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    March 2012
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Management Lessons from March Madness

The past two weekends, many of us have gotten caught up in March Madness, the annual college basketball tournament that sees 68 teams compete in a single-game elimination format. This weekend, it culminates in the final four, with two semi-finals tonight, and the championship game on Monday night.

As I’m wont to do, I find lessons from sports that we can all implement in our work, no matter what type of organization. I’m going to share a few from the tournament here:

Your Product Needs to Be Well-Understood
While a segment of people who follow the tournament are fans of college basketball itself (or of specific teams), for many, the tournament itself is the draw. As a product, it is well defined, and its facets well understood by the audience. Casual fans are surely familiar with the alliterative names for different rounds – Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four. The opportunity for people to latch on to teams (especially lower-seeded underdogs) creates greater viewer engagement, especially when many of the key players turn over on a year-to-year basis. And, of course, who doesn’t look forward to the One Shining Moment video that ends CBS’ coverage of the tournament every year?

The tournament is a model in being clear about what it’s providing for its customers.

Listen to Your Customers
One of the key things in any organization is to keep your customers – or constituents – happy.

The NCAA has proceeded cautiously in expanding – or changing the key aspects – of the tournament. Expansion from 65 teams was rumoured a few years back, and in the end, the organizers merely expanded to 68, which added 3 additional play-in games, not a large new tier or round. This change was not substantial enough to alter the tournament, and organizers and fans were rewarded in 2011 when play-in school VCU made it all the way to the final four.

A recent change that did not go over well was replacing Luther Vandross’ popular version of One Shining Moment with a new rendition by Jennifer Hudson. That lasted all of one year; CBS brought back the Vandross version, much to the relief of many (including myself).

Audience/Customer Engagement Matters
Most fans – casual or serious – participate in March Madness pools, creating a greater engagement and association than would otherwise exist. I would venture that this interactive part keeps many people interested when the teams and/or games themselves otherwise would not – if they still have a chance at winning their pool.

(On that note, go Ohio State!)

Understand Your Value Proposition
One of the most successful coaches, and controversial ones, is John Calipari of Kentucky. Calipari has taken two schools (UMass and Memphis) to the final four, but later had both appearances vacated due to various sanctions (in both cases, he had moved on before they arose). Now at Kentucky, he has built a powerhouse in large part by mastering his value proposition for recruits – that they play for one year (until they’re eligible for the NBA Draft), and he will focus on preparing them for the next level. This approach is controversial, but given Coach Cal’s success in attracting top recruits who become top draft picks, and winning games, also undeniably successful.


The Missing Progressive Agenda (and Other Thoughts on the Eve of the NDP Leadership Vote)

The NDP leadership convention begins today. It appears that Thomas Mulcair is the undisputed front-runner, judging from his tremendous lead in support from MPs and other officials, as well as the recent arguments from Brian Topp’s surrogates. This also may mean that Topp is struggling to separate himself from a second tier of candidates that would include some, or all, of Peggy Nash, Paul Dewar, and Nathan Cullen (who himself is showing strong fundraising numbers, at least).

The prospect of a Mulcair victory is causing angst amongst some NDP stalwarts, fearing that he plans to move the party to the dreaded “centre”. Meanwhile, pundits are pointing out that the much revered, late Jack Layton, already did that. Cullen joins him on the “change” front, explicitly calling for cooperation with the Liberals in ridings won by the Conservatives last election. The candidates are disagreeing more on process than policy. Topp argues for a more traditional social democratic approach, and to “bring the centre” to the party. Nash and Dewar focus instead on tactics to increase the party’s base of support.

Thomas Mulcair
NDP frontrunner Thomas Mulcair.
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

Granted, I haven’t paid close attention to the contest, but what seems to be missing is a discussion on what the NDP agenda will look like, or who the voters are that will rally around that and form the core of a majority government, regardless of how aggressively the party moves to the centre (or not). This criticism applies to the Liberals (and Greens) as well, so from here on out, I’ll simply use the term ‘progressive’ as a proxy for any one of these parties. Whoever leads those parties (or whatever progressive parties may emerge through merger/attrition/split from existing ones) will face this challenge.

