planning

In the 10 years I've been in city and county planning I've found there are three general types of people you meet in the communities (I'm intentionally ignoring the apathetic, which is the largest group). These aren't the only three, but they are the most common and most elected and appointed officials will fall within one of them. They are the champion, the roadblock, and the cheerleader. I will discuss each in turn and how to manage them.

The champion is rather rare. This is the staff member, elected official or citizen who is truly invested in the plan, and more importantly, in implementing the plan once adopted (see prior post on importance of implementation). They understand the importance of a good planning process yet realize the real work begins after the plan is written. These individuals need to be identified, supported, and nurtured throughout the process. Provide clear direction and specific action steps to achieving the plan goals. Identify resources that can be accessed for implementation. These people are the real change makers in the community and our role as planners is to give them the tools to be successful. I worked in one county where a passionate group of citizens absolutely took ownership of the environmental projects we identified and are still working that plan several years down the road, in spite of the indifference of the elected leaders. Its a failure on my part that I wasn't able to engage the elected officials more to support the efforts of this grassroots group.

Roadblocks are the naysayers. They're the people who can point to a half dozen dusty plans already on the shelf and say 'Why is this new plan different from all of these?" Often, they have a point, they are jaded because of too many failed plans in the past. Another reason for being a roadblock is a fear of change. This is often a long time City Manager or Utility Director who has things 'under control' and doesn't want a bunch of new work coming down. It may be an elected official who doesn't want to engage the citizens because they really don't want to know what residents really want. Finally, roadblocks can be citizens who are worried a plan will lead to higher taxes or more regulations, or increased growth, or whatever issue concerns them. They often feel the act of planning is synonymous with encouraging growth that will change their community. Roadblocks can be managed by early outreach and honest engagement in the process. Rather than ignoring them, try and bring them on board as members of your steering committee, or at least as a focus group where they can voice their opinions. Be honest and direct and work with them to find common ground. Often, they just want the opportunity to be listened to and feel their opinions are included.

Not to disparage real cheerleaders, but in my planning world, cheerleaders are the absolute worst to deal with. These are the newly elected officials who come in screaming about the need to plan for the future. They probably have no clue that the City Manager is currently working his ass off to implement the last plan that was done. This happened in a community I worked in a while back. The Mayor wanted a Comprehensive Plan. When we talked to the City Manager he pulled out the current plan and walked us through all of the things he was doing from that plan. The worst part was the Mayor had been on Council when that plan was adopted but had forgotten about it. The cheerleaders tend to think that the act of planning is the real goal, and don't look past it to the actual work of implementation. They're the citizens who volunteer to be on the plan Steering Committee, but not on the implementation task forces. They're the Council members who happily vote $100,000 to pay a consultant to write the plan, but won't agree to $25,000 to install landscaping and benches in their downtown to accomplish a plan goal.

So, as planners how do we manage these different groups. In addition to the ideas already discussed I would recommend every plan include some 'low hanging fruit'. These are projects that can be done quickly, with limited resources, and possibly even while the plan is still being developed. This will support the champions and minimize the roadblocks by showing quick success. It may encourage the cheerleaders to stay involved because they get the reward of accomplishing real tasks. Another key is celebrating successes. When a goal is reached or a major project accomplished the community needs to acknowledge it and celebrate it. It doesn't have to be a street party, but it should at the very least include stories in local media, website promotion, maybe a ribbon cutting if appropriate, etc. If people see projects being completed they will be more supportive of government and more likely to actively participate because they know it will lead to results and improvements.

The biggest challenge is capacity building. We as planners need to focus on building the capacity of the communities we work in. We need to help cultivate real leadership and identify resources to accomplish goals. A world class trainer does more than just meet their client one or two days a week and tell them to lift weights. They focus on nutrition, proper hydration, rest, and all aspects of their clients lives to build real success. We need to embrace this holistic approach as planners and foster an environment of success in our communities where residents, staff, and elected officials have a common vision to be passionate about (thanks Scott LeCount for this one) and are willing to work to make that vision reality. That's how to overcome the roadblocks and the cheerleaders by turning them from obstacles into advocates for their community.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Blog Redirection - Thoughts on Planning

Most of y'all that read this post may wonder where the quote at the top came from. 'If planning worked we'd all be speaking Russian'. A crusty old man said that to me at a community meeting in Matagorda (a small, unincorporated community on the coast). I'm an urban planner, I help cities in the LCRA service area plan for growth (or work to slow decline) through their land use, housing, economic development, parks and open space, infrastructure, etc. This blog is my effort to redirect somewhat back to this because it is what I do for money and its something that I know a whole lot more about than exercise and nutrition!

So, the quote, why has it stuck with me for several years? Well, because to a large degree its absolutely true! Why would a planner say this, it seems to discount the point of my profession. I say this because planning in and of itself will not bring about real change in a community. What does that is IMPLEMENTING the plan! You have to work the plan for it to have an impact, just writing a fat plan and putting it on the shelf to gather dust is completely a waste of time and resources. The Soviet Union had 5 year plans that included everything from how much grain would be grown to how many cars would be built. The problem was, the plans were never really implemented. Farms and factories simply made up numbers showing production that exactly matched what was in the plan. Inefficiency and corruption in the system made it impossible to accomplish the already unrealistic goals set in the plan. Based on this than it is true, if planning worked, we'd all be speaking Russian because the plans laid out how the Soviet Union would dominate the world. Lucky for us the IMPLEMENTATION failed!

