Advance(d) Northeast Ohio

Last October, a diverse group of 600 or so Cleveland residents came together over three days to set priorities and goals for the region’s economic future as part of the “Cleveland Rising Summit.”  They ended up forming more than two-dozen working groups to tackle what they identified as the region’s biggest challenges. To some folks in Cleveland it must have felt like “déjà vu all over again.”    

Let me explain.  Back in 2005, the Fund for Our Economic Future organized a very similar process they called “Voices and Choices,” which had a very similar objective – to set priorities and goals for the region’s economic future.  The Fund held dozens of events over 18 months that involved some 20,000 residents across Northeast Ohio.  After combing through all of the input they received, they came up with a comprehensive plan called Advance Northeast Ohio, and reached out to other organizations across the region to help carry out that plan. 

In 2011 when some colleagues and I were helping the Fund take stock of their work, we found that while Advance Northeast Ohio had transformed the work of the Fund, it had had very little influence on the agenda, priorities, or direction of other organizations working on the same issues.  One reason was because the plan’s thematic approach and regional scope made it difficult for potential partners, who were mainly focused on specific issues and working at the local level, to act on it.  Another reason was because potential partners already had plans of their own.  

Fortunately, the field has made big advances since then, and we’ve gotten a lot smarter about how to do this kind of work.

For one thing, we are now much clearer about what it takes to achieve inclusive growth.  Ten years ago, there was a lot of confusion and debate about what constitutes inclusive growth.  Today, there’s growing consensus that inclusive growth requires growing “good” jobs in ways that expand opportunity for all by helping residents of low-income communities prepare for and gain access to those jobs.  

The three key components in that definition – job creation, job preparation, and job access – now provide a useful, common framework for organizing inclusive growth efforts.  And there’s growing awareness and acceptance that where those three components intersect is the sweet spot for transformational change. 

We’ve also learned a great deal over the past decade about how complex systems work, and what it takes to change them.  Traditionally, most large-scale improvement efforts have assumed that making as big a difference as possible requires changing as many things as possible by as much as possible.  However, since transformation isn’t a linear or additive process, pulling a lot of different levers at once doesn’t necessarily produce a breakthrough.  In fact, experience shows that it usually just produces more complexity to manage, and it often leads to burnout among the folks pulling the levers.

A key lesson from complexity science is that, because there are so many factors interacting with each other in unpredictable ways, the root cause of the problem is rarely where we expect to find it, and the solution is often counterintuitive.  Finding the actual root cause requires digging into the dynamics of underlying systems.  And figuring out what to do about it requires identifying a few key points of leverage, where small changes can make a significant and lasting difference.  

In short, the key to making improvements in complex systems is to go deep, not wide, to focus on root causes, not symptoms, and to keep it simple.  

A third area where we’re getting a lot smarter has to do with who to involve, and when and how to involve them.  Most practitioners would agree that achieving inclusive growth requires an inclusive process.  But there are many ways to go about that.

One way to do that is to involve as diverse a group of people as possible in the planning process. That approach is consistent with long-standing traditions in community organizing and participatory democracy, as well as the more contemporary practice of open sourcing.  

However, it takes a lot of digging to uncover trends, patterns, and relationships in underlying systems to find root causes and to spot key points of leverage.  So, that work is not easily crowd-sourced.  Experience shows that work requires specialized skills in data analysis and systems thinking, as well as the wisdom and experience of the people who work in those systems or spent time trying to change those systems. 

Looked at from that standpoint, inclusion is not about asking a diverse group of individuals what needs to be done, then collating their responses.  It’s about involving the people closest to the problem in solving that problem, once the root cause of that problem has been identified through rigorous up-front analysis.  

The same is true when it comes to implementation.  One way to make implementation inclusive is to involve as many other organizations as possible in carrying out a single plan.  That was the approach the Fund took to implementing its plan that came out of Voices and Choices.  

However, as the Fund found out, most other organizations already have their own plans that reflect their own unique missions, priorities, and interests.  So, a more effective approach to implementation is to embed the analysis of the problem and a framework for solving that problem into the plans for work of other organizations in ways that they perceive add value to their efforts. 

The Fund is taking that kind of distributed and adaptive approach to implementing its recent Two Tomorrows report.  That report focuses on job creation, job preparation, and job access, reflecting the emerging consensus on the key components of inclusive growth.  And it focuses on underlying systems and key points of leverage in changing those systems, reflecting both a solid understanding and the effective application of complexity science to their work.  

It’s no accident, then, that the work of the Fund is getting a lot of attention and acclaim from others doing similar work across the country.  There’s clearly a lot the organizers of Cleveland Rising could learn from them as well.  

Pete Carlson is president of Regional Growth Strategies