Your Help Needed! Help me continue the discussion about Downtown Las Vegas… in Las Vegas!

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m looking hard these days at the Downtown Project in Las Vegas as a potential new model, and certainly a source of some pretty exciting new ideas, about how to revitalize communities.  That initiative has been getting some national press, but I’ve been frustrated with that because most of what’s been written is either simplistic hero worship/hero failure crap, or focused solely on the tech startup component, which is only one small part of the story.  I’ve been spending as much time there as I can, and reading and following along and trying to understand when I’m not, and I’ve had the huge privilege of developing lovely friendships with some of the folks who are part of that landscape.

I’ve written about the Downtown Project here and here and here, and my plan is to do a slim book trying to make sense of that experience in the context of traditional community revitalization.  I gotta get the current book out of my hair first (a whole ‘nother story), but the Downtown Project one is definitely in the works.

But it’s scary to write about a complex, multi-piece thing when you’re not really a part of it, and I know that I could very easily get it wrong.SXSWv2v logo

That’s where you come in.

The folks who stage South By Southwest have a smaller, tech and media-focused event that they host in Las Vegas during the summer, and I have proposed a talk for that conference that would lay out my findings and give me a chance to get better feedback from the people who are living there every day.  The organizers seem to be interested, but part of their selection criteria is based on a popular vote system.  Which means….

I need votes.

You don’t have to plan to go to SXSWv2v in order to vote.  But you do have to do a very simple sign in before you can vote.

Here’s the link: http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/vote/44131.  If you are willing to vote, or leave a comment, or share this link to your friends and cronies, I’ll be very grateful.  But you only have until Friday, January 23!

Come to think of it, that’s my birthday.  Your vote would be a pretty nice present.

Thanks.

The Entrepreneurs and the Local Government People should be friends

I wrote the following recently as a result of an invitation to do a guest post for Krista Whitley’s blog, KeepinUpWithKrista.com.  Krista is the CMO of a firm called Negrico and one of the mavens of the Downtown Project community in Las Vegas, which I wrote about here and here (with more in the hopper).  Krista’s audience is mostly entrepreneurs and small business owners, and ironically, the day I planned to start writing something was the same day I was doing a webinar on how local governments can more effectively support small businesses.  So one thing led to another, and it was pretty interesting to try to turn the explanation of how local government and small business thinking differs inside out from what I was doing later that day.  A little finessing later and I think I have something that makes a reasonable amount of sense.
So I thought you might be interested in seeing how one might explain the framework that community professionals live in to small business people — and if the small business people you encounter seem kind of foreign to you, perhaps this will help you make sense of them to.  And if you think my advice to them should have been different, please let me know!
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I don’t have a lot of entrepreneur peers in my everyday life.  Which is a little weird, because I’ve been either an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur for most of the last 20 years.

That’s also a little weird because I work with local governments and economic development people, and they all want entrepreneurs these days. Furiously.  I’m even teaching a class for local government people about how to better enable entrepreneurs and small businesses in their communities today, which is a topic no one was looking at five or seven years ago.  They’re finally starting to realize that the Magic Giant Employer with a Million Jobs is probably not going to land in their laps any time soon, and they are starting to come around to the idea that their best bets for a healthy local economy come down to you guys, the entrepreneurs and small business and startup types.

