Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Apples and Oranges

There is a saying that Durham is a spot of blue in a sea of red, political implications, I think. Durham is also surrounded by cities that are anomalies… or maybe Durham’s the anomaly. Either way, comparing Durham to its neighbors is apples and oranges, and Durham doesn’t want to be like those other oranges. :-)

Durham differs in several ways… it has more texture, arguably more culture, definitely more diversity, and it gets slammed for high poverty and high crime.

I used a new tool this weekend that let me search cities that are comparable. I was using it to establish and reality-check some cohorts for benchmarking. I searched for those most like Durham in population, % non-white, poverty, violent crime etc.

There were some natural outliers… e.g., way too small a population etc.

But in the final 28 ranging from Salt Lake to South Bend, Columbus to Chattanooga, Fort Worth to Fort Lauderdale, Little Rock to Oklahoma City etc., Durham ranked 2nd in diversity or percent non-white, 16th or near the middle in violent crime rate and 20th or the bottom third in poverty.

Turns out, if you want a community as unique and diverse as Durham is, it’s one of the best choices you can make. It also turns out our poverty rate, while it bugs us to no end, is nowhere near the pejorative some neighbors heap on it.

Another thing that galls me is people who assume, if you have diversity, you’ll have high crime and poverty. Turns out they aren’t attached at the hip. So for those reluctant to crack down hard on crime for stepping on the toes of either minorities or those who are poor and, likewise, for those afraid of people who aren’t exactly like themselves socio-economically… both groups can get over it.

Monday, January 29, 2007

How Did a Guy Who Hated Math Become Known for Statistics?

Funny, I hated math in secondary school. I wasn’t good with figures in my head, although passable when I could see the numbers on a blackboard etc. The only math-related classes I liked were in 8th grade when my football coach taught them… and as a sophomore (first year of high school) when my geometry teacher made it come to life with her high, squeaky voice and ability to accept my shaking handwriting.

It’s ironic because in my job, for years now, I’ve gotten high marks for statistics… for me a funky, application form of math. I’ve thought often, how did a guy who graduated in history and poly sci and went to law school get known for statistics?

One, I’m good with proportions… although I can’t hang pictures on a wall. Second, early in my career managing convention and visitor bureaus which began in my mid-20s, I was greatly disgusted with older CEOs who dismissed research if they knew about it at all or at best considered it something you just manipulated.

They believed in winging it… lots of intuition, lots of WAG (wild ass guessing), lots of anecdotal ready, fire, aim thinking and lots of emulating competitors.

It shocked, frightened and embarrassed me…. although I run into people every day who know no other ways to make decisions. Mortified at those methods of guiding expenditure of millions of dollars, I stepped back and embraced research and studying benchmarks. This led to being an early adopter of performance measures that are mainstream today.

So, I don’t make a decision or even a comment based on instincts without first vetting it from several different viewpoints with statistical, measurable data. In fact, I’ve learned to approach every decision with an open mind and then enjoy the occasional high when data validate something I believe instinctually.

It’s just as rewarding as WAGing… it’s far more productive… and I can sleep at night guiding the expenditure of millions of dollars.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


While I get high scores in a survey of several hundred stakeholders, e.g., elected officials, other government officials, university and business leaders and visitor sector leaders, I have a small group of important people with whom I’ve had problems. Thanks to the generosity of my governing board, I retained a coach who anonymously interviewed some members of this group.

It always takes me a day or two to absorb anecdotal input like this. What can I change? What do I really want to change? What change will have any effect on perceptions? What can I change without undermining an overall strength?

The input is useful. I can do better at explaining research, which is the only way I know how to recommend spending millions of dollars. How can I continue to be a critical thinker without people feeling I’m negative? How can I be more tolerant of people who make their decisions from the gut with nothing whatsoever to back it up?

One comment was particularly amusing. “Reyn expects people to be accountable for what they say.” This was under challenges. Duh! I have spotted some things I can easily work on, although the temptation is to try to improve everything. One is to explain research by summarizing it first…. I don’t have to always give the “why.”

I can improve speaking in phrases or sentences vs. paragraphs. I don’t have to respond to every request. I can just let some go by without appearing to be unresponsive.

One area I can’t improve: Some people noted concern that my hands have a tremor, and now it is moving into my voice on occasion. I’ve had this since I was eight… diagnosed since I was 18. I’ve always known from the initial diagnosis that, while not degenerative, it will get worse and worse. There’s nothing I can do. Even the medication that helps for a while will become ineffective.

It’s a bit embarrassing to see people distracted by it. It’s rarely because I’m nervous or because of something or some issue in discussion. The coach recommends that I explain it up front. That’s good advice if it’s a new group each time. But what about the people who’ve heard it ten times….will they think I’m making excuses?

You know what? Feedback like this is useful. I can always improve. But I didn’t get to where I am by worrying about what people think. I can’t lose sight of that.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Right Person, Right Time

I suppose any of us at any time could be the “right person at the right time,” but few step forward. E’Vonne Coleman-Cook did. Since her days as head of the Durham Arts Council, E’Vonne has participated in discussions DCVB has led over the last 16 years to shape consensus about uses for a 1% prepared food/meals tax.

Now everyone knows that, when a funding source is on the table, people act crazy, often losing any sense of logic or fairness.

As chair of the DCVB Tourism Development Authority, E’Vonne stood firm and prevented the process from fragmenting into political push and shove and zero-sum thinking.

Sure she was adamant for the portion for tourism marketing to protect and grow this new revenue stream and to offset the burden on the businesses shouldering the tax. But she seized her intimate understanding of Durham’s cultural landscape to argue just as passionately for its sustainability. While some began to dismiss and attack the needs of others in favor of their own and others dove under the table to avoid anything controversial, E’Vonne stood strong and vehement in support of each of the allocations including workforce training, beautification and cleanup.

