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Thread: The Rigors of Private Planning Practice #2: Innovation

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    The Rigors of Private Planning Practice #2: Innovation

    Is innovation dead for private sector planning firms?

    Plan graphics aren't much different from 20 years ago. What's different today is the speed and efficiency that computers provide for the designers and drafters to produce them. Strategies for implementation - however poetic or beautifully phrased - are hindered by limited public resources and the milieu of the local political arena & its ties to the State and Federal decision-makers. A wizened planner with over 30 years of planning experience in both the public and private sectors once told me that planners recycle old ideas - it is our trade and currency.

    And yet, private planning consulting firms remain profitable and continue to get more work. What is it that we are providing our clients? Is it innovation? Is it efficiency? Or is it about the networking game, the Good Old Boys Club, whatever you want to call it, the folks we associate with on the week-ends at the golf course or shooting range? Or is it something else? What brings your customers back? What gets you new customers? Can it really be innovation? I am skeptical since most bids and contracts are awarded by the elected or appointed municipal leaders - and that's a political environment, one that tends to be risk-averse and prefers to work with those that have a proven track record.

  2. #2
    Moving at my own pace....... Planderella's avatar
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    Very good (and ironic) question. Ironic because "innovation" is part of my firm's name. Based on my experience with working with the other private firms throughout the metro area and what I know in general, I think it's safe to say that innovation is certainly not part of the package deal when these firms are awarded contracts. The good ole boys network is alive and well in the south and its certainly evident by the success of the local private firms. Most of the contracts are from the MPO, the state DOT and local munipalities that usually outsource work that cannot be done in-house. If anything, I would say that these firms offer efficiency more so than innovation. However, in my case, I'm the only planner in my firm so I know I personally offer more than efficiency and innovation to my projects.
    "A witty woman is a treasure, a witty beauty is a power!"

  3. #3
    I don't know that innovation is necessarily dead. I think that consultants are still used because they are always experiencing new challenges with their clients and this makes them better equipped to deal with emerging problems. They are in tune with what other Cities are doing as well as trends in planning, transportation, economic development. All of these things help them come up with innovative approaches that you won’t find in municipal government.

    However I have kind of noticed that some Cities have limited how they use consultants. It seems that more Cities are doing their own Comprehensive Planning and only use consultants for high profile and difficult projects like environmental cleanup projects, and major redevelopment projects. These types of things take all kinds of expertise in different fields (transportation, market analysis, fiscal analysis, economic development, environmental engineering, etc.) and most municipalities don’t have the resources to hire people with this type of experience.
    "I'm a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are."

    - Homer Simpson

  4. #4
    Cyburbian Seabishop's avatar
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    As municipal budgets shrink, private firms will be called on more and more to do what should be in-house work like Comp Plans. I fear we will do this when we update ours - I want the experience but it would definitely take me longer than "Comprehensive Planners R Us, Inc." We had a much larger planning staff when our plan was originally done.

    Wanigas - I wonder whether private firms will be as in demand if/when the technology gap between average planning departments and firms narrows. GIS is becoming more and more common for every small town giving planning staffs that basic capability. Private firms need to maintain that techonogical edge.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Repo Man

    They are in tune with what other Cities are doing as well as trends in planning, transportation, economic development. All of these things help them come up with innovative approaches that you won’t find in municipal government.
    I find this counter-intuitive. Consulting planners are busting their butts with their workload - how do they find the time to learn all these innovative approaches? Regardless if you are public or private sector, we all have access to the same information. Innovation isn't the exclusive domain of the private sector, is it? Does the perception exist because we do have track records of innovation, or is it because consulting planners have extensive experience writing and producing similar plans on a continuing basis, and therefore we can churn out these documents without flinching?

  6. #6
    Cyburbian H's avatar
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    Do consultants need to be innovative?

    I see 2 very good uses for private planners to public planning dept:

    1. Extra hands for larger projects.
    2. An outside “expert” opinion (even if already known by the planning dept) that can help influence a decision by the board.

