One of the concepts taught in business school is the hierarchy of planning: goals, strategies, tactics.
Goals are the big-picture visions of what you want to be – and maybe some thoughts on why.
Strategies are the broad outlines of how you’re going to achieve those goals. Tactics are the specific steps to translate those strategies into action.
It works in just about every context, from the personal to the professional, from the smallest company to the biggest corporation, from villages to nations.
Want a new car? There’s your goal. Strategies? You’ll want to list what information and resources you’ll need to make your purchase. Once you get to the tactics level, you’re working out the details of what specific information sources to use to select a model, where you’re going to buy it and how you’ll come up with the money.
The boundaries can be a bit squishy and obscure between the three layers, but the important principle is that, for a plan to be meaningful, it needs elements of all three. A plan with goals but no scheme for achieving them is just daydreaming. A plan with a bunch of tactics but no coherent organization or sense of how they work together or the ultimate point is just a grocery list.
Which gets us, once again and unfortunately, to the running topic of economic development plans in the state of Washington.
You could fill Commencement Bay with the reports issued over the decades that purport to outline an economic development strategy for the region or the state. Why you would want to do that to a perfectly nice body of water is another matter, but it wouldn’t be any more useful or less pointless than issuing yet another.
The latest to try its hand at writing a grand plan is the Washington Economic Development Commission, which has issued “Driving Washington’s Prosperity: A Strategy for Job Creation And Competitiveness.” Issued in January, it’s an update and revision of a 2009 report.
For lofty rhetoric about goals, there’s no shortage of material in “Driving Washington’s Prosperity.” Example: “Our vision for Washington is a place where citizens have access to the best learning resources in the world and are encouraged to capitalize on their abilities to create prosperity for themselves and for others. It is a place that has a global outlook, looking to emerging markets and nurturing collaboration across its diverse geography and industry clusters. It is a place that is a magnet for creative and entrepreneurial people and enterprises where innovation is open and everyone can participate and share in its benefits.
“If we get it right, we have outstanding potential for economic, job and income growth.”
Nor is the report lacking in generic strategies for achieving what’s referred to as an innovation economy: “Make talent a top priority. Invest in entrepreneurship. Connect through reliable infrastructure. Regulate in the smartest ways. Expand international business.”
But as for the specifics — whoops, no help there. You’re on your own.
Consider, for example, the recommendation under the infrastructure heading to “implement alternative financing mechanisms” and “prioritize the most critical infrastructure challenges.”
Oh really? Pray tell, what mechanisms? What projects? On these matters the report is silent.
This isn’t the only instance of the report suggesting that new financial models are needed but leaving the significant question of how to someone else. Note the section on the need to expand the state’s higher ed and vocational training systems.
Fill out the pages with the usual bafflegab about doing more with lean management techniques and reviewing regulations and you’ve got a report indistinguishable from the dozens already written or yet to be.
Legislators — you know, the people who have to write budgets with specific numbers in them — would be entirely justified in looking at a report like this and asking, “Why are you bothering us with this? Do you think no one here has ever thought of any of this before?” The more likely reaction, though, is to nod politely and then file it with similar other reports (preferably not at the bottom of Commencement Bay).
Curiously, the commission has some idea of the need for specifics, because the report mentions several quite specific projects it has been involved in to encourage and accelerate the commercialization of research being done at the state’s universities. As readers of publications such as The News Tribune know, that’s just one thin slice of the specific work being done across this state at the local level on the sorts of things that contribute to a healthy economy. Had it cited those examples with a recommendation for expanding them, that would have been a report worth writing and reading.
The commission, other would-be report writers and the state as a whole would be better served with a two-page list of recommendations: Here are the transportation projects you should fund and here’s where you should get the money. Here are the specific training programs we need, here’s where they should be set up and here’s where you should get the money.
But you won’t see a report like that, because once you get into specifics, a lot of specific people are going to get specifically annoyed if their pet project, cause or funding source is left out or taken away. A crucial part of planning is to make choices; if you’re not willing to make choices, then you don’t have a plan.Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.