The Surprising Benefits of Getting it Wrong
All too often, people solving problems come up with a great idea, and then they become so invested in that idea that they ignore clear signs that it is not actually well-matched to the problem. This is a very human tendency, and though our team is aware of it, we are certainly not immune to it.
After months of research and community engagement, our team had identified that access to affordable commercial space was one major concern for small business owners. In addition to accessing the right type and amount of capital and being able to navigate regulatory processes, being able to find and secure the right kind of space for their business was at the top of the list of challenges entrepreneurs expressed. Our team saw an opening for us to make an impact in this area: adjusting the City’s process for redeveloping City-owned commercial space.
However, when we initially met with Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) staff to discuss the redevelopment process, it quickly became clear that our understanding of the process, the challenges, and the City’s role were not accurate. We were asking questions that our colleagues couldn’t answer, because they didn’t reflect their understanding of how the process worked. We adapted our plan for the meeting on the fly and asked them to redirect us to the things we ought to be asking questions about. By remaining open to this pivot, we learned about some additional opportunities that we hadn’t been aware of before.
One outcome of that meeting was that our team participated in the review committee for the redevelopment of a City-owned commercial property. This allowed us to continue learning how that process truly works and how City staff can influence the outcome. We were able to contribute to conversations about engaging the community in decision-making, grappling along with our colleagues with the question of how to do so authentically. Everyone on the committee agreed that engaging the community is crucial, but also that we shouldn’t do it simply to check a box; community engagement can be authentic only if the community’s input actually has the power to shape the decision. In the end, a well-attended community open house did change the committee’s mind about which proposal should be granted development rights. You can read more about the redevelopment of this property here.
After our initial meeting with CPED, we also began looking into several additional areas of work which remain in the exploratory stages but have the potential to develop into important initiatives. Though our work around affordable commercial space may feel more ambiguous and undefined than it did when we came to our CPED colleagues with a specific plan in mind, it was important to take this step back and gain a deeper understanding of what will truly have an impact for entrepreneurs of color.
If we had spent a lot more time on the City-owned-property-redevelopment idea before bringing it to others to weigh in on, we may have already felt so invested in the idea that we would have found it hard to change course. Instead, we brought others into our process early on and quickly realized we had gotten it “wrong” with our first attempt at problem-solving. This quick realization allowed us to adapt our approach and, ultimately, to pursue projects that will have a greater impact.