In a series of postings, we’re exploring how conscious change happens in communities. If you haven’t read the first posting in this series, please take a moment to do so.
We’re on the final leg of our community change process. This is the “decision phase”—although, to be completely accurate, perhaps we should have called it the “decisions phase.” That’s because power is widely dispersed in American cities among levels of government (federal, state, local), types of government (city councils, school boards, authorities, agencies and courts), and individuals. And if you’re involved in major change, you’ll probably need a number of governments and agencies (and maybe a group of nonprofits and other funders) to say yes to your project.
Before getting to the decision phase, though, let’s review a few things you should have mastered in the previous stage, the planning phase. To begin, you should know precisely who has to approve your project and in what order their approvals should come. As you mapped these decision points, I hope you met with some of the decision makers to hear their advice and concerns. By now, you should also have a well-developed narrative, explaining the needs that your project is responding to, how possible solutions were considered, and why the solution being advanced is the right one.
There’s more: You should have lined up champions to talk about the project to different groups of citizens and decision makers. By this point, you should have mastered the details of your project so well that you and your champions can easily explain to decision makers how your initiative will unfold over time, what it will cost in each stage, and where the money will come from. And I hope you’ve built public support along the way, especially among groups most affected by the changes. With your champions, you should have met these groups, listened to their concerns, and answered them well enough that, if they’re not supporting your project, at least they’re not opposing it.
So what’s left to be done after all this? In a word, persuasion. Persuasion that’s focused on the handful of people who must say yes in order for your project to go forward.
In thinking about persuasion, it’s helpful to think first about decision making itself. How do people make up their minds about important decisions? Well, no two people are alike, but it’s safe to assume that most use a combination of two approaches: some sort of logical, cost-benefit analysis, and an emotional calculation involving intuition.
The funny thing is that it’s often hard to untangle analysis (appeals to the mind) and emotions (appeals to the heart). People who are good at persuasion move easily back and forth between them . . . and people who are being persuaded do, too. They get excited about the possibilities of a change, and a minute later think of a hundred reasons it won’t work. So as you’re persuading people, be ready to move back and forth between analysis and emotion, keeping in mind that some people want more of one, some want more of the other, but all need some of both.
But where do you begin in persuading public officials to say yes to major change? You start in the place where we began the map of community change, with the need—the problem or opportunity that your change process was intended to answer.
The need is a powerful motivating force because, if you are skillful in making it felt, it makes people uncomfortable with the status quo, creating a cost for standing pat. Put another way, it creates a “push” for change. But that’s not all you’ll need to motivate citizens and leaders to act. You need a “pull,” as well, and that is a vivid description of how things will be better once the solution is in place. In other words, a vision. Let’s be clear: A vision is not the same as the solution. It’s how the community will look and work once the solution is in place and the need answered.
Example: In the early 1990s, as organizers were trying to rally Atlantans behind a bid for the 1996 Summer Olympics, they often talked about how the games would change the city for the better. Yes, it would be good for the economy and for Atlanta’s image, they said, but those were short-term benefits. Long term, they said, it would make Atlanta a more international city, leave behind a collection of athletic and community venues, and inspire a generation of local children. Did it do all these things? I’ll leave it for others to decide, but the point is that these weren’t descriptions of the solution (that is, the Olympic games). They were descriptions of how the solution would make the community better, and they pulled people toward supporting the Olympics bid.
The third tool in your persuasion toolkit (after the need and the vision) is the plan itself—how the project will unfold, who will be involved, when it will take place, how the money will be raised, and all the other details. You worked all these things out during the planning phase. In the decision phase, you present them to decision makers.
Two cautions about the details: Different leaders will be interested in different details. Elected officials will be drawn to the political details—who is involved, who was consulted, how different parts of the community will benefit, and so on. Bureaucrats will be drawn to the operational details—how much money is needed and when, who will run things, how it will affect existing organizations, etc. If you talked with these officials during the planning phase, you’ll have a good idea of the sorts of details they’re interested in—and these are the ones you should focus on in making presentations to them.
