The Six Steps to Get Stuff Done: Going from Planning to Doing

We’ve all seen them. If you’ve been in the community, downtown, or economic development worlds for more than five minutes, you’ve seen them. The plans that were paid for, agonized over, and proudly presented, only to have them sit in a binder on a shelf in an office. Maybe you dust them off from time to time. They usually have some good ideas but have never been implemented. They just sit there. Useless because they aren’t being done. 

An important part of executing a plan is to start with a good plan. Well, no kidding, right? But what do I mean by a “good plan”? The most important thing to us when we write any plan or strategy is understanding how to actually implement the things you recommend. A good plan will be able to tell you what detailed steps (A, B, C, D, etc.) you need to take to go from idea to finished project. We call this an Implementation Plan. Many firms claim they do Implementation Plans. Few do it well. If you’re hiring someone to do a plan, ask for an example of their Implementation Plans. If it doesn’t look like a detailed spreadsheet (or similar format) using many of the tips below, then you know they don’t know how to do a proper Implementation Plan. You may just end up paying for a very expensive coffee table book. 

How to Move from Planning to Doing- Be Specific

The key to moving from idea to action is to be specific. The more specific you can be in putting together an Implementation Plan, the higher your probability of successfully executing the plan. Here’s a list of what I affectionately call, The Six Steps to Get Stuff Done.

  1. What- This is simply what specifically you need to do, step by step, to get a project done. If a project required three steps, great. If it needs twenty-six steps, that’s fine too. This “What” becomes a checklist that lets you know you’re making progress on a project. It’s also important to realize what your capacity is to do all of the things mentioned in the plan. If your community doesn’t have the ability (people power, money, political will) to do a project in the plan, it shouldn’t be in the plan.   
  2. Who- Who specifically is responsible for executing each step. Try not to put general groups like “Promotions Committee” or “Chamber of Commerce.” Sometimes that is unavoidable, but at a minimum, it should be the chair or staff person’s name on the Implementation Plan for that group. Naming the person in this step is powerful. You are designating them as the person who, from now until completion, will be responsible for the success or failure of the project. The reason you don’t want to name a group is that there is little accountability (more on that below) if a group doesn’t get a project done. There’s much more accountability if “John Smith” or “Sue Jones” doesn’t do what they said they would do. As I said above, this can be the chairperson’s name and the group that gets credit, but that person has to be the one responsible.  
  3. When- When does the project (and each step if you want to be “extra,” as the kids say these days) need to be completed. Again, be specific. Don’t put “2021,” or “Fall 2021.” Put “November 1, 2021.” We, as humans, need deadlines. Non-specific deadlines create wiggle room. Wiggle room is the enemy of getting stuff done. This is not to say if things come up you can’t change the deadlines. You can and should if needed. But the change in those deadlines should be discussed and explained as part of the Review/Accountability process.  
  4. Budget- If a project needs money to do what it needs to do, this needs to be identified up front. However, this is the one area where you might not need the budget to the penny. But you will know whether or not you need money (and roughly how much) to do a project. If the person named is responsible for getting it done, they have to have the resources available to them to make the project a success. 
  5. Success Measurement- How will you know if the project is successful? Defining success gives the person responsible a target to aim for. Be specific and realistic. If you have a façade program you want to implement, pick a number of façades you think is realistic. Maybe that number is one, maybe it’s a dozen. Sometimes the measurement will be “we accomplished X.” But even in that accomplishment include goals and measurables like, “Establish twice-a-week Instagram posts, generating 1,000 followers.” In that statement there are two measurable goals: 104 Instagram posts and 1,000 followers. These measures, like timelines, can be adjusted for circumstances. Lord knows, if we all learned one thing in 2020, it’s we need to be flexible sometimes. If the success measures need to be adjusted, then that should be discussed as well during the Review/Accountability process.    
  6. Frequent Review/Accountability- This is the hardest of all. I always tell people, “Everyone loves accountability until they’re held accountable.” Additionally, the number one thing that happens with a plan once it’s completed is that it goes in a binder and then on a shelf. This is where plans go to die. One of the things we do with our Implementation Plans is we put it in an Excel Spreadsheet. The purpose of the spreadsheet, unlike a printed plan, is that it’s a living document. It can be updated and changed if needed. We always encourage our clients to review the Implementation Plans for the plans and strategies we do for them on a monthly basis. The main reason we encourage monthly is if you only review it quarterly or yearly, if you are coming up on a deadline that someone may have forgot, then the project may only get slightly off schedule versus WAY off schedule or ended up getting scrapped all together. The Implementation Plan, if done using the way described above, becomes a checklist for people to check with on the status of specific steps to ensure they’re on a the agreed upon timeline. Reviewing them monthly provides the accountability we all need to make sure a project happens. If there’s a need to adjust the steps, budget, success measure, or timeline, then you can do it. But it has to be in front of people often so that it doesn’t get put on a shelf and forgotten about. 

