Thursday, September 09, 2010

Are You a Viking or a Farmer?

Below is an article I wrote that was published in Park & Recreation Magazine, September 2010.
Legendary Norsemen didn't conquer the known world by doing things the way they had always been done. Nor should park and recreation administrators.

The Park and Recreation field is undergoing great change. With state and local government budgets in great distress, a business as usual attitude is not a strategy for success. With many economists predicting that an end to the current recession will not come until sometime in 2013, what will parks and recreation look like at that point? Almost certainly, the agencies that survive and thrive will be those that chart new areas. These will be agencies with lean overhead and an entrepreneurial spirit. Agencies that show their value to the community in new and exciting ways and are less dependent on traditional sources of tax revenues will succeed. They will be Viking agencies.

From the late 8th into the 12th centuries, Vikings from Scandinavia were a dominant force in the world in and around Europe. They conquered vast areas and promoted trade. In the east, they set up the nation of Russia, and in the west they were the first Europeans to explore North America. Then, over time, they stopped exploring to become farmers, and the age of Vikings came to an end.

Most larger park agencies went through a Viking era, a period of time when leaders with foresight and a “can do” attitude created opportunities which resulted in rapidly expanding lands and operations. Over time, any organization can become so focused on managing what they have that they forget to grow.

Management is much like farming. You have a set of operations, and you tend to those like a farmer tending his fields. There is a great tendency to do the same thing every year. It seems to work and it becomes “how we always do things.” There is nothing wrong with being a competent manager or farmer, so long as external forces do not change too rapidly. But, when the way things have been done no longer addresses the changing circumstances, it is time to take to the “long boats” again.

While the farmer is focused on the management of a certain set of fields, the Viking is looking to the horizon for new opportunities. Successful Vikings were willing to take strategic risks and stretch themselves and their group to find the new opportunities. While they were seeking these new opportunities, they were not alone. Leif Ericson did not row to Newfoundland by himself, he had a team of Vikings willing to try new things and take risks together for a shared reward.

So, “Going Viking” is not a matter of becoming an individual maverick, but a process of adopting an organizational culture of growth and exploration. The stronger your team of Vikings, the more successful you will be at thriving in an era of change.

Thinking beyond your field is more than a catchy theme for this article. We need to think beyond the traditional park and recreation field to find new opportunities and achieve excellence. If you want to take the best of business principles and apply them to your world, you need to study the best in the business world. I would strongly suggest reading Harvard Business Review to get a handle on what the leaders in management, marketing and strategy are thinking about. For practical knowledge that will help the bottom line of your park agency, send your agency’s best and brightest to NRPA’s Revenue Development and Management School at Oglebay. This business school for park and recreation has been instilling entrepreneurism in park officials for over 45 years, with constantly updated course material.

Think about what Richard Louv and his book Last Child in the Woods did for outdoor/nature experiences. He changed spending time in nature from a nice thing to do for some, to a social imperative for all. And, as a result, nature programming and acquisition of open space have bloomed.

Think about new ways of positioning your park agency. If you are just considered the “fun” agency, you will be the first to be cut in economic hard times. But, if your facilities and programs are a big reason why tourists spend money in your community, or businesses locate there, you are no longer discretionary but have become essential.

These are examples of thinking beyond your field, looking for new markets and new worlds to explore. You can think like a Viking in looking for new revenue sources, new programming opportunities, new financing options and new marketing methods. And, to thrive in an unsettled world, you need a strong team of Vikings to row that long boat to new opportunities.

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