In 2010 I was leading a team from the Software Association of Oregon that was working with the Portland Development Commission (what is now called Prosper Portland ) to formulate an economic development strategy for the software industry.
I challenged us to develop this strategy using community-based on Agile practices rather than the traditional approach to economic development. This meant community-sourcing a strategy through iterative learning cycles. More Here .
Each cycle was two months long. We repeated these cycles three times. Each cycle began with a broad-based community survey and ended with a town hall meeting that allowed the community to reflect on our learning.
We were a community that had struggled for many years with each other and with finding our way.
At our first town hall meeting I was shocked at the anger and frustration I heard. Most of all, I heard a fear that any attempts at economic development was an imposition of foreign values to the community - the values of Silicon Valley, a place that was often held up as the primary model of success. "We do not want to become the Valley".
If the only role model we had for a successful software industry was the Valley and the community didn't want to become like the Valley, who were we and what could our success look like?
Around this time, someone I didn't know sent me an article. It was the story of the making of the Silicon Valley. A utterly fascinating 150 year story. In the article's conclusion, the writer remarked that any attempt to replicate the Valley would likely fail, as it would be attempted without the underpinning of that 150 year history.
He felt that in order to successfully create economic vitality, each community would need to find its own story, one rooted in its own deep history.
That got me to wonder: what was Oregon's 150 year-old story?
That question led me back to the Oregon Trail. A time, in the 1850's, when a mass migration of Americans claimed the native lands of Oregon as their own.
That trail began in Missouri and ended at Oregon City. Families were lured out west by a land grant, offering up to 160 acres for each couple.
As I began to explore this story, I noticed that, for much of the journey, the California Trail, leading to the Sierra Nevadas and the Oregon Trail, leading to the Willamette Valley, were the same. They split, just west of Fort Hall, in what is now Utah.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are on that trail. You have your family and everything you own on that wagon train. You have crossed prairies and have just provisioned at Fort Hall for the most difficult part of the journey, one that will cross deadly mountain passes and rivers.
You are heading to Oregon, but others, who you have come to know, are heading to California. Six miles outside of Fort Hall, where you have just provisioned for the most dangerous leg of the journey, the trail splits. To the left, wagons are going to California. To the right, to Oregon.
Both journeys are equally dangerous. But the opportunities at the end of those journeys are vastly different. One opportunity is the gold of the Sierra Nevadas. The other is rich farmland - arguably some of the best in the country - along the Willamette.
The opportunity to strike it rich, or the opportunity to create enduring wealth. Both opportunities worth risking everything.
So there you are, where the trail is now splitting. You look back into your wagon, at your family and all of your worldly possessions, and wonder, am I making the right decision for me and for them?
These are times of hard decisions. And at these times, we go back to our Core Values. They are our bedrock.
You reflect for a moment on these values, then, courageously make your final call and guide your horses down one of those two trails.
At the end of the six month process of developing our economic development strategy, we brought together hundreds of members of our community at a gathering in the chambers of the city council.
At that gathering I shared the findings of our research and told the story of the Fort Hall Decision. I shared that I, too, had a Fort Hall Decision when I decided to move to Oregon rather than California when I brought my family back to the States from Hong Kong.
I asked if that was true for others. A moment of silence. Many shook their heads.
It was a profound moment - one where we all came together and owned our shared values and story.
The research showed that we valued community, learning and creating more than simply making money. Yes, financial success is important, but it wasn't what motivated us. It was those other values the defined us as different from those lured to the Valley.
This realization gave us courage to find our voice and to shape our industry in our image based on our values.