City: Birmingham, AL
Entrepreneur: Lindsey West, REV Birmingham
Like its Rust Belt sisters to the North, Birmingham is seeing an exciting new surge of development and efforts towards revitalization. It is a city with a storied past and a myriad of nicknames that hint at the tumultuous rollercoaster of peaks and valleys in the city’s history. Perhaps the most recognized is “The Magic City,” which refers to the immense growth of population and development during the turn of the 20th century. This growth was spurred by the introduction of the steel industry, which also gave Birmingham the nickname: “The Pittsburgh of the South.” But, unfortunately, it has also been referred to as “The Tragic City” for its part as the venue for many of the main battles for Civil Rights in America.
Much of the new energy for revitalization is coming from young, educated people in their twenties and thirties who see the potential in the partially abandoned urban landscape and are attracted by a host of opportunities including a lower cost of living, the ability to redefine and build a new community, and the huge capacity to improve the lives of the existing population. The city government and affiliated organizations are also trying to do their part to bring growth back to Birmingham.
We got to work with great examples of both of these forces during our fourth week of MBAx, as we partnered with REV Birmingham, an economic redevelopment organization whose mission is to “create vibrant commercial districts by filling vacant spaces and growing sustainable businesses.” With roots starting as early as 2004, REV has been recognized as a leader in its efforts to bring life back to Birmingham. Within REV we were specifically asked to focus on their latest and largest initiative to date, Birmingham’s first bike share program.
The project was brought to REV by Lindsey West, a Birmingham native and true champion of a newly energized and revitalized city. Lindsey impressed us not only with her great ambition, but also with her discipline, diligence, and outgoing personality, which made her extremely effective, even in a city infamously known for its fragmented politics.
With 90 days until the launch of the bike share program, Lindsey is now in a critical hiring stage for her organization. To that end, she charged us with developing a strategy to build a High Performing Organization (HPO) for Bike Share Birmingham. Lindsey even provided us with reports from BCG (Boston Consulting Group) and NADO (National Association of Development Organizations) to give us guidance as to the direction she wanted us to take our analysis. With her thoughtful and obviously very experienced skills in management, we came into the week eager to see how we could provide value.
Our first few days were filled with interviews Lindsey had helped organize with key stakeholders in the REV organization as well as with specific supporters of the bike share program. We met with the executive team at REV and with the advisory board of the bike share program. Through these conversations, it became clear to us that managing both city politics and inter-organizational politics would be key components in driving the success of the program.
In order to ensure all the right levers were aligned, we decided to evaluate both REV and the Bike Share program using a framework called the Congruence Model (shown below).
The Congruence Model analyzes how a business’s strategy effects the critical tasks that it needs to accomplish, how it should organize its departments, the people it should hire and the culture it should foster. By using REV Birmingham and the Bike Share’s strategy into consideration, we were able to determine alignments and misalignments across the organization. In leveraging these alignments and adjusting these misalignments, organizations can make themselves more efficient and thus, increase their workflow and performance.
The Congruence Model proved to be one of the most enlightening and helpful tools for our analysis of this project. In addition to using Rev’s mission of creating vibrancy in underutilized areas, we were able to identify that REV Birmingham’s business model included finding obstacles within the community and offering solutions that provided substantial improvements to the development of the area. In examining this mission, we discovered that while REV’s culture and people are very well aligned with its mission and values, there were opportunities to change their structure and critical tasks to make the organization more efficient. We also discovered that this misalignment was a key inefficiency that contributed to process hurdles, which then also led to organizational political challenges for the bike share program.
Ironically, this issue was also echoed in Birmingham’s government. In discussing politics within Birmingham, many of the people we interviewed brought up the fact that Alabama has the longest constitution in the United States—an institutional tool that integrates every state lawmaker in each municipal issue no matter how small or large. Moreover, politics within the city of Birmingham are very difficult to manage because of the amount of work it takes to get buy-in from 12 different municipalities. This fragmentation occurred during the period of “white flight” as middle and upper class people left the urban center and created their own “kingdoms” – as various interviewees described the municipalities – in order to shield their tax dollars and maintain strict control of their neighborhoods.
Even with this highly inefficient system, Lindsey received approval and support in record time for the bike share program. Not a small feat at all. She has handled the city politics extremely well so our final recommendations centered on refocusing her energy to align the bike share program with REV Birmingham’s strategies to maximize efficiency. To do so, we helped develop an internal marketing strategy to keep the larger staff informed about the success and progress of the Birmingham Bike Share program. This included newsletter ideas, staff-wide bike tours and an inter-staff bike competition. We also presented her with tactical tools to define and manage the culture within her team including processes to hire and onboard any new staff. Finally, we used REV Birmingham’s values and reinterpreted them with the perspective of Bike Share to create a list of measurable metrics to evaluate Lindsey’s team. This included overall growth of bike usage over the first year, safety issues, and bike lanes added after the program.
We left Birmingham truly excited for the bike share program and all the positive benefits it is going to bring to the community. Lindsey has an infectious energy that lifted us and motivated us to provide her with tools we felt she could use. We look forward to hearing of the bike share program’s success and to returning to Birmingham to see downtown more vibrant, filled with life, and better than ever before.