The answer IS…
By Mark Long, director of incubation services, University of Florida.
Well, what was the question? Typically, the “answer” these days is provided by a “consultant” (i.e. someone with an opinion and a nice briefcase who’s at least 60 miles away from home). Just kidding! I’ve been a consultant. I have an opinion, a fairly nice briefcase and have been known to travel. Thus, I am not condemning or insulting consultants; they do provide amazing assistance quite often. (I am a case in point, of course.)
However, often (especially in economic development) when people pay for a(n) [insert your choice here: opinion, survey, study, decision…], they’re paying for what they want to hear, and some consultants do just that — provide them with what they want to hear.
The price may be variable, but the expectations are not.
See similarities, not sameness
How many communities have stated, “We’re going to be the next Silicon Valley!” — and parted with significant cash — only to find out that isn’t going to happen? How many trips are taken to “comparative cities” (that aren’t really comparative)? How many data compilations are made? How many plans are issued that aren’t truly applicable to economic development in a particular location?
Let’s be honest. No situation is identical to any other situation in economic development. My father was a minister for over 55 years. At funerals he used to tell me, “Never tell someone you know just how they feel, even if they’re in a circumstance identical to one you’ve been through. You do not know ‘just how they feel’; we’re all different; we all have different relationships, different journeys, and different thoughts.”
Though it may seem odd to bring advice from a funeral into the business world, I believe my father’s words to be true, and they are especially true in economic development. Every town is different, every entrepreneurial ecosystem varies, every support system has multiple inputs and special requirements. Some have major universities, some don’t; some have terrific state government support, some — well, you get the picture. It’s all different.
Don’t assume similarities make your situation the same as another.
Ask, don’t answer
So how is one to figure out the answer then? First, don’t “give it away up front.” By this I mean, ask the question — as if you don’t know or, better, don’t care what the answer will be.
As a consultant, I’ve been contacted directly by a prospective client with the comment, “Well, this is what we want — exactly.” And by that, they mean, “You’d better give us this answer or we’re not hiring you for this study.”
I’ve had clients return reports to me with the comment:
“This is not what we expected or wanted. Please take out all negative information, negative data and negative comments and return an edited version with a clear ‘go’ for moving ahead with this project.”
Really. No kidding.
If you hire a consultant, ask questions. Don’t provide answers.
Bend your will, not the truth
And if you hire a consultant, don’t “tilt the scales” by “stacking the deck.” (Huh? What does that mean?) Often, when consultant’s result needs to be a “foregone conclusion,” clients will set up interviews, discussions and meetings with particular individuals or groups on specific topics to make sure a particular point of view is emphasized.
C’mon! You’re paying for an unbiased opinion! Don’t bias it by pushing a particular concept. Let everyone speak (friends and foes alike), and let the ecosystem provide the correct answer. Last (you thought I was going to say, “and not least,” didn’t you?), accept the good news and the bad news with grace.
Understand the study may not go your way, and it may not provide the answer you wanted. Everyone wants their plan for economic development to be a “magic bullet” to create jobs and stimulate the economy, but it’s never that simple, is it?
If you’ve engaged a quality consultant with a good reputation, read everything you can into the report, ask questions, ask for clarification, ask for details — but don’t ask for a change of direction. It’s certainly OK to question data, interpretations and comments; but it’s not OK to skew answers to suit your purposes. Bend your will to accept the truth.
Ultimately, the ecosystem’s answer will prevail anyway. Wouldn’t you prefer to know the bad news before it becomes really bad news after you’ve invested time and money?
Be real, not ridiculous
And really, really, last but not least (there — I said it), move on. Take the results and move ahead in the direction the data is telling you.
A consultant once told me he had provided a negative report, the next consultant provided a very similar report, and, eventually, a fourth (or fifth) firm came in and provided a report exactly opposite the previous reports. So the client told everyone, “See? I told you all along I was right!”
Don’t be that client. Be one who is looking for real direction, who accepts real data, and who understands that the truth is always the best answer — even when it hurts!
Mark Long has long experienced the intricacies of business incubation, acceleration, coworking spaces, makerspaces and other entrepreneurial assistance venues around the world. He shares his experience, outlook, background knowledge, studies, and observations in regular posts at the IncubatorBlogger. Feel free to follow him there — or follow him and UF Innovate right here.
University of Florida Innovate supports an innovation ecosystem that moves research discoveries from the laboratory to the market, fostering a resilient economy and making the world a better place. Based at one of the nation’s leading research institutions, UF Innovate comprises four organizations: Tech Licensing, Ventures, The Hub, and Sid Martin Biotech. Within the UF Office of Research, the four organizations form a comprehensive system to take technologies from the lab to the public, bringing together the five critical elements in the “innovation ecosystem”: facilities, capital, management talent, intellectual property and technology-transfer expertise.