Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Learning what not to do from the New England Patriots football team

Before I came up with the Transformational Projects Action Planning approach ("Why can't the "Bilbao Effect" be reproduced? | Bilbao as an example of Transformational Projects Action Planning," 2017), earlier I came up with a method I called Action Planning, which incorporates design thinking and social marketing into the planning process, based on best practices I observed in Arlington County and the Tower Hamlets borough of London ("Social Marketing the Arlington (and Tower Hamlets and Baltimore) way," 2008, "All the talk of e-government, digital government, and open source government is really about employing the design method," 2012).  

From "Design Thinking," American Libraries, 2008

I used action planning concepts when I did a pedestrian and bicycle plan for Baltimore County ("Best practice bicycle planning for suburban settings using the "action planning" method," 2010).

Basically, I'm interested in continuous process improvement and iterative learning ("Incrementalism as a concept of iterative improvement in government project development no longer a legitimate public administration theory," 2023) applied to government and social program improvement.

I have a bunch of posts on this for government:

-- "Big data/Machine Learning/AI as a policy savior," 2022
-- "I get tired of all the talk about rewarding "failure" because it shows people are trying, and won't be penalized for it," 2017
-- "Creating the right program vs. the hype of big data," 2013
-- "Does the focus on big data mean we miss the opportunity for better use of "little data"," 2015
-- "For a lot of "urban problems" the issue isn't knowledge about what to do, but willingness to engage that knowledge," 2017
-- "Helping Government Learn," 2009
-- "Positive Deviance and DC Public Schools," 2007
-- "Positive Deviance in New York City (public schools)," 2009
-- "3 R's of Transforming the school system," 2007

Digging deeper to learn the right lesson.  Sometimes I tell the story of the first project I did at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a report on the presence of a potential carcinogen in alcoholic beverages.  We sold a fair number of copies through press mentions.  It happened that the chief author, editor of the newsletter, and I were eating lunch together in the basement lunchroom (it had a stove, a luxury for an office), and we ended up doing an after action analysis.

I was certain the report sold because of the policy comparisons between the US and Canada.  The newsletter editor said no, it was because of the list of test results included, and people wanted to check if what they drank was potentially tainted.  In short, it wasn't about policy it was about self-help.

It was an important lesson to me about not learning the wrong lesson from success.  But to dig deeper for the right lesson.

Learning from sports teams.  There are tons of "leadership books" and seminars and articles about leadership lessons from sports team coaches.  Then again, there's a lot written about abuse by coaches ("Beneath NCAA gymnastics’ glow, a familiar ‘toxic’ culture," Washington Post).

Because I went to the University of Michigan, a big sports school, I got turned off by large team sports. I don't watch sports on television for the most part.  I don't go to games.

It seemed futile to witness people getting in fights when Michigan lost.  I used to say "whether or not they win or lose, I still have to take my finals."  That being said, I hope they win, but I haven't watched four full quarters of football equivalent of the team over the past 40 years.

However, I find the business, politics, and societal aspects of professional sports interesting, and of course relevant to urban revitalization and policy.  And I have been reading sports stories a lot more in the past 12-18 months because the rest of the news--the US's slow but steady march to authoritarianism pushed forward by Trump ("Trump and allies plot revenge, Justice Department control in a second term," Washington Post, "Trump and Allies Forge Plans to Increase Presidential Power in 2025," New York Times)--is so depressing.

(Rory Smith of the New York Times/The Athletic, who writes about European soccer, writes many interesting stories along these lines.)

Learning from the New England Patriots: it's easy to learn the wrong lessons.  In the same vein of my lesson from CSPI, there is a great column about the decline of the New England Patriots football team ("The fall of the Patriots: An obsession with ‘value’ has led to the lowest point in 30 years," Boston Globe).

Under the coach, Bill Bellichick, the team became famed for finding "value" players, e.g., a fifth round selection for half the cost of a name player, who performed just as well or better.  The coaches all thought their success was them, not fully acknowledging the role Tom Brady, the quarterback and a diamond in the rough late draft selection, played in pulling it all together.  Since Brady left, the team has languished, really badly.  From the article:

“To be good in the business of football today — and good to me is not being good one year, but try to sustain it year in and year out — you have to understand economics and you have to understand value,” Kraft said near the end of his team’s almost-magical 2007 season. “I think every discussion I had with Bill, he understood value.”

The concept of value helped the Patriots win six championships and dominate the NFL for 20 years. On the field and on the salary-cap ledger, the Patriots were better than any team at working the margins, identifying undervalued assets, and exploiting loopholes.

It worked brilliantly when Tom Brady was leading the franchise to unprecedented heights. But “value” has since become a negative in Foxborough. The Patriots’ obsession with finding value — constantly looking for ways to spend 50 cents on the dollar — is why they are 2-8 and at their lowest point since Kraft bought the franchise 30 seasons ago. That obsession has seeped into every crevice of Gillette Stadium, weakening the core of a once-dominant franchise.