Brokerage Politics and the Minimum Winning Coalition
Any party that wishes to form and hold a majority government must be a ‘brokerage’ party of some sorts, encompassing identifiable constituencies of voters that are somewhat disparate, but have enough in common. Conservative organizers have understood this in recent years, advancing a strategy to build a minimum winning coalition of voters throughout the country. Progressive parties are lagging here. They understand on the surface that they must, for example, win more seats in the western provinces. Yet, the agenda and tactics to do so in sufficient numbers is missing.

The Missing Progressive Agenda
I understand that parties must occupy the “centre’ to win and hold office, and that it’s better to implement some of your agenda, rather than getting to implement none of it. Nevertheless, while a party must broaden its appeal to win (regularly), successful parties start from a foundation of principles and beliefs that can be easily distilled into an agenda for supporters. Yes, every party has principles it theoretically start from, but how many can explain in a few key themes what they stand for?

In the practical arena of politics, the conservative agenda has been ascendant for some time. It can be roughly distilled into the following ideas:

– lower taxes and regulation (for individuals and business)
– tougher sentences for criminals
– more individual choice in programs, instead of centralized, state-run initiatives
– an overall reduction of the state and its activities (reorienting towards its traditional functions)

Conversely, the contemporary progressive agenda has been in decline, in part because it has been difficult to pin down. Certainly, this camp is not short on ideas, but has struggled for decades to put them into a clear, coherent agenda. Progressive parties have tended to put forward an agenda seen as reactionary (defaulting to limits on trade/globalization, and a knee-jerk instinct to solve every problem with a centralized government program) or neo-liberal (embracing smaller government, and essentially conceding the argument to conservatives that the state is not the vehicle for social good).

I believe it’s a lack of a clear progressive agenda that in large part holds back a potential movement. Anecdotally, I see many of the progressive-minded people I know channeling their efforts into international issues, or politics on a local level. It’s not that they view the federal government as irrelevant, rather I believe there’s nothing engaging them in a meaningful way. They may show up to vote for the NDP (or Liberals or Greens), and in some cases may volunteer time and money, but are not engaged in the same way they are on the aforementioned issues. You can’t build a movement on irregular participation.

Until such time that a progressive agenda can be articulated, and attract a minimum winning coalition, progressives will find themselves in the position conservatives did for much of the 20th century, forming government only when one or both of the following happened – they found a charismatic, popular leader, and/or the dominant party lost support due to poor performance/scandal/voter fatigue, effectively forming government by default. History points to neither strategy being sustainable.

Key Questions
One of the key challenges is that some progressives are still framing issues around paradigms of their post-World War II heyday. Contemporary responses to the following issues, taking into account globalization, deindustrialization, demographic changes, and other phenomena, are long overdue:

– The role of a workforce, in particular unions, vis a vis both the private and public sector.
– The role of the state in funding social programs
– The importance of economic growth versus social and/or environmental costs that may be incurred.

Looking Up at the Calgary Tower
How can progressives win seats in places like downtown Calgary?

Towards a Progressive Agenda
What might a contemporary progressive agenda look like? Here are a few themes, and ideas off the top of my head:

1. Supporting a Triple-Bottom Line Economy
Advancing an economy and strategy for growth that accounts for environmental concerns and stewardship, as well as quality of life.

2. Equity and Opportunity for All
Ensuring equity – fairness and justice – especially in terms of opportunity for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background. In particular, it would focus on protection of workers with low job security, people experiencing poverty, New Canadians, and Aboriginal peoples. It would also pursue measures that protect workers, enhance skills of marginalized populations, and ensures fairness in terms of taxation and regulation between citizens and businesses.

