Civic Leaders and the ‘Why’ of Change

It's not enough to come up with a good idea. You need figure out how to build an army of supporters.
by | March 9, 2016

Otis White

President of Civic Strategies Inc.

My favorite quote about change comes from that notorious 16th-century cynic, Niccolo Machiavelli: "There is nothing more difficult and dangerous or more doubtful of success than an attempt to introduce a new order of things in any state. For the innovator has for enemies all those who derived advantages from the old order of things while those who expect to be benefited by the new institutions will be but lukewarm defenders."

There are two parts to Machiavelli's message. The first is that change is hard. The second is why change is hard. Those asked to give up something will fight it tooth and nail, while those who might benefit will be "lukewarm." After all, how can they value something they don't already have? But I take a third lesson from Machiavelli's quote, which I think he would have agreed with: If you want to change something important, you'd better come with an overwhelming case and an army of supporters.

So how do you make a case for change and build an army out of "lukewarm defenders?" Over the years I've talked with scores of civic leaders who've created successful projects in their cities, many of which involved significant changes. They all did two things you can easily imagine: They found ideas or solutions that worked -- the projects they championed -- and they built a set of relationships that created political and public support. Many also did a third thing that propelled their projects forward: They spotted a breakthrough, a change of circumstance that, for a moment at least, opened the door for change. (In an earlier column here, I called these things "the opportunity.")

But there's a fourth element, I've learned, that can also be critical to success, and that is articulating the "why" of change. This is the element that transforms lukewarm defenders into an army of supporters, and it does so by answering this question: Why do we need this change?

What, then, do we need to know about articulating the "why?" Here are three good starting points:

"Why" is not the same as "what." That is to say, the project is not the motivation; the "why" is always more basic. The best way of illustrating this is with an example. Mayor Nancy Harris of Duluth, Ga., has been a longtime champion of the arts and urban design in her suburban Atlanta city. For most elected officials, the projects she has supported -- from downtown renewal to performing-arts facilities -- would need no further explanation. But Harris always ties the arts and urban design to a bigger goal: attracting talented young people, especially couples with small children, to live in her city.

"Why" builds trust by making connections. Anytime we take on something new we are, by definition, journeying into the unknown. The way to give heart to our fellow pilgrims is to connect it with something familiar. Again, Mayor Harris offers a good example. There are many people who don't understand or appreciate the arts, she says, but nearly everyone in Duluth understands the need for young people -- the connection between young workers and economic development.

"Why" must be both critique and vision. It can't be just about what could be; it also has to tell us why we can't stand still. Mayor Harris often reminds citizens that, without more young people, Duluth will age rapidly and, therefore, will be less appealing to businesses.

Will having a well-considered "why" ensure success for your project? Not by itself. You still need good solutions, strong relationships and perhaps a breakthrough opportunity. But it can motivate your "lukewarm defenders." And this, as Machiavelli might say, can make change less difficult and dangerous -- but more likely to succeed.

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