The coaches and owner learned the wrong lesson.  Value mattered and matters, but it works in a certain set of circumstances, and to keep working, a great amount of flexibility and serendipity is required.  

“If you gave us any of the top 15 [quarterbacks], we could do it. I don’t think the coaches view Tom as special as everyone else in football does.”

They thought it was them, but they were just a piece of a whole that they didn't truly understand.

Failures in Design Thinking.  The Stanford Social Innovation Review has published articles over the years about application of design thinking to social enterprises and social issues.  The current issue has an article, "Design Thinking Misses the Mark," about the failures of the applications of design thinking.  That's what I've been writing about for years, obviously, as indicated by the text above.  From the article:

However, design thinking has not lived up to such promises. In a 2023 MIT Technology Review article, writer and designer Rebecca Ackerman argued that while “design thinking was supposed to fix the world,” organizations rarely implement the ideas generated during the design-thinking process. The failure to implement these ideas resulted from either an inadequate understanding of the problem and/or of the complexities of the institutional and cultural contexts. One of Ackerman’s examples is the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), which hired IDEO in 2013 to redesign the school district’s cafeterias. The five-month design-thinking process resulted in 10 recommendations, including creating a communal kitchen and using technology to reduce cafeteria lines. However, Angela McKee Brown, the consultant SFUSD hired to implement the recommendations, told Ackerman that IDEO failed to account for the operational and regulatory arrangements required for their implementation.

We reject design thinking as a singular tool kit prescribed to solve social problems. In what follows, we explain why design thinking as typically practiced has not been able to create impactful and sustainable solutions to complex social issues. Instead, we call for a critical stance on design, where critical means both discerning and important. We invite designers to adopt a continuously reflexive and questioning stance akin to what scholar and activist Angela Davis called “a way of thinking, a way of inhabiting the world, that asks us to be constantly critical, constantly conscious.”

... The social sector is inherently complex because it consists of a multitude of actors across different contexts, timelines, and political realities. Any approach that purports to easily solve for such complexity is more likely than not to be reductive and therefore ineffective. Design thinking tends toward oversimplification in at least three ways. 

  • Design thinking is formulaic
  • Design thinking is decontextualized
  • Design thinking is short-termist. 
The article goes on to provide recommendations on how to improve the approach.

Conclusion.  My form of design thinking, effectuated through the concepts of wider scopes for planning, action planning, and transformational projects action planning (also see "A wrinkle in thinking about the Transformational Projects Action Planning approach: Great public buildings aren't just about design, but what they do," 2022), aims to avoid those faults.

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At 8:41 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

A lot of what your are saying here has been said elsewhere, in different context.

In particular, I'm thinking of the decision in the 1970s to design and build the Spruance Class destroyer and use modern production techniques to get the value.

It did not go well.

Basically gutted Navy planning and expertise on surface warfare ships and resulted in the boondoggle that is the LCS. $1 Billion each and no weaponry.

And goes to the points Alon Levy finally discovered, which is the low cost of construction is directly related to expertise of the public agencies in charge.

Again I find it interesting that Bowser is a "planner" or trained as one. Planning is good. High quality cities and places need a lot of it.

But were are not getting that, and people can easily fall for market inspired ideas like NIMBY, Uber, IZ, etc.

A lot of what you are saying SpaceX (and Musk in general) is doing. Welcome failure, learn from it and turn over. Again not a new idea. The problem with urban planning is the timeframes are very different (20+ years) so the opportunity to learn from failure is less.

At 12:35 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Bowser majored in government or public administration not planning.

But yes, this isn't new. And given that knowledge is quickly lost not transmitted, it needs to be constantly repeated.

Remember all those management techniques that came out of the Pentagon (McNamara et al)?

Early in blogging I wrote about how Dan Tangherlini riffed the engineering and construction people at WMATA "to save money" because "we won't be in charge of building anymore." A loss of hundreds of years of man year earned expertise.

Etc. To do better, we'd probably have to go Songapore and pay those people a lot more, so they don't go off to WSP, Arup, Macquarie etc.

At 12:39 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Our park board, tenure is maximum 8 years. We have no knowledge really before about 2015. And because the board has been passive for the most part, there's been poor codification and recording. Us young turks (I'm 63, they are in their 30s) are now constructing all that. I was so pissed at last meeting when the former president asked the county parks director about giving us a list of all the funding dates (he was only at the meeting because of our committee). I wanted to say, what have you been doing for the last 7.5 years?

At 4:47 PM, Anonymous Charlie said...

Have a good thanksgiving. Gratitude is always difficult to find. It’s always there, though

At 8:43 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Yes, thank you! Hoping for a better year. My HL may be NHL after all. But no spread from the colon tumor. And my CHF is being treated. (I'm a bit focused on this stuff...)


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