3. Federally-Minded, But Community-Oriented
Supporting an agenda that doesn’t retreat from involvement, but does grant more authority and ability to effectively exercise power to local communities – especially municipal and Aboriginal governments. It would also advance greater local authority (but not autonomy) in terms of delivering social programs, recognizing that our federation is heterogeneous, and that needs and best practices may vary from place to place. The federal government’s role would be to lead, but also to set broad targets, strategies, and foster collaboration, rather than retreating to its “traditional” areas of responsibility under the British North America Act.

(For my provincially-oriented progressive views, read this).

Mildred Lake Mine
A balanced approach to the oil sands, and resource extraction, is needed, should progressive want success in the west.

With an agenda along these lines, what would a minimum winning coalition of progressives have to look like? It would lean heavily towards urban environments, winning support in and around Canada’s biggest cities – not just Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, but Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Quebec City, and Halifax, among others. It would win heavily on both the Pacific and Atlantic coast, and amongst federally and community-oriented central Canadians. Urban and Aboriginal voters would form its core in the west and north. (For a good primer on different ‘cultures’, read Colin Woodward’s ‘American Nations’. And yes, readers, I’m firmly a disciple of Yankeedom).

Progressives may (correctly in some cases) argue that they already advance causes along these lines, but I’ve yet to see it articulated as a clear, concise agenda. Until a progressive agenda for Canada in the 21st century can be articulated in 3-5 themes, or 30 seconds, supporters like myself can look forward to spending more time in opposition than government.

Stephen Marche said it best, in his assessment of Jack Layton’s legacy:

And yet despite the marked improvement in the numbers, the left has never been in a worse state by the simplest and most meaningful gauge there is: its effect on the lives of Canadians.

While I disagree with aspects of his critique of Jack Layton, on this point, he is absolutely right. Barring a reorientation, and stronger focus on a clear agenda and constituency, progressives can look forward to more of this in years to come.

Empowerment or Exploitation? Making Sense of Homeless Hotspots

Homeless Hotspots, a new fundraising initiative, debuted at South by Southwest in Austin. In the last couple of days, debate has raged over the internet about whether this is appropriate or offensive, empowering or exploitative.

On the one hand, you have outrage and criticism. On the other hand, you have advocates standing up for it. Then you have a bunch of people in the middle trying to see both sides, and make sense of it all.

I see points on both sides. Initially, the idea intrigued me. As someone who works in the housing and homelessness sector, I’m always interested in practical ways to empower people experiencing homelessness, or who are at-risk. If this is one way, perhaps an evolution of the street newspaper, as the group behind it argues, it potentially has merit. Providing a service in a popular location, and one to draw attention to homelessness in a manner and to a crowd that may not always have it on its mind, has potential. That Front Steps, an Austin homeless-serving agency, was involved, and identified the vendors, was an early point in favour.

On the other hand, I’m well aware of how complex it can be to portray the experiences of homeless people, and how, done wrong, it can end up being pejorative – intentional or not. While obviously not as demeaning and dehumanizing as something like the HoboHunt app, I can understand how, despite good intentions, something of this nature could end up treating homeless participants as something of a prop, rather than empowering them in a meaningful way.

My initial reaction was one of optimism, and I haven’t changed my mind as of yet. For me, it comes down to agency. Were homeless vendors simply instructed to provide a service, full stop, this would be problematic. But vendors are encouraged to interact with clients. They’re as much sales people as service providers. Subscribers go through a sign-in screen where they see links to the stories of each vendor as well. Collectively, this provides a true transaction; it’s not just information, there’s an interaction between vendor and client.

For me, the best point against came from Tim Carmody at Wired, when he wrote:

This is my worry: the homeless turned not just into walking, talking hotspots, but walking, talking billboards for a program that doesn’t care anything at all about them or their future, so long as it can score a point or two about digital disruption of old media paradigms.

