Friday, November 1, 2013

Chicken Little vs. Pollyanna

By Alex Pearlstein

When the subject of strategic planning comes up in a community, business leaders, public officials, and the media have a number of options in terms of how to spin the process. The area (be it city, county, or region) can approach it from a position of strength, as in, “We are seeing such success and achieving so many great things, we want to make sure we continue this momentum through proactive planning.” Or they could take a more pragmatic approach, “Things have not been going the way we’d like; our economy is faltering, our young people are leaving, and we have to do something now to turn this community around.” Or they could navigate a middle path with a little bit of “sky is falling” Chicken Little tempered by a dash of rose-colored-glasses Pollyanna.

What brings this balance to mind is an article from this month’s Cleveland Magazine in which the author wishes some in government and the media would be more realistic about how they portray each “next big thing” to be proposed in the city. Past history has shown that most projects that promised to be the catalyst to finally reverse the city’s fortunes have been more smoke than fire, more bluster than muster. Breathlessly touting every shiny new building or park or redevelopment initiative risks alienating a wary, we’ve-seen-this-before population before the project even has a chance to gain traction.

On the other side of the coin, constantly touting a community’s strengths and successes can create a sense of complacency in an electorate that might prevent it from supporting a truly beneficial project or initiative because they think that things are fine the way they are. Or that progress will continue without the need for new investment because of how awesome we are. “Companies come to us, we don’t need to pay them to come here (with incentives) or beg people to come (via talent marketing).” Unfortunately, communities that stand still and don’t continuously focus on how to improve and become more competitive are the ones that get passed by.

That middle approach – equal parts measurable reality and defensible boosterism – is probably the best path to tread. Above all, perspective is important. If a community’s population understands how competitive the economic development world is these days, they would probably be more likely to support, 1) a project to make them better, or 2) a project to keep them better. Even if there’s a cost related to public money or a one-time tax increase.

Perspective is everything nowadays. So towing that fine line between over-negativity and hyper-positivity could potentially make the difference between winning local support for a project or fighting a losing battle.