The energy and buzz surrounding entrepreneurship is tremendous, but the data is disturbing. The rate of new businesses started declined roughly 50 percent over the last four decades. Countering this trend, among just the cities, financial institutions, and foundations that make up Living Cities’ partner network, there were more than 180 distinct initiatives promoting entrepreneurship. That’s enormous breadth, and only a tiny fraction of the field.
But are these initiatives collectively making systemic change? If you throw a stone in a pond, you get a ripple. If you aim well and time it right, you can throw a second stone and strengthen the first ripple. With 182 stones, the sector is making a big splash and generating excitement, but it’s not clear that the impact is compounding. Better coordination and alignment across programs, interventions and funding in entrepreneurship is critical to moving us from a series of large splashes to a more dramatic wave of change. The first step is identifying what we’re throwing.
This blog post is a process guide that shares how Living Cities created a strategy map that inventoried the initiatives within the Living Cities network. Four Living Cities team members undertook a two-month process of identifying all 182 initiatives. The purpose of this exercise was to start an informed, strategic conversation about how Living Cities invests and supports entrepreneurship. Creating the strategy map allowed the team to spot trends in the field, find gaps where better ideas and interventions are needed, and determine common performance metrics and opportunities for better coordination and alignment between partners in the field. This work is still in its early stages and generated as many questions as it did answers. Click here for the blog post in which the team shared their high-level findings.
As Living Cities’ focus on entrepreneurship in low-income communities progresses, particularly among entrepreneurs of color, we want to be intentional about sharing our process. By sharing, we hope that others will see value in taking stock of their own initiatives to identify better paths forward.
1. Set some parameters.
You’ll start your inventory or strategy map by assembling a team. Before that team dives into the data, you must set parameters. Early in the research stage, it may become clear that there are a lot of grey areas. Even the slightest differences in how the Living Cities team was defining “entrepreneurship” had implications on what made the cut and what didn’t. The team was intentional about discussing their scope, definitions and the questions the research would try to answer:
- What small business strategies are currently being implemented across Living Cities’ portfolio? And what are their barriers, outcomes and metrics?
- What small business strategies are currently being implemented across our member portfolios? And what are their barriers, outcomes and metrics?
- What strategies, if any, are being tested by those outside our network that are different from the strategies inside our network?
The team logged their definitions, and took copious notes when topics that needed discussion and group consensus emerged.
2. Dig in.
The team spent more than a month compiling the data, separating it by the type of entity doing the work. They captured data, such as the initiative name, a description and overview, the funder, the location, a measurement strategy, and the data source. They interviewed other staff, reached out to partners, made phone calls, asked questions, and studied reports. They aimed for comprehensiveness and captured it.
3. Codify it.
At this point, they had a list. It was a good list, and a detailed list, but the breadth made it difficult to grasp. The team sat in front of a blank whiteboard and asked, “So, what did we see?” They debated, contemplated and tested to come up with a set of eight barriers that they saw emerging through the data. An inclusive discussion helped them discover the major themes and a rough taxonomy to organize the data in tandem. The entrepreneurship team chose Barriers-Solutions-Activities as their framework, but this is far from being the only option. An ongoing on project on municipal procurement found that organizing data and initiatives into a set of goals with action steps was a better fit for the data. The process takes trial and error, but must achieve two things. First, the framework must serve your purpose for the project. Second, the framework and codification must fit the data.
4. Pressure test and map.
Once the team established the higher-level categories, over the weeks that followed they debated, contemplated and tested them again to assign initiatives as part of their set of solutions and activities. The process was complex, but produced a rich, intellectual and energetic discussion. Everything had to have a home. The team kept notes that outlined the rationale behind the placement of each initiative to defend their reasoning later in the process. The team was intentional about revisiting early decisions and reassigning initiatives to solutions or activities as new ones emerged. Their goal was to ensure consistency in placement of the 182 initiatives. At the conclusion of this process, the structure of the map was complete and it was ready for feedback.
For each initiative, the team asked:
- Do these categories fit?
- Are there better categories for this work?
- Do we agree?
- Have we labeled similar initiatives consistently?
Everything had a home, and the team agreed on the home.
5. Package it and solicit feedback.
Feedback from content experts and practitioners is invaluable and necessary for this type of process. While the team may be well equipped and knowledgeable in the space, biases will inherently emerge in the discussions. The Living Cities team prepared a version of the map to share that included framing, goals and questions for the project. They shared it with people in and out of the Living Cities community, and they solicited specific feedback, which was captured and incorporated and then shopped back out to others. Rich discussion on the document resulted in an even richer final product.
This is not, to be clear, a guide to create a comprehensive plan to reverse the decline in entrepreneurship, or to solve any other of the vexing and complex challenges that those reading this blog take on in their work. What it can provide is a valuable tool, one that helps you identify gaps where you’re needed, and ideas where you can partner. Key to making this exercise productive is to tackle it as a team. Collaboration in the research and debate result in a far stronger resource and far better starting point to move into additional phases of the work. Important, too, is seeking feedback from the community and partners. Buy in from external voices provides additional lenses and perspectives, opens up the potential for better partnerships, and highlights the blind spots in your work. For the first time, we can clearly see the stones we can throw in the pond. Now it’s time to think timing and strategy.