    Do consultants know more than the people they consult? No, usually not. In fact, many times they know less (about said place), but they definitely help relieve pressure of work load and hopefully bring some different ideas to the table, or at least reconfirm existing ideas.

    Also, many of private consultant work is for a developer, paid for by the developer. I think this makes life easier for everyone involved because the consultant can be a middle ground. Even though they are paid by the developer, they still (hopefully) understand the concept of planning and can help build consensus.

    Unfortunately, recycling is often common procedure due to the whole time vs. money formula, but remember there are “good” and “bad” consultants.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Many times consultants have asked for my advice...and many times I have asked them. You will not get innovation if you budget 30K for a comp plan and want it in four months. You will get innovation if you have the right resources and the backing.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by H

    Do consultants need to be innovative?
    This is an astute, honest answer.

    Are we just warm bodies then? Yet what do you tell someone like Planderella who says, "I'm the only planner in my firm so I know I personally offer more than efficiency and innovation to my projects"?

    Not only does she offer innovation and efficiency, but she gives more than that. What gives? What exactly are we giving our clients? Some would say innovation. Others might say we perform work that ordinarily wouldn't get done by the regular staff. Right now I'm interested in the innovation thing. Who out there innovates? And if you don't innovate, please share that as well - are you a worshipper at the Temple of Mediocrity or are you fulfilling important needs at a low cost?

    (And don't think I'm picking on Planderella - I'm in the same boat as she because I think I offer my clients some kind of added-value that my competitors lack. However, I'm beginning to think I'm having delusions of grandeur. But that's another whole discussion. One that explores the size of your company, the role of the planning services department, and the need for growing revenue streams.)

  9. #9
    Cyburbian H's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Wanigas?
    And don't think I'm picking on Planderella...
    No, but you sure made it look like I was. And I was not. I am not picking on anyone, so DO NOT take my words out of context to personally isolate and reference anyone else.

    Everyone has an important influence on what they do if they want to.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by H

    I am not picking on anyone, so DO NOT take my words out of context to personally isolate and reference anyone else.
    I am sorry. You were only asking a rhetorical question. I did not intend to make it look like you were singling anyone out. Nonetheless, you make a valid point about the value of innovation in the private planning consulting world.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian H's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Wanigas?
    I am sorry. You were only asking a rhetorical question. I did not intend to make it look like you were singling anyone out. Nonetheless, you make a valid point about the value of innovation in the private planning consulting world.
    Good enough for me, just wanted that clear....let us progress on

  12. #12
    Moving at my own pace....... Planderella's avatar
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    I certainly didn't think I was being picked on. I should have been a little more clear in what I said. I'm in a somewhat unique situation. Many of the planners in this area graduated from the local planning school and are very active in the local APA chapter, which makes us a very tight-knit group. When I say that I bring more than efficiency and innovation to a project, I also mean that my reputation for being a good planner is at stake. I am not the one to do a half-ass job on anything and I certainly don't want to be known in that manner, despite what my client may want for a final product.
    "A witty woman is a treasure, a witty beauty is a power!"

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    How "innovative" does it need to be?

    I think that innovation usually takes root more firmly if it occurs in small steps. That kind of change is often not recognized as "innovative" -- and is exactly why it usually thrives better than the kind of big changes which do raise the red flag and get people to go "I don't know about this. We don't know if it will really work."

    I would also tend to assume that when old ideas are recycled, they are somewhat custom fit to the specific situation -- and that would be where the value of hiring a private sector consultant should come in. At least, I hope there is a market for such skills. I am kind of betting my own future on that hypothesis. :-}

    As an example:

    Even though I have fantasies that I will get a lot of my ideas up on my homeschooling website and "wash my hands" of giving advice one-on-one to other homeschoolers, people still write me personally because having my insight into their specific situation is more valuable and useful to them than my more general comments on my website. I still sometimes address common issues that I have addressed so many times before that there is already a page on my website about it (and it may have started as an e-mail that got forwarded a couple dozen times ). The reason I do that is because I often can see what the sticking point is for this particular person -- the thing they probably most need to look at and deal with. Actually conversing with a parent can produce that Aha! moment where I suggest which specific thing sounds like it is the most likely source of the problem for them and their unique child. I get a lot of gushy "thank you" notes for such feedback.

