This post ought to be fairly short. Its length is out of proportion to its importance. If pressed I would say that this is the heart of the matter of development, and it is rarely well done.
The title is more bold than most. It uses “Always“, it uses “Only” and it uses the number “One“. There isn’t much to parse there, but for purposes of emphasis, the above axiom has been proven out by experience for decades across many circumstances and groups. It does in fact say that “always” (under all conditions), there is but a single developmental theme “up” (at issue, primed for resolutions, in proper range, having underlying power sufficient to the circumstantial bind) at a given time. And to further emphasize, there is only one such theme at a given time that really resonates with those involved as timely, fitting, inspiring and honest.
If you can count to one, and are willing to listen for the resonant theme that is timely, you can be powerful at developing yourself and others.
If you insist on laundry lists, a complaint list of flaws, multiple “needs” that are all considered current, you will fail in the area of development. If you need to fill out a list of things longer than one upon which you will improve, you will fail at development. If you need to blame failure on a number of political players individually and collectively, you will fail at development. If you are greedy to improve and think that more areas of improvement will be better, you will both fail at development and will lock yourself into a shallow view of what is possible in the area of development.
So, what is the heart of development? It is letting go of an old identification or methodology in which you have invested yourself by seeing through its inability to deliver what it promises (when challenged with a current or upcoming circumstance). Its second aspect is opening a new direction of investigation and exploration that is capable of delivering on its promise in that area. The third aspect is staying with the engagement until the access to power in the area has been connected with. The fourth aspect is to raise this new power to a level of reliability or mastery on which further development can be built.
The above view of development can be placed in time in its appropriate setting and becomes more simple. When what used to have power is no longer sufficient to one’s circumstances and relations in life, it is time to appreciatively let it go in favor of what is more fitting. That which can indeed meet and match the times and can be listened to as available to become, that which is resonant as the next fulfillment of one’s development being unfolded is indeed that which is up next. It can be heard as a more real challenge that is “right-sized” and leads to a more sound base for operating than either those that are “over the moon” and require “breakthrough after breakthrough”, or those that seem quite arbitrary (e.g. a 20% increase in productivity in the next two quarters.)
Leadership can be said to be identifying, in a way that resonates, the next developmental theme up for a given group. There lies development, there lies productivity and accomplishment, and there lies a coordination of strengths in behalf of a new level of competence and power– all rolled into one.
As a brief example, I was asked to work with a Mayor and city government in a medium-sized, fast-growing city. Their development process (design, approval and sign off for new buildings and projects) was considered “broken” in that it took three times as long and was three times as expensive as neighboring cities of similar make up. I asked for two days to interview staff and developers in private and then to report back on television on the third day with a proposal and plan. Holding the interviews/meetings privately opened the room for honesty. (Swearing not to tell who said what ensured it.) All wanted to be heard, and as usual, they all had deeper insight to offer into what was and wasn’t going well and why.
During my interviews, I found on a shelf in my room 5 separate binders from 5 earlier consulting analyses regarding this very issue of a “broken” Development Process over the prior 5 years. Each was thicker than the last. There were executive summaries, charts, graphs, and page after page of discussion. And the issue was still broken. Quick analysis: wrong issue. Not the one theme up.
On the evening of the third day, I appeared at the meeting with the Mayor and City Council that was broadcast over the local TV channel. I held two pieces of paper with a short list of bullet points– my entire report. When it came time to address the local development process, I began, “I notice that this consulting experiment has been done five times and that the issue remains. It is my view that the recommendations that have been made prior have not been followed — they may not have been followable. It is not my intention to be the sixth in that line. This will be straightforward and simple.”
“On these two pieces of paper, I have an analysis of the issue and a set of specific recommendations with which you can resolve your issue with the development process. I would like to go through them and at the end of reading the bullet points, and any questions asked and addressed, I would like the Mayor and City Council to either agree to follow the recommendations or to decline. If you do select to follow the recommendations, I ask that the Head of Public Works be in charge of the Development Process and report progress back to this groups in 3 months and in 6 months.”
My analysis consisted of the following: that the city treated developers as the enemy and vice versa. There was no collaboration in building the city they intended together. Distrust was rampant on both sides and the term “extortion” had been used multiple times to account for concessions the city required in order to approve a project. Further, there was no place to lodge a complaint that might not be costly to a developer in future projects. The current results fit the current structure perfectly. Unless there were major alterations, the expensive results would likely continue, along with the city’s reputation among developers.
My recommendations were the following: For the City government to say clearly the kind of city and projects they intended to have. For the developers to send to the City Staff the comparable costs of the development processes in nearby cities. For both groups to get on the same page regarding both items — the kind of buildings/projects, and the cost structure comparable to nearby cities. In addition, I recommended the firing (or at least moving out of his job) of the most egregious “extorter” (that happened by the next day given television and newspapers), and the return to the regular central development meeting of those with the authority to make decisions regarding development submissions and licensing of projects. I asked that the Head of Public Works take the overview of the project to bring this city’s development process in line with nearby cities and that he report to the Mayor on the status in 3 months and 6 months. Finally, I asked that the Head of Public Works be the person to receive complaints and commendations about how the process went for the developers, with that information made available to the Mayor and City Council in 3 and 6 months.
That was it. One paragraph. Several points. The City Officials and Managers agreed to the proposal (hard not to on TV in an area that wasn’t working just prior to an election.)
The overall outcome was that the report back in 3 and then 6 months culminated in a 600% improvement in the city’s development process — cut in half the cost and cut to one third the time. It was now at minimum in line with, and mostly more efficient than, other similar cities.
So, what was the one theme up? I’d say to bring integrity into the relationship between the city government, city managers and the developers — to be players on the team that builds the future of that growing city. Without that theme, this would have likely remained a battle to this day. Once that direction was embraced, everything leads in a more workable direction. No need to protect an “extorter.” No need to ignore what other cities have learned about the process, no need to have meetings where the decision makers aren’t there. No need to bury the issue but better to elevate it to a public update on TV three and six months out and resolve it. (And given that there was an election coming up, there was a strong pull to be part of a winning accomplishment that had been an issue for years.)
Whenever it looks like there is a lot going on — developers complaining, city staff swamped, deadlines slipping, issues among city council members, etc. — recall that there is always and only one developmental theme up — one alteration that can begin to resolve the laundry list of issues — one fundamental place to go to work that will call up support from all. The alternative is to miss the development called for and have an unnatural increase in results that moves for attention and pressure and sinks back in the absence of it. It is always the right time to build the foundation, the base of power, and strengthen basic competencies that will be of fundamental usefulness through time as expansion happens.