Data & Resources


Published on Apr 21, 2020

Testing 1-2-3: Overcoming the innovation challenge for small towns

Contact: Brian Daskam

Overcoming the innovation challenge for small towns.

By Becky McCray, Cofounder, SaveYour.Town

As you work to balance all of the competing priorities of rural municipal leadership, you recognize the need for innovative ideas. Choosing which few to pursue is the real challenge. Your time, money, and capacity are all limited, especially compared to the resources of your larger neighbors. By tapping the abilities of your entire community, you can identify the innovations that will help you prosper together into the future.

Here are some of the challenges and opportunities when it comes to moving small communities forward.

It’s hard to hear the good ideas amid the shouting.

Right now, you probably use just a few tools to discover new ideas and involve your residents. Public engagement gets filtered through public meetings, town halls, and other listening sessions that fill up with the usual people with the usual complaints. When someone shows up with an innovative idea, they are drowned out by the voices of the angry people.

When you do hear those rare innovative ideas, they often aren’t practical, but you may never get the chance to explain why—even though you know that asking people for their input and then never acting on it is destructive to their trust in you.

We’re not all equally innovation friendly.

Even when you’re personally open to innovative ideas, you’ll still be working with other leaders who aren’t as idea friendly. They have objections; they want to slow things down. They do this to avoid failing. That’s why we hear so often, “We tried that once.” This is a natural instinct to protect ourselves and to serve the public trust: no one becomes a public official to become a public failure. But this fear of failure has become a trap, closing us off from the new ideas we need most.

Municipal leadership roles have been static.

All of us are caught between the world we gained our experience in and the world we know is coming at us. As a leader in a small city or town, you have worked in a formal structure under the control of just a few people who decided things for everyone in isolation from others. Only big projects were worth the effort to push through, but that meant failure could be catastrophic. Slowing things down and raising objections prevented us not only from failing but also from adapting quickly.

Our communities are driving change.

Today, we work in a more idea-friendly world. Action is informal to the point of feeling chaotic, with everyone able to try or test any idea. Many people will launch lots of small innovative tests, keeping failures small to provide valuable feedback about what might work on a bigger scale.

The people in our communities are already working this way, and local governments are in the middle of adapting to this change. Much of the innovation in your community happens outside of your municipal organization. The informal things that community members create for themselves can spark new ideas that work inside your organization. When you stay in connection with your community, you can be more open to these ideas.

“The time has passed when a few influential people could gather in a room to decide what a city will be,” civic expert Carol Coletta has said. “Instead, a city’s future is determined by hundreds of actions taken daily by thousands of people based on what they believe about a city’s future and their role in it.”

Follow a new role model.

To capitalize on innovation outside the organization, city leaders can take inspiration from venture capitalists. VCs research as many new ideas as they can, but they don’t invest in them all. While they’ll encourage the people who have the ideas and help them build their networks, they invest only in the ideas that are working well in early tests.

You can adopt that mind-set as “venture capitalists of new ideas.” Thinking this way can protect your organization from failure while keeping it open to innovation. Gather your crowd by publicly asking people what new ideas they’re working on. Encourage people to take small steps to test their ideas, and help them build connections from your network of resources. Invest your limited municipal resources only in the ideas that prove themselves.

Refocus your listening.

Listen for people who share the innovative ideas they want to work on, whether that’s a new business, a new mural, or a new activity. Connecting in this way reframes contentious public engagement as resource sharing and network building. You’re there to encourage small steps and to share connections to resources from your network; you’re not there to pick which ideas might work. None of us are that good at judging ideas, even though we may think we are experts. Author James Surowiecki has noted that over and over, relying on “expert” opinion has proved less effective than letting the crowd try things.

Community is our goal.

Our new role and mind-set is to encourage a lot of small-scale tests that start outside the formal organization. The proven winners get adopted because they have worked well already.

Why does innovation matter to small towns? Underneath it all, community is your goal. That’s why you do all of the hard work: you strive to improve quality of life. Letting residents develop their own new ideas is a powerful way to build your community.

Becky McCray, is a lifelong business owner from Oklahoma. As cofounder of SaveYour.Town, she shares insights from her real-world experience serving rural communities in volunteer and paid roles for over 25 years.

Open season

These four small steps can help you be more open to innovative ideas and make your community more likely to prosper:

Declare yourself a “venture capitalist of new ideas,” at least to your peers. Then publicly ask people to share the new ideas they’re working on. Refocus new and existing public engagement to identify new ideas.

Encourage everyone to test their ideas in tiny ways. Treat every idea with respect, at least to the point of letting people try and test it out.

Help people build connections from your network of resources. As a municipal leader, you are connected to many different resources, and people with ideas need those connections.

Invest your organization’s limited funds only in the ideas that are doing well in testing. When people ask you to help or invest in their ideas, don’t say “no”; say: “How is it working in testing?”

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