When Trenton’s Department of Housing and Economic Development hosted Trenton Business Week this fall, the organizers wanted to come away from the annual event with more than just talk. The week normally features a series of events and workshops for the business community, but this year interim director of housing and development Diana Rogers decided to try something different.
She brought in Scott Hutcheson, an expert from Purdue University. Hutcheson teaches a method of strategic planning called “Strategic Doing” that encourages groups of people to take action rather than just make plans. Hutcheson has led workshops in his approach at more than 300 municipalities and many corporations over the years. In Trenton, over four days, about 80 people came up with new ways to improve the city’s economic prospects.
The business people split into teams that instead of breaking up at the end of the day are still meeting regularly to come up with action plans and then implement them. One is creating a 10-person pilot program offering custom training in business skills like branding, management, and finances. Another team is making a restaurant guide. A third team is making an online gallery to display the work of Trenton artists. Yet another is exploring creating a “Trenton Restaurant Association” organization. In total, there are eight teams, each working on a relatively small, manageable project.
Hutcheson says the idea is to create “pathfinder projects” that can bring people together to take action. It’s all part of an approach to planning that favors immediate, small-scale action.
“You hear a lot about terrific planning efforts, where a lot of good strategic thinking is done, but the effort falls short of implementation,” Hutcheson says. “And actually that is kind of the rule for most traditional strategic planning.” One study, by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, found that 70 percent of all strategic plans never get executed.
“This is a real shame and a waste of resources,” Hutcheson says. “We think ‘Strategic Doing’ is a faster and less expensive means of mobilizing people towards some shared measurable outcomes that we can begin the implementation of from day one. You don’t risk the phenomenon where you do great planning for sometimes months and years, and nothing gets implemented. It’s a much more agile, iterative approach, where you begin to focus on small experiments so you can see what works, and figure out how you can scale and replicate and sustain.”
In Hutcheson’s view, the old style of strategic planning goes with traditional organizations where there is a top-down hierarchical power structure. However, many organizations now have a much more open networks. And a nebulous group like the “Trenton Business Community” has no formal power structure to speak of. Hutcheson’s method is designed to work in systems where decision making power is distributed among many different people, including businesses where different teams work together.
Hutcheson says it’s a four-step process. First comes a discussion of “what could we do?,” which is narrowed down to “what should we do?” After goals are established, a plan is formed: “What will we do?” and last comes a 30-day action plan, where everyone makes a commitment to do something and then come back after 30 days to re-evaluate. The first 30-day action plan is intentionally a very small step forward, typically requiring no more than a one-hour time commitment from anyone.
“I think it worked really well in Trenton,” Hutcheson says.
Hutcheson has taught this approach to numerous different groups over the years, ranging from corporations to communities. He grew up in various places in the Midwest, having been born in Oklahoma and moved to Illinois, Indiana, Texas, and Tennessee. His father was a dentist, but he died when Hutcheson was young, and his mother remarried to a minister.
Hutcheson earned an undergraduate degree in theater at Chattanooga, where he picked up an odd job as a writer at a community meeting. “I saw up close how a community can remake itself by convening regular folks,” he says. “I would say a light bulb went off in my head,” he says. He worked in the corporate world for a while before returning to school to get a master’s in public administration and beginning work in economic development. He later earned a doctorate in public policy. But Hutcheson is no ivory tower professor.
“I’ve always been more of a practitioner than an academic,” he says.
Mostly he has been working on the “strategic doing” method that was invented by his colleague, corporate strategy consultant Ed Morrison. He came up with the technique in the 1980s in Cleveland. Ten years ago Hutcheson joined him in teaching it all around the country. “Ours is really a teaching model rather than a consultancy model,” he says. “We try to teach people a set of skills that they can use long after we’re gone.”
The eight Trenton project teams are open to new members. Anyone interested can e-mail Eric Maywar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shop Local Red Team: Create a 10-business pilot program offering custom training for individual Trenton businesses focusing on skills like marketing, branding and promotions; loyalty-building; management; and finances.
Shop Local Blue Team: Create a comprehensive restaurant guide.
Arts Economy Red Team: Create a virtual gallery for Trenton artists: a website where they can sell their work, show their portfolio to entities who want to commission work and other functions focused on supporting the ability of Trenton artists to make money doing what they love.
Arts Economy Blue Team: Plan and launch a series of at least eight artists showcase events with two in each ward. These will be held in unexpected places and feature a wide variety of local artists.
Food Entrepreneurs Red Team: Explore creation of Trenton Restaurant Association which would offer training and support tailored for Trenton restaurants.
Food Entrepreneurs Blue Team: Explore what it would take to start a food co-op.
Waterfront Red Team: Create an inventory map of existing southern waterfront assets (Rho, Trenton Thunder, arena, route 29 park, etc) in both virtual and hardcopy manifestations, with photos and a virtual tour.
Waterfront Blue Team: Launch an effort to conceptualize the downtown waterfront as a destination for arts, culture, and sports.