In any business being strategic is as much about choosing what not to do as it is choosing what to do. I find this especially true in local government where our mission tends to broader than a typical company. I often refer to our mission as a mile wide and an inch deep because we have such a wide range of public services. When I talk to my peers in the corporate sector I listen with envy as they talk about deciding to get out of this market or that production line because it wasn’t profitable. Most of what we do isn’t profitable but we can’t choose what market to compete in or get out of. Instead we’re asked to do the things that were not profitable in the first place but were too important to be left undone. Of course money still makes the City world go round and that means we have to keep focused, fight against mission creep, and make sure everything we do is aligned with the goals of the community.
Aiming and sustaining the path towards our true north as a community is not easy. Not a day goes by where our alignment isn’t challenged by unforeseen circumstances. What we struggle with as a City is learning how to say no to good opportunities that may not be the best fit with our immediate strategic objectives. I’m an opportunistic guy by nature so I find it hard to pass on possibilities that emerge along the edges of our mission and the political process also has a built-in bias towards pleasing the electorate which usually means saying yes even when the politician knows that they should say no. But votes are a powerful incentive so over time cities inherit all those political add-ons under the heading of other duties as assigned.
During the City Council’s Strategic Planning Session in April 2008 a planning expert offered a very practical way to keep focused on the vital few rather than every last thing. He advocated figuring out and agreeing on what he called your community’s top 5 to make or break decisions. He suggested listing the critical questions facing our community that we have to get right rather than coming up with a list of solutions seeking a question.
I think most people understand that trying to do everything for everyone is the fastest way to not do anything for anyone but that level of strategic discipline is tough to muster all the time. To help sustain that focus the planning expert advised us to figure out what our critical questions were as a City first and then build out the options for answering those questions. Usually the temptation is to jump right into problem solving and solutioneering but the point is to make sure you’re asking the right question and solving the right problems.
In July City Council worked on listing the make or break questions facing the City and we’ve taken their comments and incorporated them into the larger community strategy framework that you see below. There’s no rocket science to this effort, it’s just a way to try to use the questions to guide our thought process in setting priorities, allocating resources and achieving results. The overall framework (chart) is offered as a tool for us to continually measure and test ourselves against in our effort to manage our way towards progress rather than dreaming a lot and hoping for the best.
It’s important to point out that this framework and our strategic planning effort is a work in progress. It’s a never ending cycle of questions and answers and if you ever fool yourself into believing that you’re done, you will be done, as in stick a fork in that community it is done, finis, may it rest in peace.
The horizontal set up of categories working from left to right is all part of our alignment effort. The problems down at the Crain Avenue bridge are a great metaphor for what happens when alignment gets off track. Like laying ribbon rail we’re building this framework to get us aimed and running full steam ahead towards our community aspirations. Face it, when results matter alignment is critical.
In the spirit of alignment I wanted to point out that we have roughly 7 mission critical objectives that have been defined by the Kent community and adopted by City Council over the last 25 years. Those 7 theme areas appeared in community planning exercises over and over again, so much so in fact that they eventually came to define the core strategic objectives of the City and everything we do must be rooted in one or more of these categories.
The categories are listed in the left side of the chart as follows:
1. Fiscal health and economic development
2. Natural resources
3. Quality of life
4. Community safety
5. Communities within the City
6. City / University synergy
7. Governmental performance
To keep the focus on those areas I have recently changed the topic folders of the blog to match these community priorities. I made the categories a little more blog like in terminology but otherwise they are all intended to align with our strategic objectives which means you can keep up on our efforts in these areas by browsing the respective categories on the blog.
Blog Post Categories
1a. City Dollars and Sense (City finances)
1b. Taking Care of Busines (Economic development)
2. Go Green (Natural resources)
3. City Living (Quality of life)
4. Safe City (Community safety)
5. Neighborhoods Matter (Communities within the City)
6. City University Stuff (City / University synergy)
7. City Service News (Governmental performance)
Obviously we (as a City) do a lot more than I have space or time to write about in the blog so the blog posts are not an exhaustive list of all of our activities in the topic areas but they are another good indicator of what’s going on and how we’re doing in making progress towards our community goals.