I don’t know if this phenomena occurs in other arenas, because I have never really worked in other arenas. I’m, what you would call, a one arena sorta guy. And in the arena of community revitalization, we sure do seem to get bogged down in the process. The process becomes so important, that it blinds us to purpose and it obscures the product. But what good is it adhering to a process that only produces substandard outcomes?
Let me provide an example of what I mean. So, the most glaring instance of process driven failure… real estate development at the municipal level. This is a process that is blindly adhered to no matter how much evidence we accrue proving that it’s only capable of producing terrible outcomes. The process to construct a new building or to renovate an existing building has been failing to produce good results for decades, yet remains unquestioned. This process doesn’t produce intended results because it wasn’t created with results in mind. There are no intended results in fact, only the process.
It’s as if I decided I wanted to cook dinner, but instead of deciding on what I wanted to cook, or even what ingredients I had on hand, I started by outlining the cooking process. How will I sauté, who will approve of the flour, will there be public consensus around the baking time and temperature. If I let the process guide my cooking, I feel pretty confident that my family would be served a steady diet of whatever the food equivalent of tract housing is. Jalapeño poppers, anyone? Dig in.
It just doesn’t make sense to strictly adhere to a process that never gives consideration to what people want to see built. In a more sensible world, we would decide on what we should build first. This may include such questions as, what types of buildings will suit residents, what would make them proud, what will retain local wealth and make people happier and make the town more attractive, what sort of buildings will lend themselves to local ownership and small businesses, what can we build that helps people become more attached to their community? All of these questions are relevant and should play a role in determining what gets built. Such criteria should carry for more weight than the ever changing opinion of a volunteer committee of design enthusiasts.
Wouldn’t it be more productive to start by determining the intended outcomes first and then develop the process by working backwards? Start with what success looks like and then decide how to get there. When it comes to the local development process, this conversation should Include the real estate development community. They should be essential partners in helping make this a reality instead of being cast as civic villains. The current process creates a situation where nothing people want every seems to get built and simultaneously makes everyone miserable. No one is benefiting from the situation, except vinyl manufacturers.
Imagine all the great things that could be built if we didn’t so blindly adhere to the building process, but instead decided what we wanted to see built. No more subdivisions, no more strip malls and big box stores. Pretty buildings, handmade with local materials. Cute houses, built locally and locally owned.
I see the same thing with local non-profit organizations, be it the chamber or tourism or the downtown revitalization office. Board members and staff get entrenched in the operations. They become entirely too focused on the process and forget to ever consider the point. I could become extremely efficient at crocheting swim trunks, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good use of my time. No matter how good I got at the process, if the product is terrible, what does it matter?
Many chambers of commerce struggle with their relevance today. Our communities and economies have changed dramatically in the past half-century, but have local chambers stopped to consider how their role may need to shift as well, or do they just keep operating with the same mission statement in place, adhering to the same process, ignorant what the community needs?
It’s noble to want to improve, but futile not to consider if such improvements will create better outcomes. Local chambers and tourism organizations are often rich in resources, but rarely step back to discuss if those resources are being put to good use. Is a mission statement adopted in the 1950’s still relevant today? Instead- take a timeout to consider a vision. What needs to get accomplished? What are the outcomes that would best help to improve the community? There is no value in doing the wrong thing efficiently.
Processes are an important means to get work done, but we must always remember, that they are a means to the end and not the end itself. On a regular basis, every entity must step back and take a fresh look at the end itself. What is the goal? Is the vision still relevant and worthwhile? What are we trying to accomplish? If those questions don’t get asked, there is a severe danger of squandering resources and of wasting peoples time. The process cannot and should not ever proceed the product. That would be the equivalent to determining a route before deciding where you are traveling. It would be impossible to arrive, even if you managed to avoid all the traffic.
Decide what you want and what you need to accomplish and then consider how you are going to get there. Where do you want to travel? What do you want to cook? What type of housing do residents want to live in? What kind of Main Street do citizens want to visit? Start with the end and then determine how you are going to get there.