Strategic Doing Down Under

A week ago, my Purdue colleague Scott Hutcheson and I traveled to Fraser Coast north of Brisbane to introduce Strategic Doing to that region. The Fraser Coast is engaged in an initiative patterned after the Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development (WIRED) initiative launched by the US Department of Labor in 2006.

Paul Collits, Associate Professor at the University of Southern Queensland’s Fraser Coast campus and Research Director for the Economic Development and Enterprise Collaboration, is leading the Fraser Coast in a similar, but smaller WIRED initiative launched by the Australian government.

Paul reached out to Purdue after he learned of our success in deploying network-based strategies of collaboration to accelerate innovation in workforce development.

After our visit, Paul wrote this commentary:

“Strategic Doing” and How It Can Help Change Regional Development Forever

Why is it that we and other Australian regions have endless strategies and plans that “sit on shelves” and never get implemented?

Last week I had the great privilege of hosting two American colleagues from Purdue University Indiana for a week.  They were in Wide Bay Burnett as part of my Australian Government funded WIRED research project, the aim of which is to explore new strategies for increasing regional collaborations.  I am convinced that collaboration is a central ingredient in regional success.  This is the case, whether you are talking about economic development or community development.  I am keen to find out how other regions of the world achieve the success they do.

Ed Morrison and Scott Hutcheson are both experienced community development professionals who have worked in Purdue – one of the USA’s most prestigious universities – for many years.  They come from the school of thought which believes strongly in asset based regional development.  That is, to achieve progress in regions, you need to “link and leverage” off what you already have, using networks for innovation.  You have to connect assets in new ways.  Some in the literature call this method “collaborative advantage”, others “appreciative inquiry” (look it up).

They also believe that you don’t always have to look to the government to solve our region’s problems.  This is peculiarly an Australian disease.  The first question we often ask is – where will we get the funding?  This is NOT the place to start. Ever.

Ed and Scott believe that traditional strategic planning approaches, which may have worked in the past for hierarchical organisations, are singularly unhelpful for the openly networked regional economies we now have in the 21st century.  We simply can’t tell other organisations what to do.  We might have a plan.  Governments do.  Regional organisations do.  But so what?  They cannot “make” the region and its myriad institutions behave in accordance with “the plan”.  This is why strategic plans gather dust on shelves.  It is why real regional development seldom matches the plan.

Strategy, as we all know, asks two questions – where are we going?  And how are we going to get there?  The key to successful strategy is to make implementation possible, and the way to do this best is to a empower the participants to do implementation, and to make them start thinking about implementation up front.

There are basically four steps to any strategic doing exercise.  I saw this in action several times last week, at Hervey Bay and Gympie.  The questions we need to ask are – what can we do together? What should we do together?  What will we do together?  When will we meet again?  Or, what is our “30/30” (we review in 30 days and plan the next 30 days)?

Typically, folks want to know – well, this all sounds very well, but what difference will it actually make?  We aim to change this region, and in turn change the way regional Australia approaches development.  Brick by brick.  We have a small core group with passion and big ideas.  But, following Ed and Scott, we aim to start with small steps.  This is critical.  You pick areas with high impact and low difficulty, and work there to begin with.  You work with the assets you have, and the region has.

One specific outcome is our intention to start up a spin-off company, Strategic Doing Australia, which will work in this region and many others to drive new thinking and new approaches.  Wide Bay Burnett will be a test bed for strategic doing ideas.  We have already started in Gympie in relation to the issues of homelessness.  What we want to do, essentially, is to speed up learning how to collaborate regionally.  It is speed dating for regional developers.

We also aim to work develop a youth entrepreneurship network, leveraging off the youth hub that is developing with the Rock Off skate park project.  We are going to work with USQ on a “campus to community” initiative.

Some no doubt will say.  This strategic doing is just a fancy new name for good old fashioned common sense.  Maybe.  But I do like the tools and methods we were shown last week.  To this old economic development professional, it felt new and fresh.  Others (the “soreheads”) will say, it has all been tried before and it didn’t work then, so it won’t work now.  Perhaps the right people weren’t on the case before.

As always, I was disappointed with the small numbers who showed up.  But Ed and Scott convinced me this doesn’t really matter.  It is the commitment of those in the room that matters, not who is not in the room and the hats they wear.  As someone once said, the world is run by the people who turn up.  And as Ed and Scott say, you don’t need anyone’s permission to do this.  I guess you might call it the Nike model of regional development.

Ed Morrison is Director of the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. For the past five or six years, he has been developing new, agile approaches to strategy in open, loosely joined networks, a discipline he calls Strategic Doing. Prior to starting his economic development work, Ed worked for Telesis, a corporate strategy consulting firm. In this position, he served on consulting teams for clients such as Ford Motor Company, Volvo, and General Electric. He conducted manufacturing cost studies in the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and France. Ed started his professional career in Washington, D.C., where he has served as a legislative assistant to an Ohio Congressman, staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission, and staff counsel in the US Senate. He holds a BA degree cum laude with honors from Yale University and MBA and JD degrees from the University of Virginia.

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