And that’s damn hard for a lot of them.  It’s not only a big shift in skill set, but frankly, y’all are… hard to deal with. Hard.To.Deal.With.
Sorry.
Here’s why:
Entrepreneurs and small businesses need a few key things to thrive (well, a ton of things, but here’s a few that are almost universal):
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Speed
  • Focus
  • Efficiency.
Sounds good.  But here’s the way I had to explain the world that you all live in to the local government people, who often wonder why their local small businesses are so hard to deal with:
  • Independence
  • Over Capacity
  • Impatience
  • Myopia
Before you get pissed at me, hear me out.  These are all the other side of the coin from the four items I listed before.
Independence/Self Sufficiency: We all know that an entrepreneur needs to be pretty tough to handle the rejections, the frustrations, the setbacks, etc.  But sometimes we over-estimate our self-sufficiency.  Don’t tell me what to do, I shouldn’t have to live by your rules.  We think we’re cowboys, masters of all we survey, rugged individualists who don’t need nothin’ from no one.  Until, at some point, we do.
Over Capacity:  Entrepreneurs almost always bite off more than they can chew.  Sometimes by choice, sometimes because they’re just like that.  Add things like families or day jobs or houses to maintain or other responsibilities, and you’re dealing with people whose time is massively overloaded.  And that means that we’re not often real patient with “unnecessary” things that get in our way.
Impatience:  What’s our mantra, at least our internal mantra?  Usually, NOWNOWNOWNOW.  Nuff said.
Myopia:  I’m not sure if that’s a normal word for most people.  It is for me because I’ve always been one, not just metaphorically, but in reality.  I’m badly nearsighted (as in don’t look through my glasses, you’ll get a headache type of nearsighted).  But I’m also nearsighted when it comes to my business.  You know where you’re focus has to be if you’re going to make this business thing work.  Things that aren’t impacting my core business…they’re distractions.  They get in the way.  They frustrate me.
All of that is well and good as long as all I have to deal with is myself.  But every once in a while you have to deal with your local permit-giving people, or you want the city to change one of their regulations, or you get contacted by the economic development people who want to help you, but you have a nagging feeling that they have no idea how to actually help you.  What gives?
When you hit that, it might help to take a look through their glasses for a minute.  What does their world look like?  Here’s how I described it to them. And they pretty much agreed.
Responsibility: They have a lot of people to report to.  A lot. Not only bosses and department heads, but city managers, council members, board members, mayors, etc.  Political types.  And in a lot of communities, many of the “bosses” that have the most say over their futures may not have much understanding of the world in which they have to try to get things done.  We have this bad habit in the US of not always electing the most knowledgeable types.  And even when our local government friends do get to work in an environment of well-informed leadership, they also have a deep and serious responsibility to the Public.  Most local government people I know take that responsibility very seriously.  And it’s like having a few thousand kids or pets that you need to look out for.  I have trouble remembering whether I fed my dog sometimes.  Being responsible for the well being of a whole city… yow.
Protecting: A lot of the justification for many of the things local government people do, like zoning and permits, comes legally out of something called “police powers.”  Police powers are given when there’s a need to protect people from the bad choices of other people (like robbery, or attacks, or buildings that are built crappy and fall down on people.) Those local government people are given the responsibility for protecting everyone in town. You may not feel like you need protecting (and you might be right, or you might be myopic, it depends), but it’s still part of their job description, to protect.
Scrutiny: Want to feel like you like under a microscope?  Go to work for a city.  Between your dozens or hundreds of bosses, the conventional media and the fact that everyone they meet is a potential amateur investigative reporter, you’d be looking over your shoulder, too.
Caution: One common theme of all of the above traits is that they all push hard against the idea of taking risks, experimenting, little bets, fail forward… all that stuff that entrepreneurs swim in every day.  When you ask them to give you a waiver, to bend a rule for your really cool project, to support a new program that you heard worked really well three states over, what you’re really asking them to do is take a big risk in about the most risk-adverse environment you can imagine.  They might even know they need to change something, and the person or department you’re talking to might even be more willing to take risks because they know that the old way isn’t working.  But they have to do that within a world that hates risk with a fury.
None of that is to say that you can’t get that variance or build support for that change in the law. None of that is to say that they are stuck in the 1930s, that they’re just a brick wall, that they can’t change.  But it is to say that if you want to get it done, you have to understand how to work with what they have and where they are.
You study a prospective market’s needs and issues before you start trying to sell to them, and you tell them about your product in a way that makes the most sense to the people you’re trying to sell it to.  It’s the same thing here.  To get what you want/need, it makes sense to understand where they are coming from and help them use what you have to offer to change their system.
  • Try to be patient.  They have a specific process that they have to go through, and chances are they don’t have a whole lot of control over that approval process.  And the people that they need to get that approval from (planning commissions, city councils, boards of directors) are usually volunteers who do this in addition to their usual jobs and lives.  Depending on what you need and who volunteered for those boards or commissions or councils, they may be flying by the seat of their pants, too.  Whatever touches them isn’t going to happen instantaneously.  Plus, some of that delay (maybe not all, but at least some) is actually baked into the structure of the process.  There’s limits as to how often they’re allowed to meet and how many weeks of public notice about a meeting have to happen before the even so that it’s legal.  That’s so that the Protecting and Scrutiny and Caution needs can be addressed.   When you have to make a big decision, you might say that you’re going to sleep on it.  Whatever you’re asking is going to make a change that could impact a lot of people, either directly or by changing the rules that future people have to live by.  If you had that Responsibility, and the purpose of your job was to Protect the community from things that could have a negative impact down the road, you’d want to think it over, too.

