Kingsport’s Strategy – Similarities with 1997

What Kingsport is missing is a coherent strategic plan.  More important, as a community we do not think strategically.  Perhaps this sounds like pedantic nonsense, but I would argue differently.


First, remember what strategy is: The matching of means (resources) to ends (objectives) in a competitive environment. To do this you must clearly articulate your goals and understand both the competition for scarce resources within the system as well as understand the nature of the “external threat” – competition from other cities.

A strategic plan is the community’s theory about how it can best “create” improved Quality of Life.  A strategic plan does not focus solely on economic development, rather in encompasses the broad array of subordinate goals that define Quality of Life.   This plan is a snapshot of established goals and the allocation of resources according to a set of priorities at a given time.  If it is used correctly, the process of developing that plan allows you to make trade-offs between competing objectives over time with limited resources.

However, no matter how well done, a strategic plan is static in nature.  The assumptions upon which it is based will change. The minute a plan is completed, it becomes obsolete. Things change and any “plan” must be constantly updated. If things change significantly, the plan can become worse than no plan at all because it can cause resources to be spent in a counterproductive manner.

Strategic planning is important because it promotes strategic thought.  Because “thinking” is an ongoing process, it is inherently dynamic in nature.

Strategic thought requires thinking “conceptually” as opposed to “sequentially.”  Sequential thought weighs the pros and cons of each step against its immediate surroundings. Conceptual thought requires that each step be measured against the larger goal.

Problems in Strategic Planning

Given this basic logic, there are two problems involved in most planning:

  1. First, what generally passes for strategic planning is too narrowly defined; that is, it focuses on sequential rather than conceptual logic.
  2. Second, even to the degree there is a coherent strategic plan, it is either followed blindly or disregarded because it eventually ceases to fit the facts.

Perhaps these problems are best understood with an analogy.  Imagine going on a trip from point “A” to point “B.”

The fundamental problem with sequential logic is that it does not focus on the destination. Rather, it looks at the immediate environment and an assessment of which way to go is made based on this narrow perspective. While this may ensure that rocks and pitfalls are avoided along the way, it is questionable whether you will get where you wanted to go in this fashion.

Conceptual logic requires that you understand where you are going. It focuses on the big picture.  Each step along the way is measured not for its immediate efficiency rather for its impact on accomplishing the ultimate goal.

For example, in a military campaign, it might be more efficient to circle around and attack your enemy from the rear rather than to mount a frontal assault into prepared defenses.  Sometimes the “indirect approach” is more efficient.  Sequential logic will inevitably lead to the frontal assault, with its concomitant wasteful expenditure of resources.

The second problem is more pervasive, more difficult to address, and ultimately what undermines most attempts at strategic planning.  First, we must understand that strategic planning is not an event; it is a process.  It never stops until the game is over.

The problem is that most people are sequential thinkers.  For them a strategic plan is like a set of directions, which tells them which way to turn at each intersection.  This method of thought is acceptable until you run into trouble.  What happens if the road is blocked or there is a detour?  Again, the sequential thinker is OK so long as someone else has identified the detour for them.  But, what if the detour leads you away from your ultimate destination? What happens if the detour is unmarked or if another problem arises? Once the sequential thinker strays from the path, they are in trouble.

In contrast, the conceptual thinker understands that the strategic plan is a set of guidelines not rules.  They understand where they are going.  If they must stray from the path they know that by adjusting their directions and returning, they will once again regain the chosen path. They always keep their eye fixed keenly on the ultimate objective, not the obstacles that are thrown into the path.

Both types of logic are necessary to formulate and implement a strategic plan.

Where Are We Today?

Much work has already been accomplished.  In fact, Kingsport has generally done a good job of identifying long-range goals – creating a vision of the future.  However, the underlying assumptions have not been explicitly identified in many instances, nor have resource requirements been completely identified.  This has led to some conflicting goals and (often) fierce competition for resources each time a project is funded.

Kingsport has lot of “mini” plans and many attempts at developing strategic thinking (although most of groups do not address it explicitly).  In addition, many different players are in the game.

BMA – Strategic Plan, City budget, Zoning

Planning Dept/Commission – Land Use Plans, Zoning, Road Plan

Engineering/Planning Depts.  – Major   Street and Road Plan

City & Housing Authority – CDBG Plan & targeted communities

Kingsport Tomorrow – Kingsport 2017 & updates

Chamber of Commerce – Leadership Kingsport

DKA – Downtown Activity

KEDB – Economic Development Projects

City/School Board – Capital Improvement Programs

The fundamental question for our community is whether these plans, taken together, create a coherent strategy?

  • Are these plans based on the same set of assumptions?
  • Do they identify compatible goals?
  • Do they apply to the same groups?
  • Do they identify the resources need to accomplish the goals?
  • Do these plans identify priorities? Do they create a compatible set of priorities for the allocation of resources or are they competing (mutually exclusive)?
  • Have these plans been updated routinely?

Unfortunately, I think that virtually no one could answer all these questions for every plan.  If no one group understands the diversity of what is being demanded by our community, how can we hope to allocate resources efficiently, much less accomplish the goals?

What Then Should We Do

What is needed most of all is an integration of the work that has been done to date.  Therefore, we need to undertake an assessment of the plethora of plans that currently exist and determine what they define:

  • Identify the assumptions (Often these are only implicit in nature).
  • Identify the goals.
  • Determine the common ground.
  • Where are the areas of conflict?
  • Identify the required resources. (What would it take to accomplish these goals?)

The next step is to work to merge the current plans.  Effectively this will determine where the current plans overlap, where they conflict, and attempt to fill in any voids.

  • Enumerate the assumptions upon which the vision is based
    • This is the key task because it allows you to verify the ongoing validity of the assumptions and make adjustments over time.
    • Develop a common definition of Quality of Life
      • Incorporate the common goals
      • Attempt to resolve the conflicts (at least explicitly identifies them)
      • Identify the resources available and needed
      • Establish an economic development plan to generate the resources needed

Finally, we must strive to develop a consensus for this integrated whole.  To do this, we must initiate a public information program about the goals we have for our community (including where they conflict), what resources it will require to accomplish those goals, and what it will take to generate those resources.

  • Bring in currently established organizations/programs by showing how their goals would be accomplished
  • Incorporate strategic thought in Leadership and Management training

The end result of this process is a more clear understanding of wide range of common (and conflicting goals) we have for our community.  Hopefully, this will give us a better appreciation the disputes we can expect in the allocation of resources and the trade-offs that will be necessary as we build our vision of the future.

Dave Clark                              10/10/1997

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