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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 [1] 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 [2]

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 [3] 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 [4] 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:

There were lots of other great ideas presented, and COSE [5] 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.