Dean Barber

Another Way to Make and Bake

In Uncategorized on October 14, 2012 at 7:46 am

More than a year ago, I wrote a blog that took a rather critical look at what some people in the world of economic development see as a holy grail of sorts — the venerable strategic plan.

Not surprisingly, it stirred up a hornet’s nest.  I was criticized by some who said that I didn’t advocate or believe in their vaunted religion of long-term planning. Well, that’s a bunch of horse hockey.  I never said anything of the kind. I would welcome you to read “The Problem with Strategic Plans” and be the judge.

Rather, what I said was that it is easy for some economic development organizations to get so caught up in the planning process that they do not and cannot see the forest for trees and nothing gets done, as the study itself becomes the end game.

If you have been a reader of my Barberbiz blog, you might have noticed that I will sometimes challenge conventional thinking. I don’t do this for the sake of being a contrarian, even if I am one on occasion.

I will admit to an ulterior motive that is aimed squarely at potential clients. And it is simply this – that I am willing to take a critical view at certain things that are widely accepted as being the right course, when they might not be at all. I do this on the corporate side for site selection and on the economic development side. Doing so serves my clients well.

Now I have seen, you have too, some strategic plans that are, at first blush, rather impressive documents. They are thick and populated with graphs, tables, matrix diagrams and flow charts, proving that whoever did them must have really known their stuff.  Usually, they have been handed to me by beaming economic developers, proud parents of a wonderful creation.

Fat Plans Lean on Action

Sometimes these are, indeed, excellent documents that pave the way for a better way. But sometimes they fall short. I have seen more than a few fat strategic plans that are lean in providing for actionable items, recommended concrete things to do within a certain timeline. And you have to do stuff if you are going to get to the Promised Land.

I’ll say it again (for those itching consultants ready to pounce) that strategic plans can fill the bill and provide for a real actionable roadmap to the future. Based on our findings, try doing this, this and this, and then call us in the morning.  In such cases, the consultant has provided real value, even if his report is largely ignored.

I say that because all too often the recommendations (if they are present) are of a secondary importance. Rather, it is the report itself, the fact that it was done at all is of primary concern. In such instances, the strategic planning report serves as political cover for a local economic developer who wants to prove his or her bones — that something is getting done or was done, all in the name of progress.

“Look, I got us a strategic plan. It’s 250 pages. I think there is an executive summary in the front that you might want to read.”

And then it sits on a shelf somewhere, never to be referenced as that working roadmap, a document with legs.

The Report That He Paid For

An economic developer in Alabama, a good friend, told me that he once instructed a consultant on what the fine points of the future study should say in order that he (the economic developer) would have better footing to work toward certain goals with his board. In other words, he wanted the consultant to essentially verify what he had been preaching to his board. Apparently, the consultant followed his orders and the developer got the report that he paid for.

Mind you, my friend is an honest man, and he knew the challenges facing his community far greater than any outside consultant. Rather, he needed the consultant to say what needed to be said in the guise of a strategic plan.

I understand his logic. Local economic developers too often labor under the watchful, misunderstanding eyes of oversight boards that will have some screwy ideas and unreasonable expectations, especially in regard to recruitment and job creation. An economic developer in Florida recently told me that most of his time is spent trying to educate his stakeholders on what actually constitutes economic development in this day and age.

To that end, I suggest that there might be another alternative to the all-in, full monte strategic plan.

Now I don’t care what you call it. You can call it a banana plan for all I care, but what it really is and this might sound a bit vulgar to some of you aspiring to great lofty heights, is a sales plan. It will be and should be a more concise document, written in plain English. It’s almost the antithesis to the longer-term strategic plan, and I think it’s the better choice for most communities. (I can almost hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth.)ou

Your Community as Product

The truth is that your community at the end of the day is a product with certain assets and certain liabilities. And, of courste, as with any sales plan, you leverage your strengths, your assets. On the liabilities side, you address them. Sometimes you can even fix them, which is where a strategic plan can offer true value.

The bottom line is that a company looks at a community as something to either buy into or pass over.  It’s a calculated decision where to put limited resources, where to store your marbles and where to make your money.

Now it is my belief that effective targeted industry recruiting initiatives should be based on an existing and robust business retention and expansion program. Why is that? Because you are selling capabilities that you have proved that you already have and can do.

And if you develop the relationships and treat your existing industry right, they can be and should be a great source for industry intelligence and also a great ally to your recruitment (sales) efforts. But only if you do them right and be the problem solver and at times cheerleader that you can and need to be.

Trust me, recruit and ignore afterwards does not make for a long-term winning strategy.  In the end, that old quaint concept of customer service still reins.

It bemuses me that some communities, minus a meaningful BR&E program, much less a sales plan, will seek to recruit companies in certain industry groups that have no more business being there (in that community) than I have in being in Outer Mongolia.  In other words, there is little or no basis for surmising that this particular industry or company should take root here. And yet sometimes communities will go off on this wild goose chase on the guise that the local economic developer is being busy.

We Need One of Them

Bubba: “I think we need to get us one of them biotech companies.”

Joe Bob: “Sounds good to me. What exactly do they do?”

Bubba: “Well, I’m not exactly sure.  They got people running around in white lab coats, trying to come up with ways to invent new drugs and stuff.”

Joe Bob: “You think maybe our community college might train us up some folks to put on those white coats?”

Bubba: “Don’t see why not. We got us a dang good welding program, and because of it, Shazaam is making trailers over on the north side of town.”

Joe Bob: “How much you figure one these biotech companies pay?”

Bubba: “Better than a trailer company.”