That’s it. If you do those six things with your plans, you will dramatically improve the probability of moving your plans from paper to reality. 

Joe Borgstrom is a principal with Place + Main Advisors, LLC. Place + Main specializes in economic development, downtown and real estate redevelopment, community marketing, and public relations.

The Importance of People’s Connection to Their Community and How Economic Development is Changing

If there’s one thing we’ve learned during the COVID crisis, it’s that jobs that we thought had to be done in an office can be done at home. A colleague of mine recently said something very profound: “COVID has forced 10 years of change in the workplace into six months.” A recent article in Area Development, a magazine dedicated to traditional economic development, states that as much as 20% of the workforce may remain working from home, full-time. It’s a simple realization, but with massive implications.

Even prior to COIVD, the economic development industry has seen a large shift in the things prospective businesses are looking for. Traditionally, economic developers were concerned about how to build industrial or office parks and using incentives to help keep and attract businesses. (This is an admitted oversimplification, but still the basic gist of what economic developers largely do.) Industry publications, like Area Development, often do annual surveys of corporate executives or site location professionals. Typically, these lists have items on them like “availability of buildings” and “tax burden.” However, over the last ten years, “Availability of Talent” has risen to a Top 2 item (jockeying every year with logistics issues.) In addition, “Quality of Life” has risen to a Top 4 item. Interestingly enough, Quality of Life wasn’t on the survey at all five years ago. As surveys like these go, the higher something is on the list, the more attention economic developers will pay to it in order to best position their community for growth. As availability of talent became a reoccurring theme, economic development organizations have become more engaged in workforce development. We’re starting to see it more in Quality of Life issues, like creating quality downtowns and communities. 

Enter Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi, Texas, by most accounts is a very successful region. Located on the “Coastal Bend” of south Texas, along the Gulf of Mexico, it’s the home to numerous corporate facilities, oil and gas companies, major engineering and construction companies, warm Gulf air, sunshine, and just about more sailboats than I’ve ever seen in one place. Economically speaking, it’s what a lot of communities want to be. Official accounts reflect that this region has seen over $52 billion in industrial investment in the last decade, if the region was a state of its own, it would rank 8th nationally in new investment. But they have an interesting problem. Despite the billions of dollars in new investments, they’re having a hard time retaining and attracting talent. 

“This community has seen a decades-long process of not retaining young people, especially the brightest and most educated, who have moved to larger communities around the state, most notably Austin, San Antonio, and Houston,” said Corpus Christi Regional Economic Development Corporation (CCREDC) President and CEO Iain Vasey. This puts both talent and place at the forefront of economic development efforts. 

In late September, we at Place + Main kicked off a “first-of-its-kind” project in partnership with world renown Place Attachment expert, Dr. Katherine Loflin (aka “The City Doctor”,) the University of Michigan-Flint’s Office of Economic Development and the very economically successful Corpus Christi region, led by the CCREDC. The project, “Our Coastal Bend: Creating a Complete Community for Place and Prosperity,” aims to do two things: 

1) Understand what makes residents in the region feel emotionally connected to their community; and 

2) Develop a plan to enhance and expand those things about the community that are associated with their connection to help retain and attract residents.

Over the next six months our team will conduct this two-phase project. The first phase is a survey developed by Dr. Loflin during her time leading the groundbreaking Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community project, which measured residents’ emotional connection to their cities, what drives it, why it matters to local economic development. The Soul of the Community project, conducted in concert with Gallup, studied attachment in 26 different city regions around the country over three years 2008-2010. This same methodology will be used in the Corpus Christi region as it has in other places around the world. 