 

  • Be a partner.  Their rules may prevent them from being overly buddy-buddy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build a professional partnership.  It’s in both of your best interests to succeed, although (like any good partnership), your exact needs may not be in total lockstep.  Make clear that you understand and honor their obligations and that you want to seek mutual benefit.  We sometimes treat government as a service provider, like a gas station or a Wal Mart, but that’s not what a partner does.

 

  • Give them facts.  It’s a lot more effective for a local government person to push their internal system to do something out of the ordinary if they have concrete data to back it up. Give them more data than the zoning process or petition or whatever asks for.  Don’t kill them with an inpenetrable file of factoids — put some of the thought into it that you use in communicating with your customers.  Make the information that they/you need as accessible and digestible as possible.

 

  • Listen.  You listen to customers, and you know that they don’t always immediately tell you their deepest concerns.  Put a couple of layers of responsibility and scrutiny on top of that, and you get the professional but inflexible stance that often makes entrepreneurs complain about “bureaucrats.”  So give your customer development skills a workout.  Listen, really listen — to the facts and the minutiae, and to the underlying issues and priorities to.  Try to understand what drives your local government person — the rules, yes, but also the organization priorities.  The strategic plan. The political realities.  If you can tie your project into their program’s goals, you’ve got a much better chance of getting some flexibility in the process details.
None of that is to say that local governments and economic development agencies and the like do everything right, or that they don’t need to change, and often change massively.  The strange thing about writing this post is that I’m usually the one telling those guys that they need to get it in gear, that they need to learn how to adapt and change more quickly and deal better with fast-moving issues like those that often face small businesses.  I don’t always make friends when I do that.
But like every relationship that matters, it’s a two-way street.  As our businesses get smaller and more flexible, and as our cities get more complex and more intertwined, we all have to realize sooner or later that we’re not cowboys — and that neither our cities nor our businesses can operate as islands.  Like it or not, we depend on each other.
I’ve had the great good fortune to get to know a lot of the folks involved in the Downtown Project in Las Vegas over the past few months (including Kristi!).  And one of the things that has fascinated me about the Downtown Project has been the Container Park.  When I’ve talked to both city staff and Downtown Project staff about that project, I’ve heard the joke that they used to call it “Variance Village.”  In the zoning and building code world, a variance is when the city waives or relaxes a regulatory requirement as a sort of special exception — usually because it would be impossible to meet that standard in this situation (lot’s too narrow, existing buildings etc.) and because it wouldn’t put anyone or anything at risk of getting hurt if they waived that rule in this case.
It took several months longer than someone had planned to get all the approvals in place so that they could start building the Container Park.   I’ve heard a few Downtown Vegas business people (not the people who were directly involved with the project, but sort of the regular residents of the area) attribute that to the stupidity or sluggishness of “government bureaucracy”
The Container Park is built of shipping containers.  The big metal boxes that roll around on the back of trucks and train cars.
Do you know how to build a three-story building out of shipping containers?  I sure don’t.  And given that no one else in the US has done this yet, I would bet there’s not a lot of folks out there who do.
Like pretty much any city in the country, Las Vegas had no experience with building out of shipping containers.  And the rules that had been set us to protect people from having a building collapse on their heads, or getting food poisoning from a restaurant, or any of the other things that we take for granted that other people won’t be able to do to us…. those rules were written for a completely different kind of place.
So what do you do if you want a good thing to happen, but your rules don’t fit and its your job to make sure that the public is Protected?  You work it out.  You figure it out.  Which is what the Downtown Project and the City did.  But of course, that takes time.
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Like it or not, we’re depending on each other.  You’re a huge piece of the economic and the general future of your community.  But you need them and they need you.
And if they give you a hard time, let me know.  I can make some hair curl if I have to.

 

Missives from the Front Lines of Community Revitalization: the Las Vegas Downtown Project, Part 1

A few months ago I tried to quietly post some field notes from some time I had spent studying one of the most interesting new models of downtown and community revitalization that I’d encountered anywhere. I figured no one other than a few diehards would see them.

I was wrong about that – but the feedback I received from people in the Downtown Las Vegas community and elsewhere indicated to me that I had at least mostly gotten it right. Which was a relief, because it’s a much more complex, and much more relevant, story than much of the coverage that has run in main stream press has indicated.

The Las Vegas Downtown Project’s story, as it has been told by a small assortment of journalists to date, has been a pretty standard blend of the Rich Guy Throws A Lot Of Money At It story, with a bit of a techno-whiz kid, Next Silicon Something spin on it. You know, to keep it interesting. And of course you also get the classic newcomers-oldtimers squabbles, hipster kids mocked for drinking PBR, etc. etc.

