Economic Development Strategic Planning – Lessons from the Field

...strategic planning is about people and the process of engaging and deciding together.

Last month in New Orleans I had the privilege of being an instructor for the International Economic Development Council’s (IEDC) course on Economic Development Strategic Planning. The course is part of IEDC’s professional development and certification curriculum and covers all aspects of strategic planning for economic development.

One of the most enriching parts of the course is sharing and learning from each other (instructors and participants) on how theory plays out in the field. Yes, strategic planning does entail plenty of theories and techniques which help in developing visions, goals, objectives, actions, and other core plan components. And, it is important for economic development professionals to have a solid grounding in these tools. But more importantly, as we learn from the field when applying these tools, strategic planning is about people and the process of engaging and deciding together. More specifically it is a living process of how people come together and collectively engage to make informed decisions about their region’s or community’s economic future.

The following are lessons from the field that I have learned through work helping communities with economic development strategic plans as well as from sharing with colleagues and economic developers across the country. They are meant to help create a successful process for strategic planning for economic development and avoiding common obstacles stemming from engaging in an intensive “people driven” process.  I have also compiled additional strategic planning resources and information on the Camoin website.

Prior to starting a strategic planning process, assess your organization’s capacity for strategic planning and implementation.

Do you have standing? (Meaning recognition within the region or community as having responsibility for planning the economic future.) Do you have the financial resources, technical capacity, and needed leadership skills?  If the answer is “no” or “not enough in all areas” this does not mean strategic planning cannot be started at all, it means that you will need to address all of these issues with your stakeholders and partners at the start.

 

Don’t bite off more than you can chew! 

Break large projects into smaller digestible components based on your organizations, your partners’, and stakeholders’ capacity to implement. Too many efforts throw “everything but the kitchen sink” into their scope and process creating unrealistic plans.

 

Consider key factors that will drive implementation. 

Market feasibility, financial feasibility, public/political/cultural feasibility, and technical/organizational feasibility. Incorporate these factors into your analysis and on-going measurement system.

 

 

Get comfortable making collective decisions without perfect information and predictable outcomes. 

Technology, culture, and markets are changing rapidly and while the data and analysis tools can help inform the process they cannot predict over the medium and long-term.  In this ever-changing environment we must develop capacity for adapting to unpredictable environments.

 

Give collaboration and engagement among partners, stakeholders, and the public more than lip service. 

Plans are more likely to be implemented and lead to outcomes if willing persons are involved in the process to design. Strategic planning for economic development must take into account that local and regional economies are complex, living systems requiring adaptability rather than predictability. This means that no one organization, person, strategy or action can alone impact the system. Rather, working collectively, we can create opportunities and environments to influence economic success.

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