Can Detroit Turn The Corner?


I debated about commenting on Detroit’s recent decision to pursue bankruptcy as a strategy for stimulating the start of an economic turnaround.  According to news coverage, the decision has the potential to impact the financial stability of other cities by raising speculation among bond investors that it may only be a matter of time before other cities follow suit.

I decided to share my thoughts after reading articles with headlines like “Detroiters Not Giving Up; Neither Should We”.  I am disappointed the focus is on the unbending spirit of Detroiters rather than on the real challenges Detroit faces in its journey to create a better future.  Here is a quote that illustrates the point – More than anything, I came to admire Detroiters because despite how hard it could be to live in the city, they stayed. And they stubbornly, tirelessly tried to find ways to make their city better.”

The issue isn’t the resilience of Detroiters.  Resilience is a good trait to have in a population, but it isn’t sufficient to chart an economically viable path for a city that will be doomed to fail if it doesn’t create fundamental change.

The problem Detroit has is a reluctance to let go of the past.  I believe the resilience of Detroiters with a “suck it up and this too shall pass” perspective that is positioned as a strength is actually and will continue to be a root cause of the city’s economic failure.

As an interesting side note, I participated in a panel discussion a few years ago at an economic development conference in Michigan.  At that time, a fellow panelist and economic development professional in Detroit presented his case that Detroit was poised for a remarkable renaissance.  In response to a direct question on what I thought about Detroit’s chances, my comment was leadership first needed to let go of the past before it could chart a better future.  With all due respect to my fellow panelist, I prognosticated Detroit’s efforts would likely not be successful until that break with the past actually occurred.  And now, Detroit is filing for bankruptcy.

So, why did my perspective vary so greatly with my colleague from Detroit?  It is because he lacked the benefit of dispassionate distance to assess the situation.  I looked at Detroit through the lens of the “Transitions Model”, and he was living the transition.

The Transitions Model is used by CEOs in the private sector to help them better plan for leading their organizations through major changes (e.g. assimilating a company acquisition).  The model describes transitions as three psychological stages – Endings, Neutral Zone and New Beginnings.

Transition Model copy

The Transitions Model is based on the five stages of grief.  It recognizes that before people can embrace the future, they must first let go of the past.  In the Endings stage, there is denial, anxiety, shock, and resignation.  People remember the “good old days” and long for the past.  Until they are willing to let go, the past acts like an anchor on growth.

The Neutral Zone is characterized by undirected energy. This is a stage where people feel anger, fear, confusion, frustration and conflict.  There is tremendous resistance to let go.  But as more and more people do elect to let go, there is a lot of exploration. Everybody has “the plan” and many initiatives get started and stopped.  When that corner is turned, people feel high stress, creativity, realization and acceptance that they must lose something to move forward, and finally a high degree of impatience to “get on with it”.

New Beginnings is the third and final stage.  People are ready to commit and embrace the possibilities of what might be.  It is a time when people feel hopeful, they are relived there is finally a plan to improve things, they willingly give their trust and they begin to get enthusiastic about the future.

The problem is that without visionary and strong leadership people struggle to move through the transition.  In my opinion, therein lies the opportunity for Detroit.  Economic Development professionals need to ensure that elected officials and private sector CEOs in Detroit provide the required leadership to create a compelling strategic plan that residents can understand and enthusiastically embrace.  And, proactively provide/create the enabling processes that allow the majority of Detroiters to successfully let go of the past, find their way through the neutral zone and embrace the vision of a new, stronger economy.

If asked (and to be clear I wasn’t), my counsel would be to harness the expertise of Human Resource Managers in Detroit companies to create a real plan to purposefully help Detroiters through the transition.  Without executing such a plan, Detroiters will continue to wander in the neutral zone or worse will never create a personal ending that enables them to move toward a new beginning.


I am curious what your thoughts might be.  Do you feel the Transitions Model applies?  Do you think residents are ready to let go of the memory of Detroit as the Motor City?  Do you feel like there is a plan in place to help Detroiters make the journey successfully? What do you think the next few years will look like for Detroit and its residents?

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8 Comments so far

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  3. Mr. S

    July 31, 2013

    I would suggest you take a visit to Detroit before passing judgement and criticizing the core community that is dedicated to the city. There is a spectacular, small business, grassroots, community based movement taking place down there. Granted there is no quick fix for the financial pit the city has sunk into, but we’ve moved past the days of the Motor City. There are strong anchor institutions in Midtown including higher ed and medical institutions. Private investment from Dan Gilbert and Illitch Holdings is setting an example for more investment to come. The city sees the opportunity to reinvent itself, and a corner will be turned. While the government leadership has been dismal in the past, I strongly believe in the next 15-20 years cities will begin looking to Detroit for answers on how to solve their own problems.

  4. Edward

    July 31, 2013

    Mr. S. – I actually have visited Detroit many times and spoke with the economic development leadership there. Great to hear your enthusiasm. However, when a city declares bankruptcy it is not a confidence builder that it will become a beacon of best practices for other cities to follow. The fact is that Detroit has some tough issues it needs to grapple with and some very hard decisions to make about what the economic portfolio of the city should look like so residents can more easily achieve the American Dream. Successful turnaround cities like Pittsburgh have demonstrated it is possible. But, not before Detroit’s leadership is ready to reinvent the city. There is no question Detroit has assets it can leverage and that select individuals are doing some noteworthy things. But a paradigm shift is needed and a new vision must be established before Detroit has a hope of turning the corner.

  5. Eric La Brecque

    July 31, 2013

    To answer one of your questions, Ed, yes, I believe the will—and knowhow—exist in ample measure to enable Detroit to succeed. I have seen it firsthand through our involvement at the tail end of the multi-year effort that has led to the development of the Detroit Future City framework, I encourage anyone who is contemplating where Detroit should go or what it should do to consult this framework. It is the definitive starting point for what needs to happen. To my knowledge, nothing of the level of intensity, commitment, community outreach, critical review, technical insight etc. has been developed for ANY US city, and certainly never for Detroit. Anybody who is thinking about Detroit who isn’t diving into this framework is reinventing the wheel—and probably the wrong wheel at that.

    To answer another question, yes, leadership is necessary for change to take place in Detroit—leadership that embraces the superb groundwork that has already been done.

  6. Edward

    July 31, 2013

    Eric – Great perspective and thank you for sharing the link to the framework. It will help readers better understand what a strategic plan for a city looks like. Your point about all needing oars rowing in the same direction is key. Hopefully the city leadership can make that happen. I have family that lives in Detroit, so I am rooting for success. I am positively biased to the decision to use place branding as an enabler of the turnaround. But, I have concern that the economic section alone has 49 strategies. On the surface it raises questions of whether enough hard choices have been made. Complexity is always adds risk to successful execution. I am not saying Detroit’s leaders can’t effectively execute 49+ strategies. But, my experience working with the public sector would advise caution before taking a deep drink of the Kool-Aid.

  7. […] my last post about Detroit’s decision to file for bankruptcy, I shared the thought that the city leadership needed to let go of the past in order to create the […]

  8. […] Detroit’s future success will be determined in part by the quality of its leadership and the willingness of those leaders to objectively deal with Detroit’s negative points of difference.  These leaders need to guide Detroit through a challenging transition period.  In 2013 I authored a blog post on this that is worth reprising – Can Detroit Turn The Corner? […]

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