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Yes, I really do own a small town liquor store and a cattle ranch. It gives me a down-to-earth perspective. Throughout my career, rural has been the focus. I’ve been a city administrator for a small town with a population under 1,000 and a nonprofit executive working the broad stretch of rural counties that no one else wanted. I’ve been an antiques dealer scouring rural auctions for bargains and a teacher of computer classes for rural small businesses and senior citizens. I don’t just talk about rural issues, I live them.
Because I care about rural people, I watch the global trends and disruptive changes in the economy, technology and society from a small-town perspective. We’re seeing the end of geographic limits with global shipping and delivery, access to the internet anywhere and anytime, and a declining cost for locating people and goods any place we choose. At the same time, we see a renewed emphasis on local culture and place, quality of life and a sense of community. We’re watching as automation, technology and a contingent workforce combine to destroy the old model of “good jobs.” It’s coupled with a rise in the Innovative Rural Business Models where small town people redefine what it means to be in business. Old line manufacturing is being replaced with makers, 3D printing and craftspeople. We’re hearing renewed interest in downtowns, walkability, human-scale places, and local retailers.
Our next 30 years won’t look like our last 30 years. But knowing the trends is different from knowing what to do next. In reality, none of us can predict exactly what will happen even 5 years out. Our best move is to be open to new ideas. If we can make our town more Idea Friendly, we can better adapt to any future that comes our way.
The biggest reason we don’t adapt as fast as we’d like is our own people, or at least some of them. You know the ones, the negative ones. The ones who say things like “We tried that once,” or “That’s not how we do things here.” Like you, I’ve had my ideas blocked and sabotaged. I’ve watched my work be dismantled, and I’ve had other people take the credit for my efforts. I’ve been fired from my job for small-town political reasons. I’ve had people write letters to the editor to run me down in public. So I know what it feels like when you watch your best ideas being killed publicly.
And it’s not just my own experience. For over 10 years, I’ve been writing online about rural small business, and people have shared their struggles with getting their ideas accepted. At events across the US and Canada, rural people have told me more about the difficulties in proposing new ideas. When I surveyed 473 rural people about their challenges, they spelled out more about coping with small thinking, competitiveness and lack of cooperation. They told me about town officials who micro-manage, people who do their best to run off any new volunteers, people who oppose every change no matter what it is.
To address these problems, rural people have tried using frameworks from government agencies and other organizations, but they don’t solve the real problem. Either the formulas were focused on building more committees to plan our way out of a people problem, or they were just too rigid and old fashioned to address the changing realities. You’ve probably been through too many strategic planning sessions with sticky notes and voting on issues, where you felt like every minute of it was a waste of time. You’ve probably put hours of work into a great plan, just to see it put on the shelf to collect dust.
We can change this. I knew there had to be a way. So I’ve been learning, researching change science, behavioral motivation, open networks, crowd innovations and how you build a revolution. And I brought in what I’ve learned of rural realities and trends from everyday rural people like you over the past 10 years.
There’s a system, a method to bring the revolution to your town, to make it open and Idea Friendly. You do it with three elements: Gather Your Crowd, Build Connections and Take Small Steps.
You know you have to start with tiny, easy-to-do steps. That’s how we get things moving. You know that connecting people with each other is the essence of both community and innovation. And you know the few you can rely on to get started. You’ll draw more people to you as you go.
The same things that make rural places challenging can be turned into positives. Our very disadvantages can be our advantages for success. You know how. There’s a lot of rural wisdom inside you; it’s just been covered up with the busy-ness of everyday life. It may feel like a refresher course in common sense. These are the bedrock principles that small-town business owners have survived by for years, but it’s not a return to the past.
It will never go back to the way it was. It has to start from here and go forward. You’re the person who is best positioned to spark the revolution in your town. You’ll build the small steps and tiny experiments that will add up to change the shape of your town. I’ll show you how.
Your town matters. It’s worth the effort. No place is quite the same mix of people and place, culture and heritage. You’re unique. Despite all the naysayers, your small town has a future, and you’re about to change it.
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