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FAQ: Project Penguin

May 07, 2018 at 11:19 AM

In February 2018, the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce (Chamber) and the Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD) announced that they would be embarking on a project to evaluate and explore possibilities for further alignment of missions, functions, and resources in order to best serve the current and future needs of our business community.  The project has become known as “Project Penguin.”  In an effort to keep our members and investors informed, below are responses to commonly asked questions about the project.

If you have a question that is not answered below, please email us at


 1)     Why are you calling this “Project Penguin?”

 The name of the project is based on a book called Our Iceberg is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions, a fable about penguins who discover their iceberg is melting and look to proactively rectify their situation.  The actions in the book are based on a leading organizational change model developed by Harvard Business School’s John Kotter.  While neither of our organizations are in dire straits (and we are glad that we are not on an iceberg!), we are using Kotter’s model of proactive and transparent organizational change to guide our approach to investigating this potential opportunity we see before us. 


 2)     What is the purpose of this project?

 The purpose of Project Penguin is to evaluate the relationship between the Chamber and ICAD at this point in time and explore possibilities for alignment of missions, functions, and resources to best serve the current and future needs of the business community.


 3)     ICAD and the Chamber have been separate organizations for decades. Why now?

 ICAD was originally started as an economic development committee within the Chamber and became its own entity in 1984 so that it could focus on recruiting interstate commerce companies to the area. Over time, ICAD’s focus has expanded to include the retention and expansion of existing businesses, attracting talent to the region, and fostering start-up businesses. Recently, a new regional entity, ICR IOWA, was created and tasked with business recruitment and workforce development initiatives.

 The Chamber has been in existence since 1936 and supports both local and interstate commerce businesses. The Chamber provides a wide array of programs and services to connect, educate and advocate for businesses. However, with the emergence of virtual platforms providing networking opportunities and other organizations providing informational and educational events, the Chamber is facing ever-greater competition for some of its core services.    

 Both organizations are in a period of transition, and both need to change to remain relevant.  We decided the time might be right to explore our transitions together.  


4)     What is ICR IOWA?

 Formerly known as the Cedar Rapids Iowa City Corridor Development Corporation, ICR IOWA is the joint venture between the Iowa City Area Development Group and the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and the new external-facing brand for our seven-county region.

 The brand was developed by 17 creatives who live and work in the Corridor, designed to leverage the names of our largest cities (ICR stands for Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, shortened to share that central 'C') and raise our visibility nationally and internationally to support business and talent attraction.

 The organization is charged with leading the efforts to market our region, grow our workforce, and recruit more businesses and individuals to locate here.


5)     What is the case for change?

 The mission and primary functions of both organizations have started to overlap more and more. Both organizations provide “business retention” services (events and programs); both serve entrepreneurs; and both engage in workforce development and quality of life initiatives. 

 In the meantime, there has been increasing competition from other entities and technologies in the landscape that are doing what traditional Chambers once did – sharing information and resources, organizing events, and providing networking opportunities.  Much of the work that ICAD once did around business attraction is now being done regionally, led by ICR IOWA. 

 Furthermore, the context in which our businesses are operating is changing at a rapid rate with the continued emergence of disruptive technologies, new generations of people that bring new social trends, an increasingly unpredictable political environment, etc.  Both of our organizations are addressing the question: What is the value we can provide to our customers in this changing context and how can we best provide it? 

 We believe that with further alignment of our two organizations, there is potential to streamline programming and reduce duplication, gain efficiencies on the back-end by sharing resources (staff, space, equipment, etc.), and be able to focus on new priorities and initiatives. Most importantly, it could allow the Chamber and ICAD to serve the Iowa City area in a more comprehensive and impactful way than either organization could do alone.  However, all of this needs to be more carefully looked at and assessed to determine what the right model of alignment would be to best serve our community and how it could work logistically, financially, etc. 


6)     What has been done so far on Project Penguin?

 The first phase of this project is about assessing the current state and exploring possibilities.  This essentially involves four buckets of work:

1)     Customer discovery (what do our current customers and potential customers want/need?)

2)     Assessment of internal operations (where are we already aligned and where are we not?)

3)     Best practice research (what are other org models and approaches out there?)

4)     Vision for a possible future state (what could this look like from a macro level?)

 Over the past few months, we have conducted “customer discovery interviews” with more than 50 key stakeholders representing a cross-section of our customers and partners – public, private and non-profit entities of all different sizes and industries.  This is helping us get a better understanding of what people value the most out of what we currently provide; what is missing; and what they’d like to see for the future of our community.  It is also helping our teams to get to know one another better as we are conducting the interviews in pairs (one Chamber team member with one ICAD team member). 

 We are conducting an internal assessment of our back-office operations to get a better understanding of how we might or might not be able to align from that vantage point.

 With the help of a team of students from the University of Iowa Tippie School of Business, we are researching other organizational models used around the country to do business advocacy, economic development, and community development work.  Through conversations with the executives of these organizations, we are learning how they approached “breaking the mold” to develop entities that best meet the needs of their community. 

 We just began the process of visioning what a shared future state could look like based on the data we have gathered from our customer discovery interviews, internal assessment and research on other models and trends.  Dave Gould, a professor in the honors program at the University of Iowa known for his creative approach to teaching and learning, recently facilitated a day-long retreat for our teams to do a little brainstorming and dreaming. 

 Our teams have been working together to conduct all of this work on top of maintaining “business as usual.” 


7)     Is this an all-or-nothing thing? Either both organizations merge into one, or nothing happens?

 There are many different organizational models out there. There are fully merged single entities (such as the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance).  There are umbrella/partnership models where multiple entities exist under one umbrella organization, each entity having its own board but potentially sharing staff across the entities where it makes sense.  There are models where entities remain completely separate organizations but define where they will partner (some formally through the use of memorandums of agreement) and where they will offer separate, distinct services.  We are looking at everything and it will ultimately depend on what is best for our community. 


8)     So, what happens next?

 There is still quite a bit of work to be done.  We are still in the process of investigating organizational models and best practices.  Our next step is to use the data we’ve collected from our customer discovery interviews, internal assessment, and best practice research in attempt to answer two questions: Should we further align or not? If yes, then what should it look like?  We are not sure how long this will take.  As we are learning from our peers in the industry who have gone down this path, the process of figuring it out takes time. While we are eager to come up with answers to our questions, we also know that this is a major decision for both the Chamber and ICAD. We want what is best for our members and investors, our community, and our teams – and we want whatever we come up with to be sustainable well past our tenure as leaders.