    I know that kind of analytic ability is a transferable skill and I bring that with me when I do consulting for the homeless shelter -- where we now have a one-year plan for our goals in developing their website -- and ... well, anything I do.

  14. #14
    As we are nearly "built-out", our most recent Comp Plan really should have been a redevelopment plan, but the big, multi-national planning consultants we hired (the biggest ever professional services contract in our history) just couldn't get it (shudder to think that they just wouldn't get it). There was absolutely NO INNOVATION whatsoever, it was all recycled hoo-ha. (For example, the only "farms" in my jurisdiction could be classified as hobby farms -- gardens on steroids, if you will. But the first draft of the plan called for all this agri-preservation, agri-business cr@p. When we called 'em on it they fessed up to cutting and pasting. We should have fired them then and there.)

    And don't get me started on them hiring away one of our professional staff and later assigning him to the project .
    On pitching to Stan Musial:
    "Once he timed your fastball, your infielders were in jeopardy."
    Warren Spahn

  15. #15
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Gedunker
    But the first draft of the plan called for all this agri-preservation, agri-business cr@p. When we called 'em on it they fessed up to cutting and pasting. We should have fired them then and there.

    And don't get me started on them hiring away one of our professional staff and later assigning him to the project
    Wow. That's balls. Pure balls.

  16. #16
    Quote Originally posted by Wanigas?
    Wow. That's balls. Pure balls.
    So my lingering hostility still shows through even after 5 years, does it?
    On pitching to Stan Musial:
    "Once he timed your fastball, your infielders were in jeopardy."
    Warren Spahn

  17. #17
    Cyburbian Doitnow!!'s avatar
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    having my insight into their specific situation
    I would call that customisation.
    I try my best to do that to every client.

    In my experience most of the external consultants( even the large multinational ones) have dleved out sh**ty material and left the local government agencies high and dry.

    The fess are very high and innovation is limited to presentation techniques and at timres only analytical models.
    the most imporrtant things like action plans and spefic recommendations are always messed up or missed out.
    There are cases of final reports having faulty maps.

    Sadly the innovation is missing from many private sector professionals( whereas it had died long ago in hte government sector).

    Thereasons cited by H( in the larger message) is something I agree to a lot.
    I think I am hired mostly
    1.to help out,
    2.innovate wherever possible
    3. Give external opinion( since I am not in thier clutches I can afford to think fresh and out of the BOX.
    4. Wherever external opnion is letened to just because its coming from outside the board( although I happen to be a local consultant because of which I can never be that highly paid foreign consultant who delivers good looking but dud reports :-P )


    But there are a few private sector consultants which really try to innovate in every project. I have seen such works which are really in detail but many times lack in application because they were not guided from within or outside by people( generally clients) as to what form the output is required. All one needs to do to these plans is convert them into figures and maps so that they are readable and can go to the implementing agencies directly.

    PS
    lingering hostility
    seething anger is a feeling I encounter when I come across a ridiculous proposal by an external consultant about my home city.
    "I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them".
    -Isaac Asimov

  18. #18
    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Wanigas?
    Is innovation dead for private sector planning firms? ... What is it that we are providing our clients? Is it innovation? Is it efficiency? Or is it about the networking game, the Good Old Boys Club, whatever you want to call it, the folks we associate with on the week-ends at the golf course or shooting range? Or is it something else? What brings your customers back? What gets you new customers? Can it really be innovation?
    And the answer is, "IT DEPENDS."

