binoculars overlooking city development

Economic Development Strategy: Collaboration is the Key to Success

By Bill R. Shelton, CEcD

A city skyline with a successful economic development strategyWhy is it that some communities have a long history of economic development success and prosperity while others with similar economic assets suffer with continued failure and disinvestment?

All communities have economic strengths and weaknesses, but successful ones share an organizational characteristic that alludes the unsuccessful: they are able to manage the two primary economic development functions, leadership and execution, and present them as a single face. Leadership is key in that they establish the framework and plan for successful economic development. The staff also plays an important role by executing that plan.

Both leadership and execution (staff) operate as a cross-functional team that manages the community’s economic development process from end-to-end. This can prove to be a difficult relationship, however. Even long-established programs can routinely fail to manage conflicts between leadership and staff, thus spending unproductive time and resources on turf battles.

Successful communities have boosted cross-functional collaboration and team spirit between leadership and staff, while unsuccessful communities have allowed the two functions to build independent silos that are sluggish, lack communication, and create zealously guarded roles that hinder collaboration.

From observations, we have identified the roles of the two functions in successful cities and how they operate:

1. Leadership (elected, professional, or volunteer) provides the sustainable organization structure, the physical infrastructure, a shared community vision, and a clearly defined direction plus funding to foster and facilitate execution. Their role includes, but is not limited to:

  • Basic knowledge of economic development
  • Political will to maintain a predictable pro-business climate
  • Strategic focus and passion for results
  • Legacy of successful public/private partnerships

2. Execution (professional, staff) provides the ability to execute a fully-integrated market plan. Their role includes, but is not limited to:

  • Ability to develop business prospects and economic opportunities
  • Empowerment to make decisions and commit the community
  • Agility and quickness in response capabilities
  • Ability to organize and function in collective and collaborative efforts

Some communities have attempted to breakdown conflicts between the two functions and build cross-functional collaboration, but have failed. Though it appears to be logical and easy to make cooperation happen, it is actually very difficult. A familiar roadblock is who gets credit for successes. Communities that have achieved economic development successes know that success generates enough credit that both functions can share equally and collaborate for the best interest of the community.

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