Testing new ideas: McCray brings fresh insight to Redfield
By Shiloh Appel
On Friday, March 23rd, national speaker Becky McCray, who specializes in rural and small-town business, spoke at the Redfield High School Auditorium. McCray advised Redfield residents and small business owners in attendance to get involved in growing Redfield into a thriving and healthy community by taking "small but meaningful" steps.
"There is a small step to every idea," said McCray.
During her presentation, McCray gave an example of a small town that started with putting up Christmas lights. Instead of each business putting up lights, McCray said the town decided to have everyone choose a tree and decorate it with their own Christmas lights. Town residents were encouraged to get involved and light up their windows and houses as well.
"Whether that means putting a lamp in the window or whatever. Light up the town for a night," said McCray."Pretty soon, you have people who want to go and see all of the lights…and then you have someone who says,'I'm going to sell hot chocolate' [for those who are out looking at the lights]…it is small, but meaningful. Get everyone involved. They can post selfies and hashtag it 'light up the town.'"
The idea of crowdsourcing was one major focus of the evening. McCray had those in attendance think of various event and program ideas such as reintroducing a gymnastics program in Redfield.
"You can start a hashtag — [#IfRedfield]… 'Hashtag, if Redfield had gymnastics, et cetra,'" said McCray.
McCray also stressed the need for immediate action. She offered a blunt example of another small town she worked with that desired to wait a month and hold a meeting concerning posting ideas on social media.
"Don't wait a month to hold a meeting to decide whether or not it would be a good idea to do an Instagram post. Just post it. See what happens. See if people like it or not," said McCray."Get that feedback right away. We think we have to wait a month, have a meeting and have a vote…that is the old organizational chart from the 1850's that we are trained to use. Our goal is to help ourselves get away from that. We are moving away from forming committees to creating a context where even the most lowly [motivated] people-but still motivated can actually have a small but meaningful role in what we are doing," she said. "We are moving from organizations well managed to networks well led."
McCray used a powerpoint to make her points, sharing what it would look like to make connections and build a social network. She also said that being open to the new ideas of those that are new to town has proven to be helpful.
"Research after research project has shown that that is how we build a more prosperous town. We build better connections between people," said McCray."That is where we get innovation from. We have established that the future is coming fast. The self-driving cars will show up in the parking lot any day now. Things are moving quickly. We are going to need new ideas. It seems to be safer to put the breaks on and slow down. We won't make as many mistakes. But what we have found out is that we are a terrible judge of risk. We have to ask that question…how will inaction cost us a year from now? If we take no action, how does that hurt us?"
McCray went on to describe how to translate ideas into real-life scenarios, again using a small-town example, the city of Waynoka, Oklahoma (population about 993). McCray said that she helped the city apply for a streetscape grant, which they received. With a plan to redo the sidewalks, lights and the entire downtown, the city chose their architect and were ready to get started.
"The architect walks into the city council meeting and drops three sets of plans on the council table, walks them through it and describes how it is going to be and says, 'pick one," said McCray. "This is a town of 993 people. There is not an engineer on the board. There are no architects or urban planners. They don't have those people on staff. These are volunteers and business owners. They just don't know how to go from that to the real world. So how can we go from that to a small step? There is a small step to every idea. You get the plans, go out on the sidewalk where it says there should be a ramp, and you get the roll of duct tape and draw a ramp right where it says there should be one, and then write on it 'ramp.' Then where it says there ought to be plants, you borrow plants from people and set them there. It says there should be a curb that should run along here and there should be brick — you go find some loose bricks and you set them down…"
McCray said that the whole process culminates in a "party downtown" with a pop-up restaurant, dinner and a movie and a gymnastics performance.
"We can get everybody to come down and walk around…it's like a mock-up in the real world. So now we know wether plan number one works or not and next week we can try plan number two," said McCray. "Test anything. I'm all for it. The result is we learn what works in our town."
McCray shared a study by Iowa State University, which studied 99 small towns for 20 years in three separate rounds of studies. According to the study, McCray said the common factor of the small towns that did well was an openness to new ideas.
"That is what determines wether towns prosper over the long term. No matter what life had thrown at these small towns — some of them lost major manufacturers, others gained a new employer, some of them lost schools, some had a boost in school enrollment and some dealt with a natural disaster, but the one factor that did well through all of that was wether they were open to new ideas," said McCray."I don't care how crazy your idea sounds, it is good enough to test it. So our organizations take on a new role. They don't disappear; they take on a new role. The answer is no longer, 'no.' It is the question, 'what do you need?' 'What do you need to test it?'"
McCray continued to give examples of many small-town success stories before opening up for a time of questions and answers.
"We need to be the venture capitalists of new ideas," said McCray, in closing. "The time has passed when a few influential people gather in a room to decide what the future of your town will be…if you think you have a role, and you think your town has a future, then you'll act like that."