Recession Calls for Innovative Thinking (Opinion)

Local government leaders must collaborate during tough economy.

by / September 4, 2009

Local governments are confronted with the deepest recession in decades, so 2009 is proving to be a difficult time. Fiscal shortfalls are forcing many localities to cut services, implement hiring freezes or layoffs, and delay capital expenditures.

To highlight this issue's underlying theme -- that there's opportunity in adversity if we are wise enough to find it -- I did a Google search for an appropriate quote. I found dozens that echoed this sentiment, going back to ancient Roman poet Horace. So it certainly isn't a new idea by any stretch of the imagination.

Of course, this is an easy thing to say, this is easier said than done in the real world of government -- where political leaders and their staffs must try to satisfy many competing demands and interests of citizens.

My search for a quote resulted in one that enhanced the premise of opportunity in adversity -- from Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist. He is famous for his contributions to the understanding of atomic structure and quantum mechanics, as well as his involvement in the Manhattan Project.

"Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution," Bohr said. "It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it."

Attempting to think differently about a problem is an interesting exercise. I've had conversations with scientists throughout the years, and the first step often is seeking to define the problem in a completely different way. Correctly framing the problem can make the solution almost obvious.

The importance of "thinking differently" is a notion that is now gaining traction in leadership circles. And there's a growing amount of literature dedicated to the subject.

For instance, in Apples Are Square: Thinking Differently About Leadership, authors Susan Smith Kuczmarski and Thomas D. Kuczmarski make the case that today's successful companies are run by a different sort of leader. For centuries, leaders have been operating within a "control and compete" mindset, they say. But times are changing. More and more, the leaders who succeed are collaborators, not controllers. They are "square apples": bold men and women who create success by reshaping the workplace in unexpected ways.

Are there really opportunities to be seized by local leaders in the current economic climate? The theory is that there are, if only we can see them by thinking differently and approaching problems in new ways.

Blake Harris Editor