So, that's the trick of my profession. As a planner, my role in the community is to help them identify goals and objectives to move forward. I can provide expertise and guidance to address the issues that are impacting their city. The problem is that I'm not there to work the plan once its adopted. It is up to City leaders, businesses, and citizens to work together to make the plan a reality. The plan may be the most concise, well written document ever, but if nobody takes ownership and does the work it is worthless. I've had several plans I spent months working with a community to develop end up going nowhere. Several years later the towns are still struggling with the same issues. I've also been fortunate to have many communities embrace the plan and make its vision a reality. They've invested the time and money in to building the future they want to have rather than accepting their fate.

So, as a planner, how do I address the issue of a failure of implementation? I think it comes down to capacity building in the community. My role should be more than simply an outside expert bringing knowledge and skills to write the plan. I need to engage community leaders and citizens in more than just a few public meetings to let them say their piece. I have to build ownership of the plan and the concern to actually do the work to make the plan reality. That is my challenge as a planner, to leave more behind than just a book, I need to leave behind the capacity in the community to work the plan.

'If planning worked, we'd all be speaking Russian'. Its true, planning isn't enough, working the plan is what will bring success.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Here's my premise, open to debate and disagreement. There's been a lot of talk about the decline of America in the last few years. I'm still not entirely sure that I embrace this because there is still so much to celebrate and so many great people in this country. The Crossfit Central folks, working to build a business and inspire their clients to embrace a culture of excellence. Anthony and Kristen of Cubit Planning building a business on a great idea and the support of people who saw the potential of their idea. There are many, many smart, creative people doing the same thing, following their passion and building businesses that are the foundation of our future. This inspires me and gives me confidence that the future is still bright and that we are not in decline.

But, and you knew there would be a but, all is not hope and bright futures. We have significant challenges we need to address to continue to be the great nation in the world. One of these is the fact that many people do not aspire to excellence, they are willing to live their lives in complacency and mild dissatisfaction. We know the food we eat and the television we watch is crap and is not good for us, yet we continue to spend our time and money on it.

This is seen in our government as well. Dissatisfaction with elected officials (of all parties) is at an all time high, yet when election time comes we'll still have minimal turnout and the same old same old will be reelected.

I think part of the reason is the complacency history has allowed us to experience. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the great enemy of our way of life died with it. We no longer had the competition from a society that wanted our demise. Think of the creativity and innovation sparked by the space race when we refused to allow the Russians to beat us in space. Once we became the dominant power in the world we started resting on our laurels without the need to innovate and create to compete against anybody. That complacency has to some degree infected our society and led many to feel they are entitled to a high quality lifestyle with minimal effort on their part.

Again, this is not intended as an entirely pessimistic post, there are great people doing great things in this country. New ideas, new products, new businesses are starting in all parts of this country. Smart, creative, passionate people are out there striving to make great things and we need to embrace them, support them, and allow them to thrive. The rest of us, the great unwashed as it were, need to look to these passionate people and know that we too can find that within ourselves and achieve greatness.

Complacency is a choice, we can allow ourselves to muddle through life or we can strive and push ourselves to be better than we are now.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thoughts on an Empty House

Moving Sucks! That's it, enough said, there are no redeeming qualities to moving. I'm not talking about the big sense of moving, I'm talking about the grunt work of moving, packing, cleaning, disposing, loading, unloading, etc. Yes, the opportunity to purge unneeded stuff (and its amazing how quickly it adds up!) is awesome, and starting fresh in a new place is great, but the work of getting it done is unpleasant.

Anyway, the point of this update is to talk about the feeling I had making one final walk through the townhouse I'd called home for a year and a half. It was really pretty sad. An empty, just moved out of house seems lonely and sad to me, yeah its corny, but its true. Its like all the good memories and happiness have been taken out and just the melancholy left behind. This one was a particularly hard move for me because this was the first place I could ever really call my own (as much as you can with a rental). It wasn't my parents, I didn't have roommates, and I didn't have a wife. I'd never lived alone before, and it was an adjustment. I'd never really given a flip about furniture, what went on the wall, and all that went in to making a house your own because I'd never had to. So, this place was the first that I really could put my imprint on, and I really liked it.

The flip side to the melancholy of the newly emptied home is the excitement and joy of the new home. The chance to totally rearrange everything, add new color, new layout, completely start over with what the house will say. Its an empty house like the one you just left, but its like its ready to take the new memories and joys that will be created in it.

I have a few weeks in between the two homes. Staying with my parents because the new place won't be open until May. Its not really coming home for me even though its the same house I lived in when I graduated high school. That's not meant to disparage being here, I appreciate my parents generosity in allowing me to stay. Rather, its meant as home to me has become the place that I make for myself and my kids. We will be getting settled in to the new place soon enough and it will very, very quickly become home for us. Hopefully, we can stay there a little longer than a year and a half.