Now, let me hit the pause button for a brief sidebar.
In 1993, in the first issue of Fast Company magazine, we published a brilliant essay by Mark Fuller, a former HBS professor, co-founder of Monitor Consulting, and a military strategy expert. The essay was called “Business As War,” and it compared business strategy—or I suppose urban strategy—to military strategy.
In Mark’s essay he raised a provocative question about business strategy, using the context of the Vietnam War. How was it possible, he asked, for the United States to win every battle in the Vietnam War, and lose the war?
The answer, he said, was that the United States failed to ask the last question first. The last question, whether for a business or a military engagement—or for a city—is, “What’s your definition of victory?”
Or to put it a slightly different way, “What’s the point of the exercise?”
If you go to war, and you don’t have a clear definition of victory, how do you know how many resources to commit, how to make the case for the conflict with your own people, how long to stay, or when to leave—or even whether you’re winning or losing?
The same is true for a business—or, for that matter for a city seeking a strategy. You need to be able to answer the question, “What’s your definition of victory?” “What’s the point of the exercise?” so you can begin to know why you are doing what you are doing, and how well you are doing it. .
Which is why having a definition of victory—why asking the last question first—is fundamental to any military engagement, any business strategy or entrepreneurial startup, or any urban disruption.
So if livability was an input, not a final goal, what was the point of the exercise 40 years ago in Portland, the definition of victory?
The answer was something we called the “population strategy.”
The population strategy was a product of some world-class detective work by David Yaden, who, at the time, was Portland’s premier pollster. Both going door-to-door to conduct interviews and looking deeply at data on emerging demographic trends, David discovered that Portland was at risk of becoming a city with its middle missing—that is, if political, economic, and social trends were to continue, Portland would end up as a city with very old people and very young people—and very few people in the middle.
Why did that matter? Because the people in the middle—the middle-income, employed families with children—are the people who provide the glue that holds a healthy city together. They’re the people who volunteer to be Cub Scout and Brownie leaders, soccer coaches and PTA presidents. They get involved in their neighborhoods. They keep eyes on the street. They turn out to vote.
If a city is fundamentally about more choice for more people, they are the people who enable and amplify—and often pay for—more choice for more people.
With David’s analysis, we had our definition of victory—we knew what we were solving for in the equation that was Portland.
Our definition of victory was, how do we retain and attract middle-income families with children? How do we get them to vote with their feet? How do we get them to stay in the city, to cast their vote for the city?
Livability would absolutely help influence their choice. But so would good schools. And quality jobs in convenient locations for the residents of Portland’s neighborhoods. So would safer, calmer streets, and sidewalks with lower levels of stranger-to-stranger street crime. And better parks with more choices for recreation inside the city.
Here’s the deal—for business entrepreneurs or urban strategists: Once you know your definition of victory, then you can begin to connect the elements of your strategy into a coherent, internally consistent whole.
But until you have answered that fundamental question, until you know the definition of victory, you really have no strategy. You have an assortment of programs, a loose collection of policy initiatives—but no clear strategy.
So the second “what’s next?” question for Portlanders today is: What is your definition of victory?
Forty years after the design of the population strategy, simply continuing with that original goal seems an unlikely answer—especially at a time when, from all appearances, the success of that strategy has, inevitably, caused a new problem: the displacement of poorer Portlanders to the inner rings of the suburbs.
So perhaps a new goal needs to be about re-balancing the city, about economic and social equity for all Portlanders, if this is to be a great city.
A second question that needs to be addressed also comes, I believe, from that misreading of livability as a goal rather than an input. Making livability and environmental sustainability a hallmark of the Portland story has tended to obscure the key role that jobs and economic development always played in that original strategy.
From the beginning, it was always clear that the environment and the economy were inextricably linked. Two sides of one coin. Far from being mutually exclusive, a healthy economy combined with a healthy environment would make the Portland strategy work—at every step of the way. In fact, I don’t think it would be wrong to say that the livability agenda was only possible because of a pragmatic business strategy.
Take the Mt. Hood Freeway. It could only be killed once it became clear that neither the money for the freeway nor the construction jobs associated with it would be lost—only transferred to light rail and surface street improvements across the entire metropolitan region. When that transfer became possible, the Mt. Hood Freeway became both a business deal and an environmental deal.
The Downtown Plan became real not when it was adopted by the City Council—there’d been too many doorstop-sized plans passed over the years. It became a living, breathing vision for downtown when the mayor and his team made a pilgrimage to Seattle, sat down with the Nordstrom family and offered them a package deal that resulted in the first new department store built in downtown Portland in decades—and on the exact block where the plan called for such an investment from the private sector. That business deal gave the plan credibility—and allowed the rest of the plan to move forward.
Today, issues of livability seem to overshadow issues of economic viability.
And that raises another “what’s next?” question for Portland: Where is the pragmatic economic vision that will support and sustain, in pure business terms, the city’s treasured quality of life initiatives? Will that economic agenda come from a vibrant tech community? Will it emerge from hackathons and creative apps? Will it come from small and medium size businesses that need help to reach critical mass? How can Portland afford to pay the bills that are part of a genuinely sustainable strategy?
And finally, in the spirit of the theme of this gathering, let me shift my frame of reference from Portland in the 1970s to Fast Company in the 1990s.
Before there was ever a Fast Company magazine there was a Fast Company gathering, much like this one. We called it a Fast Company Advance—because we believed that business people were too busy and too optimistic ever to go on a retreat. The theme of that gathering was, “How do you overthrow a successful company?”
How do you overthrow a successful company? How do you overcome the complacency that comes with success? How do you resist the temptation to believe the hype that success always engenders? What does it take to disrupt yourself when the rest of the world is celebrating your success?
The theme could just have easily been, “How do you overthrow a successful city?” And the questions for those who care about a city are the same as the ones that apply to a successful company.
How will you overthrow a successful city? How will you take the heritage of Portland as it is now, and do the hard disruptive, urban entrepreneurial work to take this good, livable city and take it forward to make it a great world-class city?
That’s the ultimate “what’s next?” question that stands before the Portlanders of today. And it’s a much harder, and a much easier, task than the one we faced 40 years ago.
It’s harder because success is such a seductive trap.
Success breeds its own kind of complacency. It’s why so many old and successful companies stop innovating, loose their creative spark—and stop asking challenging questions in the service of disruptive answers.
But your task is also easier.
You have success to build on. The success of the original Portland strategy should lower the barriers to experimentation; you have a sound basis from which to try new things—knowing that the fundamentals are in place, the values are sound and the underlying framework makes sense. Portland works. And now the question is how to make it work even better, for even more people, in even more ways.
And you have more tools with which to work. Forty years ago, infrastructure investment was more or less limited to the hardware of the city—housing stock, transit lines, parks. Today, you have the software of the city with which to experiment—social media, the rise of the sharing economy and the evolution of the city not as a bunch of buildings, but as a platform, an operating system.
And you have the benefit of perspective—a way of looking at and evaluating the two largest issues confronting the whole country: the challenge of fixing public education and the need to address the growing gap between the rich and the poor—our current national crisis of the missing middle, the middle class.
You have something almost no other city in the country has: the social and political capital with which to work, to grow, to build, to create—yes, to disrupt—your way to greatness.
When you look at the cities of America, Portland is truly unique. There is no other city in this country that could boast of its livability—and then go beyond that to aspire to genuine greatness.
That’s the “what’s next” question for Portland today.
That’s the “what’s next” opportunity for Portland—and you—to embrace.