There is that danger, that the company behind it will use this project as a prop. I suspect some of their motivation is self-promotional, but it may provide value regardless of their intention. The way to end homelessness is to provide housing and appropriate supports. This, of course, takes time; owing to this, and limited resources, it won’t happen for everyone overnight, which is why most communities employ a ten year plan approach to ending homelessness.

In the interim, initiatives like this can empower homeless individuals, allowing them to tell their story, hone skills that may help them in other areas, and raise some funds in the short term. They’re not the solution by any means, but they’re also not road blocks, and can add value when done right.

Here’s a video of Clarence, one of the vendors, explaining the program. I’m curious what readers think.

Caveat: it should go without saying, but in case there’s any confusion, all of the above represents my personal opinion only. That is all.

An Urbanist for School Closures

Today, the Edmonton Public School Board will discuss two motion that will aim to provide long-term direction for the board, and its schools, once the moratorium on school closures expires in November. Trustee (and, full disclosure, my good friend) Michael Janz wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, explaining the motions coming forward March 13.

Earlier this year, the board accepted a series of recommendations from its school closure moratorium committee. They ranged from common sense solutions around problems caused by the funding formula for schools, to forays into city planning, such as providing housing for seniors to “free up” housing for families in mature neighbourhoods. Now, I tend to take a community-oriented, collective view towards most issues, rather than an individualistic one, but that last one is far too down the path of social engineering for my liking, practicalities (or lack thereof) aside.

I consider myself a committed urbanist, and am very supportive of a more dense urban footprint – particularly one that supports mature neighbourhoods, and ensures they are amenable to a diversity of people – especially families. But the idea that schools won’t close, or shouldn’t close, is ludicrous. Consider the following when evaluating whether or not closures are a good idea.

A Shift in Mindset Alone is a Victory
The modus operandi that governed the board in its 2007-10 term needed an overhaul. As an outside observer, it struck me as being, crassly, akin to that of a retail chain – aggressively closing under-performing locations and focusing exclusively on opening new ones in growing areas. Location is a part of providing schools amenable to its users, but this seemed to be done with very little second thought, or consideration to how it affected the users of existing schools.

Should the moratorium end, but have the effect of shifting the mindset of the board, it will be a victory in my mind. The new mindset and approach of the board should not be a knee-jerk approach to closing undercapacity schools, rather it should focus proactively on sustaining schools where it makes sense. Indicators may be a growing number of families, and Area Revitalization Plan or other measures in place that are likely to increase family-friendly housing, or specific characteristics of the school and student body that make it valuable to retain. Examples of that would be a school that serves an identifiable cultural or linguistic group, or one serving a marginalized, at-risk population, one where students would benefit from extra investment and support. An example of this is McCauley School, which was closed in 2010.

Education, Not Merely Location, is What Matters
I’ll admit a bias here in that I did not go to my community school. In fact, from Kindergarten on, I never attended the public school closest to me. The initial reason for this is that my parents placed me in a French Immersion program, which was not offered at the two closest elementary schools. We have no regrets about this. Whatever value being able to walk to and from school may have provided to me is, in my mind, far outweighed by the benefit of being bilingual. Additionally, attending a school and program with a larger catchment area meant I interacted with a larger number of kids. I played on sports teams with the kids from my neighbourhood, but was exposed to a different group throughout the day through my school.

In some cases, the community school may be best for a student, but I don’t see it as a hard and fast rule. The education of the child should always be the first and foremost duty of the school system. You can’t offer every program at every school, and for this reason magnet schools and specialized programs which will draw kids away from their “community school” are important.

Complete, Healthy Communities Go Way Beyond Schools
I understand the argument for a community school from a planning perspective, that many parents will follow schools and other amenities. But a complete, healthy community goes way beyond having a school, and many community-level institutions are struggling. Independent businesses, particularly grocery stores, have given way to larger chains with drawing from several neighbourhoods. Community-based recreation and social activities are giving way to events that draw a crowd from the macro-scale. Even neighbourhood pubs are fading away. There are larger trends happening in most cities to draw activity to a more macro level. Schools alone cannot, and should not, treat it as their job to stop this trend.