A few years ago, it was biotech. Now it seems that data centers are everyone’s darling. Everybody wants a piece of the action. But the truth is, the action can only go in some very limited places because of some very specific and technical needs. Mind you, it might be a growth industry, but even a growth industry cannot go just anywhere.

I’m not saying that economic developers cannot or should not sometimes think out of the box and go after something totally new for their communities. Evolving new technologies will almost by definition mean new ways of making things. Entire new industries will be born in the future. That’s a fact, which gives me great hope.

But I am saying that your best bet is to go after something or some things that you have a basis of knowledge for and have proved that you can do. This is where workforce comes to the forefront and why a good BR&E program is a logical place to start. Again, your existing industries can provide you with valuable prompts and insight on where you have been and where you are going.

My advice: Listen to them. They provide the foundation from which you build.

In Praise of the Lowly SWOT

Also, you also might consider the unappreciated and lowly SWOT analysis, which is often seen as a precursor to a strategic plan. It may not have the bulk of the all-encompassing  strategic plan or my favorite, the industry cluster analysis for the cluster that probably doesn’t exist in your community (Most places, in fact, do not have real clusters).

Now it just so happens, that your all-knowing, sage-like consultant (that would be me), can work you up one of these telling SWOT documents, which don’t have to be so long, but can be (and should be) quite revealing. I call mine the Barberbiz Review, because I figured I had to call it something.

Paired with your BR&E program, a SWOT analysis should point you in the right direction for your business development efforts. I said “should” because it’s so easy to get sidetracked as Bubba and Joe Bob so rightly proved.

For the uninitiated, SWOT stands for strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. I have actually met some economic developers who did not know that, but that’s OK. I don’t know a lot of stuff, which is why I have a wife. Every day I am reminded of my profound ignorance in the ways of the world.

A SWOT analysis should enlighten and lift the ignorance, serving as an integral part of your sales plan, which probably should be revisited on a yearly basis to make sure that you are not overlooking the obvious. Again, information derived from your regular conversations with existing industry, a prerequisite for BR&E, can provide for some vital information that can be leveraged as to a community’s capabilities.

In short, if you have a real BR&E program (which takes time to accomplish), and then you do a SWOT analysis, (which shouldn’t take much time) you should have all the ingredients necessary to bake a fine sales plan pie.

And, Lord knows, I do love pie.

Dean Barber is the principal of Barber Business Advisors, LLC., a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at 972-767-9518 or at Please visit our website at

  1. In addition to a SWOT analysis, I am a big believer in Gap Analysis. Use the SWOT to identify points of parity and points of difference. Prioritize them based on competitive impact. Then create strategies to close the gap on points of negative difference and widen the gap on points of positive difference. The big challenge in strategic planning though is making choices and being disciplined to stick with the choices you make. In the private sector, while challenging, it is easier to do and make stick than in the politically charged public sector. But as Dean points out, a plan with no commitment to action is a waste of everybody’s time. And, I would add that a plan subject to being whip sawed by a lack of conviction may be even worse.

  2. Right on target from my perspective. Good job.

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Thanks Dean, For another good and well written article. I have been involved in Economic development in my county for about 12 years. Planning, Planning, Planning bay a few for the few and no actionable plan for anything except what they want. Planning for high-techgreat but not ignore agriculture processing in the middle of farm country. This is also “horse hockey”. A great hillbilly term from years ago.

  4. Thanks Dean. When I’m asked to teach strategic planning, I like to make a few points that I think fit nicely with your ideas.
    1) There is more than one kind of planning process. Most people tend to focus on a lengthy process resulting in The Plan, but there are other planning techniques much closer to what you have described, which can be more quickly implemented and are more flexible. The approach really should be tailored to the situation.
    2) I have to say it. When it comes to reasons that a plan fails to get implemented, it is sometimes because it is just simply a bad plan.
    3) A plan needs to have a means of balancing needs and resources. That means the needs of funders (usually the city) need to be aligned with those of the clients (the businesses and developers they hope to have to invest in the community). It also means that the community needs to be able to produce the resources (staffinf, technical capabilities, funding, etc.) that are required to implement its strategies. How many times have you seen a plan fail because it is based on city leaders trying to get businesses to do something they just simply do not want to do? Or because it is filled with grand atrategies that a well beyond the capability of the community to act upon?
    4) You also allude to the value of a plan in providing credibility and consistency. At some point in his or her career any practicing economic developer will encounter a board that just does not “get it”. And as their employee, that unfortunate economic developer just can’t have the expertise (in their view) to contradict or even educate them. The Plan can go a long way toward pointing the community down the right track and maintaining consistency even when boards, elected officials, and staff rotate in and out.
    All that said, you are correct. Many places that prepare a massive strategic plan could get by with less. By the same token, many places that do not plan should engage, at the least, in the kind of abbreviated strategic planning you describe.

  5. Really great post Dean. In my career, I have seen many communities chase that next big thing (craft beer is the new bio). A SWOT is a powerful way to get to the point. I use a really simple index card analysis. In short, give a short stack of index cards to a group of stakeholders, one card for each of your industry targets. On one side ask them to cover the strengths and opportunities and on the flip side the weakness and threats. I every case, this unscientific process got to almost exactly the findings of a paid study. (the limited space for words forces people to choose them carefully) There is wisdom all around us. Totally agree an outside resource can be invaluable, but spend your money on execution and program evaluation so you can get out of the gate and change course quickly if things aren’t working. In many ways, the strength and makeup of your existing business community is an outward expression of your communities competitive offering. Building from that seems to make a lot of sense to me.

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