By Nolan Klouda, CED Executive Director
How many times have we been discouraged from making assumptions? Afterall, you don’t want to make an “ass” out of “u” and “me,” right? But the reality is that we couldn’t get by without making some assumptions about the world around us. Most of the time, those assumptions go untested and unexamined. During our recent strategic planning sessions at CED, we decided to articulate some of these unstated factors that contribute to our collective worldview regarding the work that we do. This is the list that we came up with:
1. Data-driven decision making
At CED, much of our work revolves around wringing useful insights from large sets of numbers, either for clients or our own strategic purposes. Our entrepreneurship research showed us the power of startups to create jobs, as well as gender disparity among business owners. We were the first to point out (so far as we can find) that Alaska has the highest rate of female business ownership of any state, even though a wide chasm remains. These findings motivate us in our work to empower communities and entrepreneurs throughout the state, including underserved ones.
2. Story telling
In a perfect world, human beings might respond to the cold, clean logic of data alone. At least, the data geeks on our team, including yours truly, often feel that way! But in reality, we’re all wired to respond emotionally to real stories from real people. You may notice that our more recent reports usually blend data with stories, which not only adds narrative texture but also humanizes the numbers. We think helps to make insights more memorable and meaningful.
No, we aren’t talking about gymnastics! CED embraces a set of disciplines like Strategic Doing, the Lean Startup, Gallup’s Builder Initiative,and Design Thinking that, while distinct, share some common threads. One is their incorporation of agile thinking. The term implies rapid movement in operations and strategy, in contrast to traditional methods of strategic and business planning that assume a more static environment. These disciplines emphasize iterative development--build, measure, learn in the parlance of Lean Startup. These steps are repeated, and don’t always follow that order. It boils down to this: Whether you’re an entrepreneur creating a new product or a civic organization starting a mission-driven initiative, you probably won’t get it exactly right the first time. But you can’t be paralyzed by perfectionism, fear of failure, or over-analysis. We celebrate the process of collecting data, taking action, evaluating our efforts, making the improvements, and hitting the pavement again.
4. Network building
The best idea in the world will come to nothing if it remains stranded in the mind of one person. That’s a major part of the logic behind entrepreneurship ecosystems--the web of relationships between entrepreneurs, mentors, investors, and the institutions (like ours) that support all of the above. The stronger those connections, the more efficiently brain power is put to use. Compared to a place like Silicon Valley, with its high density of technical specialists, Alaska faces the disadvantages of a small population. Fewer collisions of capital, ideas, and execution occur when there is no critical mass. Much of our work at CED tries to facilitate these collisions, which we call catalytic events (Catalyzers for short); OTIS and VOLT49 are two examples. If you’re interested in joining our network, sign up for our newsletter. We’re also on the socials: Facebook and Instagram.
5. Equity through sustainability
We admit it--we’ve got a touch of idealism. CED has always been committed to distressed regions suffering from high unemployment and poverty. Rural Alaska is a special focus for us with our entrepreneurship workshops and technical assistance. At the moment, we’re helping the Bering Straits Region update their Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), assisting a tribe in growing their forestry business, completing a study for an enterprise to recycle waste cardboard into cellulose insulation for homes, and planning for entrepreneurial workshops in Bethel and Utqiagvik. We’re convinced by the data that illustrate the power of entrepreneurs to create jobs, and raise the level of prosperity for others around them.
6. Intellectual curiosity
One of our plans for the coming year is to initiate a CED book club. We’ll read one book per month and have a discussion around it (others are welcome to join, details to come). Most of us are avid readers and love to find new ideas and perspectives to inform our work . We look for ways to apply new concepts that we learn about at conferences or from our reading. Our staff meetings often become forums for debating and discussing these concepts. Some common topics include design thinking, data from entrepreneurship, and cultivating networks--all areas where theory and practice collide.
7. Having fun
If you don’t love what you do for a living, it might be time to try something else! Encouraging playfulness as part of our culture is important - after all, we spend more time at work that we do with our loved ones (counting waking hours) and we want to enjoy it. Our style of fun might have a touch of nerdiness (think Flannel Fridays) but it’s who we are. There’s a business case for fun as well; employees who are engaged at work are more productive and happier. We also try to bring fun into our workshops and other events - people learn more effectively and remember more when they’re enjoying themselves.