Whoopie.  Unless you want to spend your time on another version of this old chestnut, nothing useful for people who are trying to revitalize their communities.
Of course, I’m not a journalist, despite my impressive cred of having been a stringer for the Bedford Times Register back in the day. Most of my life revolves around trying to figure out how people can help make their communities work better in a changing economy and changing technologies. I write about these issues from that background, because I don’t want to just tell a story, I want to help people find new solutions for their most wicked community problems.
I first started hearing about the Downtown Project probably two years ago. My knowledge of it started as a couple of interesting Twitter feeds and slowly turned into a minor obsession – to the extent that I was probably the only tourist in May 2013 taking photos of the dusty lot surrounded by chain link fence that was slated to become the Container Park. It’s on my Instagram feed, if you don’t believe me.
What I learned, through Twitter and e-newsletters, and later through phone calls and a visit tacked on to a delayed anniversary trip, was that the ground-breaking, transformative and potentially disruptive elements of what the Downtown Project was doing stemmed from something much deeper than a construction project or a pile of money.

In ways that I probably still don’t fully understand, the Downtown Project has been applying the lessons of the new technology-based economy to the social and physical work of revitalizing a community. In a certain sense, it’s the Hacker Ethic making an early foray into the world of special improvement districts and downtown festivals. And into figuring out how to find new economic opportunities for old business districts.

Thus begins an occasional series that represents me trying to make sense of what I have seen and heard in Downtown Las Vegas within the context of the other communities that I have worked with nationwide. Despite the national media’s focus on money and tech wizards, I think there is much here that we can take home to our communities.   And way more useful than those oversized cups on Fremont Street.

Part 1: The Holacracy Hive Hybridization

One of the first things you notice when you start paying close attention to the Downtown Project is that the centralized authority story that the big investments would seem to imply…break down pretty quickly in real life. While there are some centralized functions that are clearly run by a central organization, much of what happens on the ground is simply people doing the things that they think the community as a whole needs.  And doing so with a level of “go get ’em” from the organization’s leadership that implies an unusually high level of trust in relatively random volunteers.

Let me explain through a story that was told to me.

A few months ago, someone had the idea of establishing a dog park on the edge of the area of downtown that’s been experiencing some reinvestment. There’s a lot of vacant lots in this area – Vegas is an auto-era town, and the combination of vacant lots and demolished buildings means that open space, in general, unaesthetically-desirable terms, isn’t lacking.
In most towns, when someone thinks there should be a dog park, they start pushing their local government or downtown organization or some other Institution to do it. They agitate, they cajole, they might persuade.

After much debate, the Institution decides whether or this initiative has Merit, and if the Institution concludes that it does, the Institution puts the Park Projet on its Work Plan or its Capital Improvement Plan. Then Plans are Drawn, Designs are Vetted and Approved, Funds are Formally Allocated and, eventually, the Park gets Built.

Except, of course, when it gets stalled out or delayed or tangled up in complications over the course of all the time it takes to get through all those steps.

Perhaps more uncomfortably, the person who had the idea in the first place has to give up control of their vision, or even the ability to have any direct influence over it, in order to get it done.  Oh, they might get some credit at the ribbon cutting, or they might get invited to sit on the Institution’s board. But chances are, they become a footnote. But they have no real control over how it turns out, or whether it actually addresses the need that they perceived as a result of their life in the community.  They have to hand over complete responsibility for the park to the Institution, and… hope for the best. In most cases, for most people with good ideas and without deep pockets, that’s the only option.

What happened with the Downtown Project Dog Park put a very different twist on the model. From what I understand, the person who first came up with that idea had the responsibility within the local culture to run with the Dog Park concept as far as she could go on her own. She presented her idea to the Downtown Project leadership, but instead of saying,
“Thank you for your input. We will take your idea under consideration and decide what to do with it.”

they said,

“If you think the community needs this, great, go for it. Get as far with it as you can. If you reach a point where you need our help, just let us know.”

Do you see the difference there?

The Institution, in this case, was doing something that some of the more cynical among us might interpret from a distance as a subtle type of brush off. But that’s not it. The reason why the Downtown Project said
great idea, go do it, let us know if we can help,  wasn’t because it was a way to get out of responsibility for dog parks, or because they didn’t have the stomach to say no to her face.

There’s something very different going on here.

The Institution, in this case, assumed that the individual represented not just a squeaky wheel, but a member of the community who had insights into community needs and challenges and friction points that other members of the community, including the leadership, might not be in a position to see. The organization regarded the individual proposing the idea as a sensor, an indicator, a data portal indicating a need for the community that she was, for whatever reason, in a unique place to be able to sense and articulate.

