The unexpected success: How narrowly focusing on specific goals could harm your community

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During my trip to Tuscany I looked forward to seeing beautiful gardens and window boxes in charming towns. But the sight of flowers growing straight out of a brick wall was unexpected. Had I strictly focused on where I thought the most beautiful flowers would be, chances are I would have missed this opportunity.

It made me wonder how often this happens in our communities. Does our goal setting become so myopic that we risk missing the unexpected success?

Let’s take George Bailey, the main character in the holiday favorite “It’s a Wonderful Life” as an example. George dreamed of traveling abroad, going to school and building things. But after a run on the bank, he put his big plans on hold to save his father’s building and loan business — the one thing he could not wait to get away from.

George didn’t feel like a success. He felt like a failure. This road to success didn’t look anything like he thought it would. He wanted to travel. But he stayed at home. He wanted to build things.  Instead, he was put at the helm of a catastrophic failure.

George didn’t realize the profound impact he had made on his community until the angel Clarence showed him what life would have been like without him. He had become the ultimate success!

This scares me a little, because how often do we beat ourselves up by saying:

  • We should be in the top rankings by now.
  • We should have more venture capital by now.
  • Our population should have grown by now.
  • We should be more competitive by now.

And on and on and on.

If we get our minds so fixed on what success should look like, when success outside our field of vision does happen, we risk not seeing it at all. We complain and fret and worry because the specific goal we established in the beginning has not become a reality. This can be dangerous to us personally and a real buzzkill for our communities.

From my experience, here are ways communities can avoid missing the unexpected success:

  1. Pay attention to existing businesses. When the majority of our resources go towards recruiting outside companies, we often ignore our existing businesses — the community’s largest job creators. That means you could miss hearing about the contract win that resulted in 20 new hires for one of your existing businesses. When we become so focused on the shiny new object, we don’t see the success in our own backyard.
  2. Look beyond industry clusters. When we set our goal on becoming known for the industry cluster du jour, we often take resources away from and dismiss our successful mainstream businesses. Many of them are innovating and achieving amazing results even if they’re not in a sexy industry cluster.
  3. Appreciate what you have. Oh, if we could just look like [insert community name here], everything would be wonderful! When our goals are focused on looking like someplace else, we become blind to the attributes we already have. You didn’t like it when your mom compared you to the “perfect” kid next door, and your community doesn’t like it either.  Sometimes what makes you different can become your greatest selling point.
  4. Love the ugly duckling. Cranes on the horizon are often viewed as a sign of success. It is easier and less expensive to build something new than renovate something old. But that ugly abandoned building could be the site of one of the coolest developments around. Want proof? Go to Baltimore.
  5. Give the most attention to positive people. Yeah, I know — no one sets a goal to champion the whiners, but too often we fall into the squeaky wheel syndrome. Whiners are poisonous and infectious. And their constant complaining blinds us to success in general, not to mention the unexpected. So give the strongest voice to your happy campers, and they’ll become your best ambassadors.

Communities that become unduly focused on specific goals or the shiny new object risk overlooking the successes that never made it to the strategic plan. It pays to be flexible — to bob and weave with the unpredictable wins that make your community a success — expected or not.

So yes, please pursue your goals, but always keep your lens open wide enough to see the flower that blooms straight out of the bricks. It’s unexpected — but beautiful.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Edward Lowe Foundation

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Penny Lewandowski
Senior consultant on external relations
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A thought leader in entrepreneurship and building an entrepreneurial culture, Penny Lewandowski is senior consultant of external relations at the Edward Lowe Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on new ways to think about economic development – especially how a grow-from-within strategy leads to thriving and sustainable economies.