Director’s Log | June 2019

I’ve been thinking a lot this month about change.

As part of our preparation for the upcoming Emerging Issues Forum and ongoing focus on ReCONNECT to Economic Opportunity (registration for the Forum opens July 15!), I’ve spent a lot of time (and Molly Sheehan and Alicia James have spent a lot more time) reviewing inspiring proposals from teams across the state who are launching innovative strategies to connect adult workers to new opportunities. Reading about how teams and organizations across the state are doing that has reminded me how hard it is to change jobs.

I recently listened to a great episode of Freakonomics, one of my favorite podcasts, on changing minds. I learned it is apparently too late for me to learn to love sushi, but I was also reminded of why it is so hard, and so important, to have events like the Civic Conversations IEI and our partners are convening. Among other things, I learned that to change a mind — yours or someone else’s — you have to start with a serious attempt to understand how people you disagree with see the world.

Then I heard from a speech from a guy named Antoine van Agtmael, the author of The Smartest Places in Earth, a book about the places that are making the successful transition from what he calls the “rust belt” to the “brain belt.” He laid out some key things to keep in mind if you are interested in changing communities.

In his book, Agtmael looks at communities across the world that have reinvented themselves and tries to understand the key elements that have to be in place for them to change. His focus is on economic development and the development of intellectual capital, but the principles he discovers can be applied in almost any community, company or organization seeking to change.

Here’s a summary of four of his ideas that track particularly well with what we at IEI are discovering in our work with communities:

A “life-threatening event” can be a good thing:  If things have been working well for us we don’t want to change. If things are getting incrementally worse, we can always convince ourselves they’re just about to get better. But a crisis gets everyone’s attention, and it is in that moment that it is possible to imagine and be motivated to do something fundamentally different. For the town of Elkin, one of the teams in our ReCONNECT to Community group, it took a huge downsizing of Chatham Manufacturing Company, their biggest employer, to catalyze a new effort that is reimagining the town.  Agtmael argues: “It’s not the smartest or even the strongest that are going to survive: it’s the most adaptable.”

Focus is your friend: One of my former bosses told me, “If you’re about everything, you’re about nothing.” Comedian Steven Wright had an even better take: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” Every place has limits on its time, talent and treasure. Agtmael encourages communities, universities and organizations to reach down deep and find the one thing that they can be best at, that builds off of their unique passions and assets, and focus on that.  One of our new ReCONNECT to Economic Opportunity teams, “Building with our Veterans” in Charlotte, is focused on equipping one specific group of people — transitioning military veterans with experience in construction — with the new skills they need to take a range of jobs in a fast-growing portion of Mecklenburg County government. The team may broaden the program in the future, but the data-informed focus at the beginning of the project will be a huge help during startup.

Somebody’s got to play quarterback: Diverse teams are critical to the success of any community seeking to change the status quo, but change-seeking teams are also typically made up of people who are working on other things. They have “day jobs.” Pulling off a change process requires at least one person who takes lead responsibility for the new thing and is willing to work to keep the “busy” other team members on task. The person doing that work has been given many names over the past 20 years. Agtmael and Malcolm Gladwell call these people “connectors” – in the past I’ve called them “sparkplugs.” I like the name that Cleveland County’s team (one of our new cohort for ReCONNECT to Economic Opportunity) has given Chris Gash of their “Partnering for Community Prosperity” project: “quarterback.” The quarterback is just one member of the team, but that person plays a clear coordinating role.  For broader change projects, the “collective impact” model calls for an organizational quarterback.

You don’t have to have everything to do something: Communities often feel like they have to have all assets needed for change contained within their borders – all the expertise, or infrastructure, or money — to fully carry out their new project. But that is rarely the case, and waiting to assemble all that intellectual, physical and mental capital is unrealistic, and it slows down a community’s ability to get underway on change. As Agtmael notes, overcoming complex challenges requires multidisciplinary approaches. In this world of hyperconnectedness, we don’t have to find all that expertise in our own communities. We can rent it or borrow it or share it or buy it from others. For example, the rural counties participating in the STEM SENC program (one of our ReCONNECT Rural and Urban teams) recognize the critical role that Wilmington plays in southeastern North Carolina and that UNCW plays in graduating students with master’s and PhD’s in STEM disciplines, and recognize they can draw on that expertise to carry out STEM-related projects that meet their unique community needs. UNCW recognizes that the southeastern NC labor market has to be more than one county deep.

There are some other great tips for how to think about change in a community in this episode of First in Future with Jeff Eidson, and this new series of posts on Danville from James Fallows, but Agtmael’s ideas, drawn from his experiences working across the world, have some real transfer value as well.

As we continue to do our work, we’ll keep sharing the ideas we discover working with you and others. Together, we can get better at change. Happy Summer!