Playbooks and Silver Linings

How is knowledge passed on from on group to another one? This is a question I continually come upon in my policy work. In nerdy terms, what we are talking about is the preconditions of success. And the strategy is to learn from observed success to distill out the essential elements that will produce success in the future. Put another way, how does one translate success from one context to another?

In my urban development work at HUD, we encountered this dilemma often. We saw public and private sector entities come together to catalyze and broad economic development strategy in one region, and wanted to try and create the same catalytic energy in another area that was in need of a similar change in trajectory. Similarly, we would observe small business development take hold in one community and wanted to know how to take that experience and convert it into vibrant small business growth in another.

Now clearly this is hard. We don’t see sustained intersectoral coordination or successful small business incubation every day or in every place. And this is despite the fact that large organizations with many smart people devote significant resources to accomplish exactly this. But we do see them. This means that it can be done. And for folks like me, if it can be done, then we can learn how to do it and teach others they way.

So what’s the secret? I’m convinced that the answer is simplicity. If we can reduce the complexities into a set of easily-digestible bits, then others will be able to understand what is needed and see a pathway to recreate it in their context. Otherwise, each group will have to do their own research and deduce the right answers. And given the great demands on everyone’s time and the fact that key people will not have a team of research assistants to help them, chances are not good that they will figure it out. Success will be elusive.

The analogy I like to use is a “playbook.” This relatively short list of steps or elements would be something that highlights the key ingredients for making progress and gives people a basic understanding of the issues so they can adapt them to their circumstance.

There are woefully few playbooks out there. But there are some signs of progress. The World Bank Institute is doing something in this direction regarding the recovery for the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And I have had conversations with many here on doing this from a domestic perspective, including Alan Mallach of Brookings and the Center for Community Progress and now U.S. Representative Dan Kildee. But we need more.

Do you have a playbook we should know about?