Lowell Catlett is an economist, futurist and professor at New Mexico State University. He often starts his talks about the future with a confession you might not expect. He can't really predict the future. Catlett points to research on the accuracy of economists' forecasts on stock prices, unemployment rates and the like. One study looked at 7,000 different economic predictions and found 47 percent of them were correct. In other words, flip a coin and you can beat the economists by 3 percent. Catlett's take-home message is that although you can't predict the future, you can prepare for it. The preparation is what helps us be adaptable when an uncertain future unfolds before us.
Our civic leaders do a great deal of thinking about the future, often setting ambitious, long-term, big goals. Perhaps your own community has a set of these big goals for the future. I know of a large metropolitan region that set a goal 20 years ago to build a light-rail, public transit system; several rural communities that set their sights on luring large auto manufacturing plants that promised hundreds of jobs; and urban neighborhoods that worked diligently to attract large foundation grants they were sure would reverse years of decline.
What about that metro region? Still no light rail. Those communities looking for the big employer? It never happened. The neighborhoods eyeing those big grants? Not a dime. The people in these communities looked ahead and set big goals. But a recession knocked the props out of the tax revenues expected to fund that light rail system. Some other communities landed those auto jobs. And as for that big grant for the neighborhood, the foundations changed their funding priorities. Big goals, like the future itself, are dependent on too many factors out of our control.
Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard, writes about the power of small wins. She notes that doubt and dwindling motivation comes on quickly when a big goal is missed. She advises that, on the other hand, small wins lead to what she calls the progress principle - more confidence, high performance and motivation to keep moving forward.
Another researcher, John Bryson from the University of Minnesota, says that this same principle holds true for communities. He defines small wins for a community as "concrete, completed, implemented outcomes of moderate importance." To get to the big payoff, Bryson says communities need to set a progressive series of small-win goals informed by a sense of strategic direction. Some recent research done at Purdue University seems to confirm this. Looking at over 300 community planning efforts, those that focused primarily on a progressive series of modest, near-time, easy-win goals were more likely to be successful that those focused primarily on bigger, more transformational and longer-term goals.
For example, one rural community was looking to bolster its agricultural economy, and leaders set their sights on repurposing an old outlet mall near the interstate as a distribution facility for agricultural products. They grew frustrated and discouraged after years of no progress. When they regrouped, they focused instead on setting a few more-modest goals based on what they could make happen in the short run.
Setting aside the outlet mall for the time, they settled on organizing a festival to promote one particular agricultural product produced in their area. They worked first on a recipe contest that would be a featured event at the festival. Within a year, they pulled off the festival with great success. It is now an annual attraction, drawing thousands of visitors (and their money) from around the U.S. and internationally. The big goal - the old outlet mall - was too big, too distant and too much out of their control, but a progressive series of small goals took them to a place they could never have anticipated.
So, the next time you and your fellow community leaders are dreaming of the future, try taking one small step. With each step you can see a little further on the horizon, and eventually you may see something that you couldn't have just a step back. That's when you start running.
This column was originally published in quality newspapers in August 2014.