The second phase will focus on optimizing those things found that help optimize that attachment. Improving key areas of community life, like downtowns and commercial districts, beautification, social opportunities, housing options, walkability, and parks, will be planned with organizations around the region. The proven premise being that people who are more attached to the community have a tendency to spend more time and money there, and also will stay loyal to living there which in turn helps the economic development of the region. 

Economic development is often characterized by simply chasing after businesses. But this step forward by the CCREDC, changes their focus. Vasey added, “As an economic development organization, we have a strong record as a transactional outfit, working on employment, investment, and industrial deals. We have not had as much of a history as a transformational organization, namely that beyond job-creation and business expansion/recruitment, we have not worked hard at changing the economic culture in the region. It’s time we focused our energy on building our community attachment index and transforming our identity in terms of quality of place. This is something the best and most strategic-thinking economic development organizations have to really lean into.”

With the importance talent and place have on a community being driven by a prominent regional player like the CCREDC, placemaking, innovative applied survey research, and community development are taking center stage in one of the most well-resourced industries. This can only lead to better outcomes for communities like Corpus Christi and other communities and regions who realize it’s time for a different approach. 

It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)

It’s hard not to read those words and hear R.E.M. front man Michael Stipe’s voice. It’s also hard to realize there will be no “getting back to normal,” but here we are. I’m here to tell you though, this isn’t all bad. Yes, this virus has claimed thousands of lives and left many families with one (or more) seats empty around the table. It would be insensitive and cruel not to acknowledge and empathize this fact. It’s also led to the highest unemployment rate since the Great Depression with millions of people worried about their economic future, including hundreds of thousands of small business owners who’ve risked their life savings to live the American Dream. ALL of this sucks. HARD. But in times of rough waters, I’m the type of person not to curse the storm, but to adjust to the changing winds (but seriously, fuck this storm.) 

In that light, I want to share what I see are the emerging opportunities for those of us who live and breathe small business development, downtowns, and real estate redevelopment. 

Retail

This seems kind of counterintuitive in a down economy, but hear me out. In a recent survey of small businesses conducted by Main Street America, since the outbreak, found that nearly two-thirds of small businesses don’t have a selling function on their website, or that they DON’T EVEN HAVE HAVE A WEBSITE. I’ll repeat that: TWO THIRDS OF SMALL BUSINESSES IN OUR DOWNTOWNS ARE NOT SELLING ONLINE. People are more than willing to shop local. Especially, Generation X and Millennials. But if your brick and mortar business doesn’t offer the ability for your customers to support your business when the “open” sign isn’t on, you are giving them permission to shop online with someone else. These same business owners (shockingly enough) are seeing a decrease of over 75% in sales during this time. If you can’t be bothered to figure out how to do a website that sells your product when you’re not physically in your store in the year 2020, maybe you shouldn’t be in business by the year 2021. Just because these businesses aren’t able to sell, doesn’t necessarily mean what they’re selling isn’t in demand. If they die, this will create opportunities for new businesses who are willing to adapt to customer preferences, like websites and staying open later. The lesson here isn’t “small business is dead,” it’s “dinosaurs go extinct.” 

Real Estate Ownership

In the coming shit storm, thousands of potential bankruptcies will become a glut of bank-owned property. This has the potential to make the Great Recession of 2006-2012 look like a birthday party. The last thing banks want is to take control of property and manage it. They suck at it and they know it. Real estate stands a good chance of declining in value based on the banks’ willingness to unload it combined with being dependent on retail sales, which in many markets have tanked. This will open up the potential of a lot more buildings and property to be purchased. Tough economic times may also force that third-generation property owner who thinks the building is worth a million dollars (when it’s actually more like $100,000) finally look to unload it to get cash. Groups who want to leverage the situation should look to join forces in order to stockpile property to be controlled for future redevelopment. The largest hurdle in the redevelopment of a downtown is often one (or a small handful of) property owner(s) who don’t want to play ball. This may be the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain control of a building or property. 

