The Emporia Main Street office receives calls, emails and social media outreach each week from communities seeking advice or assistance. When they talk to us about a specific project or initiative, the conversation inevitably includes the question “how did you do that?” In a “quick fix” society, that’s the question all of us want the answer too… But, “how did you do that?” isn’t the question we should be asking ourselves. The overriding issues with modern problem solving is “why did you do that?” and “does it solve for our mission?” We are often so concerned with “keeping the doors open” that we forget why we exist.
Refocusing on short, intermediate and long term goals that accomplish what your business or organization was built for requires asking yourself some tough questions. In this e-news, we will examine the thought process that can lead to longer term successes and hopefully get you off of the hamster wheel that many businesses, organization and government agencies continue to run on.
Question 1.- Does my action solve for the root cause of a problem, or simply treat a symptom of it?– I have a friend that is involved in a non-profit network outside of Kansas. They dealt with individuals that had fallen on hard times and measured success in the number of “clients” they processed in a given year. The more clients processed, the more “successful” they were. But, if they truly wanted to impact the problem, shouldn’t they try and solve for the underlying causes? Would you try and solve violent crime by purchasing more gauze for emergency rooms? In the world of retail, would you solve the problem of declining sales by instantly changing your logo, or would you look at your product mix, marketing plan and employee training first? When we distill our goals down to something simplistic, we can easily (if we are being honest with ourselves) determine if an action addresses the cause of a problem, or just a symptom.
Question 2.- Does my investment strategy (time, money, focus) produce long term growth possibilities? All businesses and organizations have individuals that like to do some tasks more than others. In a consumer driven society, we also get enamored with the “new”. New technology, new furniture, new events, new uniforms at work, etc. Do we spend enough time, money and focus on growing our capacity to solve problems? Governmental entities in rural communities often struggle with this question. Governments often have the capability of making targeted investments that stimulate growth or increase the value of areas, but are hesitant to do so because of public sentiment. Businesses are often reluctant to outsource responsibilities like bookkeeping to a professional accounting firm, but how would that impact your ability to focus?
Question 3.- Does the focus of my organization create tangible, measurable value? This is a tough one… All businesses, organizations and departments like to think they are valuable. But, how dowe measure that value? What measurable impacts are gained as a result of the entity’s existence? Who would pick up the slack if the group were gone tomorrow? How do you tangibly make things better for others? When organizations become to internally focused, they often miss opportunities and revert to a more dogmatic approach rooted in history as opposed to exploiting emerging trends and consumer behaviors that can lead to growth. When we think of ourselves as the town’s “only option”, we sometimes forget that people can (and do) travel. When we try and legislate our relevance, we simply make getting things done a longer and more complicated process.
Question 4.- What makes my organization different in a way that is not easy to replicate? I did some consulting work last summer in the deep south with a community that was just emerging from a couple of decades of struggle. The community was full of good people that contributed an inordinate number of hours to local volunteer work and built tremendous assets through local donations to help those in their community. They were unfortunately in proximity to a large metropolitan area that took advantage of their largess by “dumping” individuals that needed help on their doorstep. The “can do” attitude of the locals meant citizens rolled up their sleeves and just worked harder. The turning point occurred when a local funding organization realized that they were funding three soup kitchens within a six block radius. The question “why are we doing this?” emerged, and the community started looking at what was different or the same within organizations: not what they said they did, what they actuallydid. Once that was determined, efficiency was achieved and the area could commit more resources to economic efforts that created opportunity and capacity. In the world of business, we often see an entrepreneur jump into a new market niche only to be followed by “me too” business people that quickly saturate the market. Differentiation (on more than just price) HAS to be built into the design of a business, organization or community to create long term success. Lack of differentiation causes brand damage for everyone involved.
Question 5.- Is my organization efficient?– Some of the issues addressed above cost money to solve. Where does that come from? Operational efficiency is a term that is WAY overused in government(often to the detriment of infrastructure and essential services), but many businesses and organizations can use efficiency planning to produce cost savings and free up capital for other, more growth oriented initiatives. For example, Emporia Main Street considered hiring a bookkeeping position a few years ago. We manage about $500,000 in loans, multiple grants for businesses, over thirty events per year, membership along with daily activities. We recently decided to outsource some of those responsibilities to a local accounting firm. We could have tied up capital with a full or part time staff member, but this should provide us efficiency in both time and opportunity cost. Some operations take place in multiple buildings that are not adjacent, yet share staff and thus create massive inefficiencies. Some businesses don’t make good use of floor space or refuse to use basic technology to create time savings. By creating efficiency, you can generate the time and capital necessary for problem solving.
Question 6.- Does the business or organization make decisions based on history or opportunity? If there is one thing that Generation X and Millennials have in common, it is this: if we ever discuss an opportunity and someone begins their rebuttal with “Well, back in (insert date here) we…” our brainsshut off. I’m sure a lot of things made perfect sense in the context of their relative time frame that don’t make a lot of sense now. Historical contexts can provide insight into a values system or culture, but they can also encourage stagnation by adhering to the “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality, or an overuse of history can de-emphasize ingenuity and productivity for future growth because you are always looking backwards. Every community has businesses that leave a lot of money laying on the table because they refuse to change based on historical decision making. Communities miss opportunities and lose momentum. Organizations often romanticize their past as opposed to focusing on their future. Asking the tough questions about the rationale behind your decisions can force entities to adapt to emerging trends.
Question 7.- Is ingenuity a response to need, or is it part of the organizational culture? Does your business consistently ask staff/management/volunteers/owners to innovate? Or, is innovation a direct result of necessity? Business trends, consumer demands, volunteer needs and available resources can change quickly. Does your entity take the time to identify opportunities and make a plan to capitalize on them on a consistent basis? Or, do you find yourself in meetings saying “we’ve got a problem and a limited window of opportunity to solve for it, does anyone have any ideas?” You can’t simply turn on and off an effective problem solving mind set. Innovation must be consistently cultivated and ingrained in an organizational culture. If a survey of your internal staff or volunteers contains words like “positive” and “supportive” without words like “challenging” and “goal-oriented“, your business could be in danger of stagnation, and problems will go unsolved.
These questions are designed to make you think critically about the potential impact your business or organization has, and how you can improve your long term opportunities. While we are in the midst of the blistering cold, take a few moments and involve your staff in pointed discussions. By righting your focus and being honest about your goals, you can create more tangible results for the entity you are a part of.