E’Vonne was also relentless in advocating for the need for additional funding sources that can help relieve the burden on local governments and free up general fund revenues for core services.

There is still a long way to go and the carping and backstabbing may not subside. Many people live only on one-way streets. But if this new funding source comes to be, no one will deserve more credit than E’Vonne. It takes courage and integrity to stand up for what’s right and what’s fair. She was the right person at the right time to shape a new funding source that not only is fair to those who will pay it but also may just be the salvation for Durham’s unique cultural identity and sense of place for decades to come.

People like E’Vonne who think holistically and free of special interests, yet are willing to be firm when many are selling out, are the people who have and will continue to make Durham great.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Is the Associated Press Smoking Something?

It’s disconcerting how discriminatorily various AP offices apply guidelines.

The one in nearby Raleigh, which is supposed to represent half of North Carolina (who cares where they rent office space) is obstinately insistent about datelining stories as “Raleigh” that are actually taking place in Durham and other locations. Thus many other media nationwide step in the bucket and pass along stories that make Duke and RTP seem like they are located anywhere but Durham, and the impression is given that Durham must be a suburb of Raleigh.

Probably seems trivial to some journalists, but readers don’t give a schnoodle’s patootey where the reporter is when the story is written or filed. No one cares but the reporter’s boss, and the boss must have ways of knowing other than to confuse readers.

Even if the writer happens to be sitting in Raleigh or in the airport or on a bus, for that matter, when the story is filed and AP insists on using its office address as the dateline, it doesn’t excuse neglecting to mention in the body of the story that the subject of the story (events, people, facilities etc.) is taking place in Durham.

Readers don’t give a flip about where reporters physically sit when writing out a story. They care where the story is occurring. Why not dateline it where the story occurs and, in the body of story or in mice type at the end, tell us where the reporter is sitting… in case someone actually cares or it becomes an issue later?

Same craziness happens when cities in one county want to annex land for utility purposes in another county. Why make it our problem where someone gets their water from? The location identity should be driven by where the homeowner or tenant still votes, pays for license tags and goes to school. Practical everyday needs should dictate the identity of the location… not the bureaucratic need to transfer rights to provide utilities or planning oversight.

Same with postal officials, who a decade or more ago decided to pay no attention whatsoever to actual physical locations when assigning mail street delivery designations. So you can live on Saturn and get your mail with an address that gives the impression you’re located on Jupiter. Physical locations should be what’s important, not the bureaucratic need to know where the mail was sorted that morning.

And now cable TV operators could be smoking something. By now we were supposed to have news down to the neighborhood and block level, but guess what? Time Warner makes someone running for election in Durham buy time on both Durham and Carrboro’s channels… sounds like a personal problem at the company, and they are making it the viewers' and advertisers' problem.

To show how this all dominoes… TW appears to get confused by the mis-assignment of mail delivery designations and also assigns the wrong cable designation to these households… so when subscribers try to tune into community access or local government channels, they get the wrong city and county.

Catch-22 was obviously more than fiction!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Dr. K’s Philosophy

A few years ago, I heard a presentation by Dr. Peter Koestenbaum, and I still subscribe to his newsletter. Dr. K applies philosophy in business, and in fact, his company is www.pib.net.

He posted recently that “Greatness means to add passion to what you do. But it is to be genuine, heartfelt, an outgrowth of an exuberant personality, a soul suffused with joie de vivre."

Dr. K clusters people in four roles: seer, merchant, healer and warrior. I’ve always been lucky to be in roles I feel passionate about. On only a couple of occasions did I take assignments where I didn’t feel that, and it was a major mistake.

People don’t often see me as passionate, but I try to low-key it. You see, many people interpret passion as “too intense” or “less than reasonable.” But inside, while far from greatness in any measure, I really only focus on things I feel passionate about.

That passion can be blinding. Often I don’t listen enough. I can be guilty of not looking at individuality. Passion can also be misinterpreted as “frustration” during problem-solving.

But given a choice, I feel blessed to be passionate. Maybe one day, I’ll let it show through, other than in glimpses as exuberance.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Durham Image Watch

A good barometer of a community’s sense of pride is the number of residents or even non-residents who work here and are ready to help identify references to the community that undermine its brand or personality. A deeper reference point is the number of residents willing to intervene and set the record straight.

Durham Image Watch has always been a very small cadre that, through the years, has stepped in and helped DCVB do the heavy lifting. This isn’t about just getting people to replace negative with positive. Defending and scrubbing the brand means “accuracy” not schmooze.

It's based on the well-proven perspective that a community’s image is the mix of positive, troubling and ordinary attributes. Negative word of mouth often infiltrates official channels (airline greetings, media datelines, mail delivery designations, references in advertisements as well as news stories and editorials).

You can’t outrun the damage from these inaccuracies or lack of perspective by just “out-promoting or -publicizing them” with positive information. There is also evidence that civic improvements and developments have little if any lasting impact on reversing these brand threats.

Nope, but people willing to intervene with emails, letters to the editor, phone calls/VMs, and petitions can make a huge difference, and it's something that DCVB can’t do alone no matter how determined.

It also takes people who believe in a two-way street and realize that, just because Durham has been wronged, it doesn’t mean that the end justifies the means when applied to other communities. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

It also requires the ability to sense when the errors are in bad faith and the courage to dial up a bit when confronted with condescension and ridicule.

But the more people involved, the easier it is to execute change. For more info and to enlist in Durham Image Watch: