Will Wisconsin decide to compete in the 21st century?

by rthieme on June 24, 2005

Will Wisconsin decide to compete in 21st century?

The Business Journal of Milwaukee – June 24, 2005

by Richard Thieme

How many psychiatrists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Just one, says the old joke, but the lightbulb has to really want to be changed.

The same is true for Wisconsin in the 21st century.

When I keynoted Gov. Jim Doyle’s Conference on Economic Development in February 2004, I asked the audience:

How many want more traffic?

Zero hands.

How many want a longer commute?

Zero hands.

How many want housing prices to multiply by double digits and mortgage payments and taxes to rise accordingly?

Zero hands.

Nobody wants these things in Wisconsin. When we come home after enduring congestion, tension and infrastructure meltdown on business trips, we breathe a sigh of relief. Even with highway construction, it’s easier to get places and do things here than in most big cities.

Yet in that audience were movers and shakers brought together by the Wisconsin Economic Development Association to explore ways of changing our economy so we can be more competitive in a global high-tech marketplace, so knowledge workers will want to come here and stay.

We have met the enemy, as Pogo said, and it is us.

Our problem is, we like it here. We like it the way it is, and as long as we are among the beneficiaries of a comfortable lifestyle, why would we want to change?

Milwaukee over Maui

I moved to Milwaukee from Maui 17 years ago. After three years on that tiny island, the horizons closed in. Horizon fever is real. Metro Milwaukee felt like paradise — good schools, affordable housing, easy access to downtown, the best airline in the nation.

So I’m part of the problem. I admit it.

Yet study after study shows that we are falling further behind by most measures in the competition to participate in a global high-tech economy. When I ask executives who have lived here a long time why we are like this, the answer is always the same: It’s the culture.

We wring our hands but always turn our backs on the only solution. To change the culture would mean changing our behavior and changing our behavior is unthinkable. But unless we change our behavior, we will keep getting the same results.

Those results are still acceptable to our political and business leaders. I know that because nothing changes. They don’t choose to do what is needed to initiate systemic change. The pain of doing that is perceived to be much greater than the pain of not doing it.

Of course, we don’t want cultural change if it means more people, more traffic, longer commutes — all signs of a growing economy. We would rather keep complaining but keep things exactly as they are.

We don’t ask the right questions because we don’t want to hear the answers. Can we intentionally create a context in which businesses of the 21st century are more likely to succeed in Wisconsin without feeling we are paying too high a price? Do we have the will to do what we know needs to be done?

So far, the answer is “no.” The only ones who will profit in the long term are the people who do the studies. The rest of us will enjoy our city even as it slides away from us. We’ll ignore the alarms going off until the decibel level is too high to dismiss and we finally acknowledge that we live happily in a comfortable darkness because the lightbulb doesn’t want to be changed.

Richard Thieme is a Fox Point author and professional speaker.

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