Demographics are Destiny
One of the most salient points about population and demographics I heard recently was this – it’s that the key indicator is not a head count, but a household count. This reflects the fact that overall, family and household size is decreasing (this chart traces fertility rate and immigration. Household/family size numbers are more complex). As a hypothetical example, let’s say a school’s catchment are had 100 families in both 1972 and 2012. If the average family in ’72 had 2.5 children and today has 1.7, there would be 250 school age-ish children then,
but only 170 now, even if the household count hasn’t changed.

Of course, this hypothetical example isn’t the truth. Mature neighbourhoods in most cases also have fewer families today than they did then. If demand is going down, it’s going to mean that not every location can be saved.

Given all this, I think the school board will land in the right direction. It will have to go back to closing schools, but will employ a more measured approach. Initiatives underway such as the schools as community hubs effort, and explorations into space sharing, can ensure relevance and value from the schools even if the educational space is decreased.

It should just start and end from the point of what’s best for students. In Edmonton, we like to throw around the term ‘world class’ for, well, every mega-project we want to build. But our public school system is one of the truly, indisputable world class features of our city (I would argue the River Valley system and the Mall are two others). This should continue to be the primary focus of our school system; it’s a contributor to city-building, but not by any means the only party, or the driver of it.

That’s why this urbanist will be happy to support a school board that takes a cautious and measured, yet responsible approach to managing school supply. Even when it has to close some buildings.

Dear Chicago

Chicago turns 175 today. It’s a city that feels younger. Some of that is borne out of necessity – the great fire of 1871 destroyed much of the city. Much of it, in my observation, comes from a culture of innovation and openness, a willingness – common to most successful enterprises – to constantly reinvent itself.

The signs of reinvention are everywhere – in the repurposed buildings and spaces, to those, like Millennium Park, that turned utilitarian spaces into great public ones.

Former warehouses brought back to life with new businesses and residents northwest of The Loop.

Navy Pier. Not my favorite, but a repurposed space that has become a popular attraction.

Millennium Park and the Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion, truly one of the great public spaces, in my opinion.

Admit it, we all love the bean (that’s me taking the photo in the middle).

You’re always looking up in Chicago. The birthplace of the skyscraper, the skyline towers over you. Waves of glass and steel, celebrating generations of style and design, crowd alongside the Chicago River, vying to capture your attention.

Buildings loom over Michigan Ave and Millennium Park.

Skyline, as seen from the Chicago River near Navy Pier.

Chicago is a city you experience from above – from the heights of its tallest buildings, or from the El that rises and travels above the city.

The El, traveling above you along State Street.

The second-story high station in Wicker Park.

Yet, the city doesn’t overwhelm you. It’s also a city you can disappear in. Being mere steps away from the glass and steel forest can feel like an entirely different world.

Finding solitude amidst the business district is easy with amenities like this pool

The beach along the Lakefront, steps away from the skyscrapers in The Loop.

Further out, as you travel along the El, you find what is still a bustling city, but one that exists at a more human scale. It’s easy to get lost on a sunny afternoon at Wrigley, or a peaceful morning in Wicker Park.

Afternoon baseball at Wrigley Field.

The farmers’ market in Wicker Park.

Peaceful Sunday brunch, in the secluded courtyard at Jam, just off the beaten path in Wicker Park.

Every moment can be an adventure. The character, and spontaneity which so often make cities so great, is abundant. It keeps drawing you back, not just to the city, but to the same places.

People having fun at Millennium Park on a hot summer day.

Alternately, many of buildings have details and touches you may not appreciate if you don’t stop and truly explore.

At 175, Chicago doesn’t feel old. It feels like a city that is constantly evolving, and will keep you coming back to see what’s next.

Happy birthday, Chicago. Until next time.