Real Estate Management

If you are lucky enough to own a property but lost a retail tenant, especially due to poor business practices (like a lack of online selling or later business hours) you have the opportunity to influence these behaviors. As my good friend Ben Muldrow of Arnett Muldrow and Associates has pointed out during one of our many conversations, there is no reason downtown property owners can’t offer “discounts” to business owners who follow best practices, like having a website or staying open until 7pm. This discounted rate would likely just be the normal rate and a higher rate would be charged as a premium to account for the higher risk of failure for those who don’t use those practices. There’s a great line often attributed to John Wayne, but is actually from the movie Jackie Brown, “This life’s hard man, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.” Think of it as a shitty business owner tax. You’re a bad business owner? Well, you pay extra. These types of commitments (common hours and days of operation) for retailers are often enforced in shopping centers and malls all over the country. The drastic changes this virus has brought to our shopping habits can also be used as a force, and justification, for making these changes to our respective property management techniques. The key to success though, will be the adoption of a core group of property owners in a downtown and enforcement of the lease agreement conditions. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to do this, just applying common sense and standards that are seen in other areas. 

Public Space + Parking

One of the best things to come out of this pandemic has been the openness of so many people to rethink parking, especially to benefit restaurants. There’s about a billion reasons to rethink parking, but leaders and many business people have refused to hear them. Until now. In light of the need for increased social distancing, we’re seeing a drastic reduction, either by government mandate or customer preference, in capacity. The most logical answer given the warmer summer weather is to allow restaurants to spill out onto the sidewalks and even parking spaces in front of these businesses. In my opinion, sidewalks are, and have been, a no-brainer. Do it and do it now. The harder conversation has been about parking. Some cities, like Tampa, have closed entire streets to help restaurants. But let’s stick with parking spaces right now. If there is a parallel parking spot in front of a restaurant, that one car may provide anywhere from 1-4 patrons (assuming the car that’s parked is intending to go to the restaurant, which it might not be.) That same space could allow for two socially distanced tables of four. This could seat anywhere from 2-8 people. Now, this one space where at a minimum has one person parking, who may or may not be going to this restaurant, now magically has the ability to at least double the number of people served by that space, AND is guaranteed to be dedicated to that restaurant. Add the space next to that and the number doubles again. Where the conversation gets even more real is when we suggest looking at shutting down the street. There are several factors there, chiefly local control followed by local political will. State trunk lines will be far more difficult than local roads. But at this point, no stone should go unturned. 

Downtown Organizations 

This one is the hardest for me as this will be the most drastic and painful of changes. Virtually every downtown organization will be financially hit by this. Whether these groups get their revenue from tax increment financing, special assessment, sales tax, bed tax, donations, or just revenue from events they produce, they are going to see either a direct drop or be cut in a budgeting process. Even the most resilient form of funding, special assessments (or a small tax levied for the specific task of funding improvements), will see significant political pressure to reduce or eliminate in the name of providing relief for property and business owners. (If you’re fortunate enough to have a special assessment, stay as strong as possible during the political fight.) For many downtown organizations in mid-size and small communities, there is usually a decent chunk of revenue provided by their local government. They should be prepared for that funding to be at least cut in half, if not eliminated entirely. With increased social distancing and federal guidelines still banning group gatherings in many states, major events, that often produce half a year’s income or more, will be gone. Those who rely on one event will be done. For years, Main Street organizations in particular have complained that they’re only seen as party planners. These next six months will prove whether your organization is a party planner or an economic development organization. Those who will survive will have done so because they were able to successfully communicate and prove their economic value to their funding partners. But even they will likely take a hit, but not anywhere near as bad. 

So, where’s the opportunity? The opportunity will be like many businesses, in the diversification of revenue. How does that happen? Painfully to start. Putting all of your eggs in one revenue basket isn’t just unwise, it’s potentially deadly for your organization. Downtown organizations have several relatively unexplored areas of revenue. These are: property development, rental income, fee for service, and special assessments. In my next article I will go into these areas in more detail. But for now, know there are other ways for downtown organizations to fulfill their mission while diversifying your revenue. In the meantime, be an advocate for your businesses and property owners. Help them communicate to a larger audience of their availability. Help property owners fill vacancies or sell their properties. Do everything you can to be of help. Now is the time to prove how valuable you can be. 

The changes we’re experiencing, and will continue to experience, will be the most challenging and difficult any of us have ever faced in our professional lives. We will see businesses and organizations we love go out of business. But these awful situations will give way to opportunity. Be ready to seize the opportunity.