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.

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