Of course, we all know that individuals can sense wrong. So the response both gave her the power to move her perception of what the community needed forward, and it gave her and the organization the opportunity to further test whether her sensing was correct.  By pursuing her idea, perhaps raising some seed funds, finding a lot, seeing if a property owner would sell or lease for a dog park, identifying what furniture and features this dog park should have, both she and, by extension, the Downtown Project had an opportunity to test out whether this proposal actually did meet an achievable need before getting deeply embedded in designs, real estate negotiations, permits.

And because she knew that her ability to win the support she might ultimately need for the dog park depended on being able to show that the community needed and wanted it, she had an inbuilt motivation to reach out and include the community, After all, it was her own personal reputation, not only with the organization itself, but with the broader community surrounding it, that was in play. The power of reputation within a community – we’ll come back to that again in the future.

Eventually, the person who had sensed the need for the dog park reached a point where she needed funding and organizational support to get the project done. When she went back to the Downtown Project, she did so with the ability to demonstrate community support and with a plan of action.

Note: up until that point, all the organization “gave” her was, essentially, a little reinforcement.  A charge to go and do what she felt was right for the community.  A reassurance that if her idea did turn out to have the support of the community, that the community would support her in making it happen.

Not costly, difficult or dangerous stuff.

Zappos, which is the company where Tony Hseih made the millions that are helping to fund the Downtown Project, got a lot of ink in the national business and technology press a few months ago when they announced that Zappos would move to a holacracy model of management. As might be expected, reporters latched on to the obvious and foreign-sounding parts of the announcement – “No Titles!” “No Job Descriptions!”

Which of course then led to “They’re nuts!” And as usual, that missed the most important parts of the story.

I’m no holacracy expert myself, but when I was trying to understand the seemingly thousands of moving parts and these hive-like relationships associated with the Downtown Project, people I was talking to kept pointing me back to the principles of holocracy. We’re not actually doing a holacracy within Downtown Vegas, they told me. But it will help you understand.

So I read, and even sat through a webinar put on by the consulting firm that sort of formalized the holacracy idea into an actionable process. And while I can’t say that I’m ready to go consult on it myself, I think I get the principle:

In a holacracy, everyone has a role to play in terms of advancing the mission of the organization. You know specifically what your role includes, and what your role does not. Within your area of responsibilities, you are entrusted with the power to go and do what you understand to be needed for the success of the mission, without having to ask permission or play politics or jockey for resources, because you are trusted to be a sensor of where friction or pain points are arising that are impeding the organization’s ability to meet its objectives.  When addressing the issue that you have sensed extends beyond your area of responsibility, you are charged to reach out and engage those of your colleagues who have the other responsibilities that need to be brought to bear to address the issues that were sensed.  You do all of that because you know exactly what your responsibilities to the larger organization include, and your ability to build the collaborations that you need in the future depend on the degree to which you have demonstrated that others can trust you to fulfill your role with integrity.

That’s necessarily oversimplified – the holacracy system itself includes a whole elaborate trusswork of rules and spelled-out procedures and specific processes for resolving conflicts, and people who are embedded in holacracies apparently spend a great deal of time refining the rules of the process.

But the result, at least ideally, is an elimination of many of the reasons why we end up having to defer to authorities and organizations to get things done: lack of trust, uncertainty about responsibilities, and perhaps most importantly, lack of a clear and relatively frictionless way to engage the resources that we need beyond those that we directly control in order to meet the larger mission.

There’s a significant challenge in applying a system based on clear roles and clear missions to a community-driven organization, where even the best-crafted missions probably mean something a little different to everyone (just try getting everyone to exactly agree on what “community” means.  Be my guest.)   Not to mention the fact that we all know that community volunteers don’t always want to play exactly by the established rules.

But I learned about dozens of initiatives similar to the dog park story – situations where regular members of the community sensed a need and felt empowered to go pursue it as far as they could, knowing that if they could get some community traction, the Institution would help them carry it to completion. It’s a partnership, a surprisingly respectful and trusting partnership.

 

In a sense, this essay is attempting to understand the Downtown Project by looking at just one slice of it, which means it’s almost guaranteed to be inaccuate, since there are so many elements that seem to play into its unique perspective and its success to date. So do realize that this is an incomplete picture. I’ll try to unpack additional elements in coming posts.

But I’d be interested to see whether this makes sense to you – and how (or if) you think this model might work in your community.