A Small Business Summit With No Small Business Experts

Recently, I attended the 2011 Small Business Summit in Cleveland, put on by COSE, the Council of Smaller Enterprises.

Steve Millard, COSE President and Executive Director, said that event was being put on to help “redefine” the future of the local small business community.

Hundreds of small business owners and managers were in attendance, and it was obvious that they were there to not only voice their concerns, but also contribute actionable ideas to help shape this region’s future.  The timing for the Summit was good; signs of optimism are starting to appear.

The Summit, facilitated by CWRU Professor of Organizational Development Ron Fry, was an “AI” (Appreciative Inquiry) Organizational Summit. The Professor billed it as “not your typical planning meeting.” He was right on the mark with that statement.

Looking Forward

This was not a PowerPoint event. Professional speakers were nowhere to be found. This event was all about what this 300-person-strong group could bring to the table. It was about ideas.

If you’ve never heard of AI, the folks at Wikipedia define it as:

A particular way of asking questions and envisioning the future that fosters positive relationships and builds on the basic goodness in a person, a situation or an organization. In so doing, it enhances a system’s capacity for collaboration and change.”

The handouts that each attendee received stated that, “the whole system participates—a cross-section of as many interested parties as is practical. That means more diversity and less hierarchy than is usual in a working meeting, and a chance for each person to be heard and to learn other ways of looking at the task at hand.”

The room was filled to the brim with round tables, and our table had a group of six attendees, along with a COSE employee to help keep us moving through the AI process. We were asked to choose partners; my partner was part owner of a local Sandler Sales Training franchise.

The first part of the process involved us both sharing a recent time when we were really proud to be a small business owner/leader. We were told to take notes when our partner was sharing, and that we would be using them later in the session.

Then we dug a little deeper and discussed what past collaborations, networks and learning experiences helped shape the outcomes of the stories we had presented to each other.

Another part of the process included sharing instances when we were able to leverage community alliances and networks to overcome a small business hurdle or barrier to achieve a greater result.

We then went on to discuss ways in which our local community currently supports and fosters small business success. All those at our table were able to name several organizations and institutions that were doing a good job supporting the small business community, and that would be worth preserving, or even amplifying, as we move towards the future.

Speaking of the future, the next part of the process involved our vision for the future, as it pertained to our small business success as a community. Of all the things we did, this was probably the most enlightening.

We were told to imagine what things would be like for our community in February 2015, as if a miracle had happened. We imagined our businesses and our community experiencing success like never before. We were told to share specific images that came to mind.

Most of the images that were shared came in the form of newspaper headlines:

“Cleveland Becomes a Portal for International Business Success”

“Ohio Unemployment Is Lowest in the Country”

“Major Shortage of Residential Housing in Metropolitan Cleveland Reported”

“8 Out of 10 Local College Grads Are Choosing to Remain in Cleveland”

“Browns Win Super Bowl!”

You get the picture.

Finally, a member of each table presented their ideas for change to all of the attendees. Some of the ideas included:

  • The creation of a small business lending hub (credit union style)
  • A one-stop concierge-style online resource destination for current/future small business owners
  • A small business incubator located right at COSE headquarters
  • More small-business-focused grass-roots involvement in local communities

There were lots of other great ideas presented, and COSE will be providing a summary of the event (including results of the voting on the ideas) in the near future.

I found the format of the COSE Small Business Summit to be really powerful. It was a real chance for real small business owners to get together and propose real ideas for a region that needs them.


Joel Libava Joel Libava is the Franchise Expert for Small Business Trends. Joel, The Franchise King®, equips today’s prospective franchise owners with time-tested, proven techniques designed to increase odds of success. He does this through one-on-one coaching, and gobs of useful content that can be found on places like Small Business Trends, SBA.Gov, and his award-winning franchise blog, The Franchise King Blog . He’s been featured in Entrepreneur® magazine, and is frequently called upon by national media outlets and publications for his no-spin insights into the world of franchising.

6 Reactions
  1. That’s a very interesting format. Seems like you would really need to experience it to really grasp it.

    However, I like that it allowed the small business owners to get in there and get their hands dirty. Hopefully the information makes it back up the chain to government and community leaders that will be needed to make some of these changes a reality.

  2. Les Proctor # HyperLocalDeals

    Great write up, Joel…, thank you. I’m glad that COSE’s becoming more active in community development. I’d like to add ‘Microgrants for Entrepreneurs’ to the list of ideas. By encouraging more people to create small and home based businesses, we could encourage people to use their talents/do what they love, get paid for it, reduce unemployment, and stimulate the local economy, too. Planning is great, but the challenge is putting the ideas into action!

  3. Loved this article. Small businesses could benefit from knowing that embracing collaboration and change is ensuring sustainability for your business.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Robert.

    It was a pretty cool event to be a part of. Nice change of pace from the norm, for sure.


    Collaboration can be quite beneficial. We hope.

    The Franchise King®

  5. Karlene Sinclair-Robinson

    Joel, thanks for the write up on this event/group. It certainly presents a clear cut approach to involving entrepreneurs in the creation of new ways to assist them. Individually, we don’t all have the answers but through these types of gatherings, ideas are created and expanded on to meet a greater need.

    I had the opportunity of attending one such event last year, and I must say, it was an eye opener. I strongly believe more of this should take place across the nation, not just for the business sector but in other areas where there is a need.