    I'd like to think that we are successful because we meet our clients' needs... whatever they are. I would echo H's comment that consultants can provide extra hands for larger projects or projects that go beyond the capacity or time of the client to handle. We have also been called upon to provide an outside/objective opinion (e.g., where a client is under political pressure that makes it hard for them to be objective). In other cases, it's our expertise in a particular area... our knowledge of creative practices in the field... the quality of the service we provide.

    I also agree with H that there are "good" and "bad" consultants. It's unfortunate that a client's bad experience with a consultant makes it imperative for us to "prove" ourselves...

  19. #19
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Doitnow!!
    the most imporrtant things like action plans and spefic recommendations are always messed up or missed out.
    Why do you think that is? Is it about running out of budget at the end of the project, so staff does a sloppy job, or are they just not very good at thinking through the action plan? And what about the responsibility of the client? In your experience, does the client accept the plan with the missing reccomendations, or is the consultant forced to make it right?

  20. #20
    Cyburbian SW MI Planner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Wanigas?
    And what about the responsibility of the client? In your experience, does the client accept the plan with the missing reccomendations, or is the consultant forced to make it right?
    I think its the clients responsibility to know what they are accepting. If they approve something than later find errors, it's their own fault, and shouldn't be up to the consultant to make it right.

  21. #21
    Quote Originally posted by SW MI Planner
    I think its the clients responsibility to know what they are accepting. If they approve something than later find errors, it's their own fault, and shouldn't be up to the consultant to make it right.
    Our comp plan process went from 15 months to nearly 30 because we would simply not accept the work that was being produced. I know that they did not want to hear from us and we felt the same. When it came time to pay claims, we refused and there were legal hassles involved. The end product was "acceptable", but it was not even good. The entire experience left a very bad taste and sore feelings.

    As difficult as it would be, I'd like to have our staff try a new effort in the next 3-4 years.
    On pitching to Stan Musial:
    "Once he timed your fastball, your infielders were in jeopardy."
    Warren Spahn

  22. #22
    Cyburbian Big Easy King's avatar
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    I don't think that innovation is necessarily dead with private sector planning firms. Even though good-ole-boy networking is quite evident in the process of awarding contracts for projects (i.e., new bridge alignments, interstate systems, etc.) from local, state, and federal agencies, private firms in the Big Easy utilize the wherewithal to bring to the table numerous alternative project designs. The alternative designs are assessed and reviewed by the public, in order to reach a consensus for a locally preferred alternative even with various constraints. Thus, if not anything else, at least there's a degree of innovation via design alternatives from which the most effective project alternative could be selected. I enjoy being a part of this aspect of innovation within my private sector planning firm.
    A person who strives is one who thrives. It's GREAT to be THE KING!!!

  23. #23
    Cyburbian Wannaplan?'s avatar
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    From the APA job board at http://www.planning.org/Jobsonline/ads.htm with emphasis added:

    ...has become the Midwest’s leading community planning and urban design firm through its 25+ year commitment to professionalism and development of innovative solutions to more than 200 large and small communities (cities, villages, townships, and counties), agencies and select private clients throughout the Midwest.

    Obviously, the ad is geared toward planning professionals. Given the range and depth of opinions expressed on this thread about the role of innovation at private-sector planning firms, what do you think the ad is trying to say to the potential job applicant? This is not a knock against the firm that posted that ad - just an opportunistic grab to use its job annoucement as a springboard to continue the discussion on innovation or lack thereof at private planning firms.

  24. #24

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    The innovations in planning I am most familiar with - performance zoning and LESA systems - originated either in very small consulting firms where the principal/s were more interested in planning than in profits, or in government, where creative people who are persistent enough can sometimes (though not often enough) find a niche.

  25. #25

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    I'm beginning to think that if you're looking for innovation in planning, look away from the private sector and look toward not-for-profits.

    Too many consulting firms are getting gigs by simply doing what public sector planning departments were doing before. Many not-for-profits are engaged in study and research on topics near and dear to planning, and they are developing planning and programmatic solutions to problems.

    Their only problem is that they don't get to implement what they innovate; they have to influence others and hope they get on board.

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