The Milwaukee Malaise

by rthieme on January 27, 2013

The Milwaukee Malaise

Richard Thieme

Published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel January 27 2013


An old Far Side cartoon depicts a dog on a tightrope, balancing a cat on his head, hoops spinning on his paws, above this caption: “High above the crowd, Rex tried to remain focused, but he couldn’t shake one nagging thought: He was an old dog, and this was a new trick.”

Welcome to Milwaukee.

It’s not that our leaders – politicians, executives, union heads, deans – don’t understand the issues that challenge us. Study after study by outside consultants confirm that Milwaukee lags behind other cities in promoting growth in helpful ways.

We know that our leaders understand because they respond with the right sound-bites, insisting they are addressing the issues. But calling a lamb’s tail a leg doesn’t make it one, as the old joke goes, and calling our situation a “Milwaukee Renaissance” doesn’t make it one either.

The Milwaukee malaise is not that we don’t know what’s happening. We have studied it to death. The problem is that we don’t do anything meaningful about it. “Not try. Do!” as Yoda said—but do something more than have committee meetings, issue policy papers, and commission more studies, all of which change nothing essential.

After 25 years in Milwaukee, I think I know why we’re stuck. And I’m part of the problem.

When people like life the way it is, they may give lip service to changing things, but why should want to?

In 2004, I keynoted the Governor’s Conference on Economic Development. The conference celebrated “Making Waves: Bold Strategies for our Economic Future.”

I asked the audience: who wants more traffic? Who wants higher prices? Who wants a longer commute, longer lines in stores? Who wants more noise?

No hands went up. People laughed. No hands would go up now, either.

THAT’S OUR PROBLEM. A lot of us like it here just the way it is. We don’t see how we can make changes that would address our real issues without changing who we are and what we have.

We don’t WANT to be like L. A. or New York or Atlanta or anywhere else where dense traffic, noise, congestion, and higher prices make life less enjoyable … but those places also have extraordinary resources and dynamic environments that attract smart diverse risk-taking kinds of people. That’s why it’s noisy there and so quiet here we can u-turn in the middle of downtown.

We say we want what they have but don’t want to pay the price. So we don’t create a context in which businesses and industries in the 21st century can succeed.

Our leaders feel no real incentive to create bold strategies or make even a single wave. As long as elected officials do not threaten the status quo, they are re-elected again and again.

The people in that audience nearly a decade ago –successful, mostly male, mostly white – are the kinds of people who have historically exercised leadership here. Because they have prospered in life-as-it-is and carved out comfortable geographic enclaves that enable them to avoid the behavioral sinks that fester in the invisible city, they can raise tinkling glasses of self-congratulation and enjoy the good life.

They do not feel the pain that compels people to do things differently. And until our leaders feel that pain and are motivated to use their power to create a context more aligned with twenty-first century realities, nothing will change.

I have lived in Milwaukee for 25 years. I have watched with frustration as leaders in other midwest cities – Indianapolis, Minneapolis, now Oklahoma City – unite to formulate plans for the future and forge ahead with economic incentives to make them happen. I have listened as Milwaukee metrics are cited, time after time, that quantify our malaise. But we refuse to implement the strategies that work elsewhere. We refuse to forge the alliances that generate creative change.

Perhaps a more oblique approach might work.

Robert Galvin was a genius who built Motorola into a powerhouse. At one point, he wanted to see then-newfangled “quality initiatives” implemented throughout the corporation. But it didn’t work when he lectured about it. Old habits were not dislodged by words. So Galvin chose a subtle approach.

He attended meetings at which lower level managers made presentations. As soon as the presentation involving quality had been given, he left.

He did that until the message sank in: the boss cares about quality. If you want him to listen to your ideas, you better make them part of a quality presentation.

Everyone learned to present their best ideas in the “total quality” slot.

Behaviors change when people pay attention to what they really care about. Meetings led by “nice guys” do not move people to action. Despite our moralistic pronouncements, we are all motivated by self-interest, and unless we see our self-interest tied to bold initiatives, why should we embrace them? Why make waves when we prefer still waters?

Will this kind of approach work? Who knows? But we might as well try this and any other approach that might make a difference. Until we break through our denial and rationalizations, until the comfortable are genuinely afflicted and the threat of doing nothing gets personal – the malaise will continue, columns like this will be written, consultants will thrive—and the change that happens will not be the kind we need or want.








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