And here’s the second caution: Don’t bring up details they’re not interested in. If you do, the results are likely to be bad . . . or worse. Bad: They’ll lose sight of your winning argument amid the blizzard of detail. Worse: You’ll leave them so distracted or confused that they’ll just say no. Gene Bedell, a former CEO who writes about persuasion, has a simple rule: In trying to persuade, “talk to people in terms of their interests and needs, not in terms of your interests and needs.” And the only way to do that is to let them talk first, listen carefully to their concerns, and focus your persuasion there.
There are three other rules of persuasion to keep in mind.
First, seeing is believing. If it’s possible to see the change you’re proposing, take decision makers there. I’ve written about New York’s amazing High Line project. One of the lessons that its advocates learned early on was that it was hard to describe what the High Line could be in a meeting at city hall, but it was easy to show it while standing on the old freight line. “It was the only way for others to understand it,” Robert Hammond, one of the High Line’s leaders, wrote. ” . . . You brought them up, you showed it to them, and they would do anything for the High Line after that.”
If you can’t get decision makers to travel, then bring the project to them, with maps, models, or anything else that’s visual. And bring those who would benefit from it. There’s a reason politicians in Washington and in state capitals stand shoulder to shoulder on podiums during press conferences: It’s a visual reminder that their proposals have support. If you can bring a hundred people to a city hall meeting room, all wearing t-shirts or stickers in support of your project, you’ve sent a powerful message.
Second, anticipate inertia—and deal with it. Bedell says a lifetime of selling has convinced him that most people have a basic need for security and predictability, which explains why they resist change even when the status quo is not good. The need for security and predictability is “life’s glue,” he writes. “It causes us to stand pat, go slow, to embrace the tried and true.” Even some who are enthusiastic about change will, on second thought, hesitate. “They may talk pioneer,” he cautions, “but they act settler.”
The best way of dealing with inertia is to make it as easy as possible to say yes. Chip and Dan Heath, who’ve written several books about corporate change, call this “shaping the path.” A good analogy is Amazon’s “1-Click” button. To help customers who were new to online shopping, Amazon made ordering from its website as easy as, well, clicking one button.
In approaching decision makers, think of as many ways as possible to make it easier to say yes. How about arranging for matching funds, bringing in officials from other cities who’ve made the same decision, holding public rallies, and so on? Or you might consider an easy, low-cost first step that, if successful, would draw leaders toward larger changes.
Third, amplify your luck. In my first posting on the change process, I said that “every big idea that succeeds in a community requires some amount of luck.” And what is luck? It’s something outside your control that suddenly makes your efforts easier. You can’t command luck; it is, after all, outside your control. But you can amplify it by calling attention to events that confirm or add momentum to your project.
If your project is about childhood obesity, then, any national report about the health consequences of obesity should be worked into your narrative. If your cause is downtown development and tax assessments show property values are rising faster downtown than elsewhere, you can use that to argue for greater investments. If you’re trying to convince your community to invest in light rail, any spike in gasoline prices should be in your next op-ed article.
This gets to the second part of decision making, the intuitive side. Faced with hard decisions, many people look around for some kind of confirmation. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, who has written a book about how people change their minds, calls this “resonance.” Sometimes the resonance is personal. You go along with a change because you feel a connection with the person presenting it. (This is why champions are so important.) But it can be environmental as well. If leaders look around and see events pointing in your direction, it can convince them that your project is inevitable. Don’t miss the opportunity to connect these dots.
Final notes: The end game is about having your changes adopted and implemented. And in all likelihood, that will happen only if you can persuade three constituencies: the public, elected officials, and appointed officials. As I said above, politicians and bureaucrats have different concerns and will be interested in different details in your plan. But so will the citizens, who will be very interested in hearing about the benefits and sacrifices.
Make no mistake, though. You can’t win by fudging the truth, by promising one group that no taxpayer money will be needed while telling another that you’ll need an appropriation. Someone will spot the lie, and you’ll read about it on Twitter and Facebook by day’s end. But while remaining consistent on the need, the vision, and the general plan, you can be sensitive to what people want to know and direct your communications appropriately.
This is a lot of work. Is it worth it? That depends on the change you have in mind . . . and on you. But as the great social psychologist Kurt Lewin once said, you can’t really understand something until you try to change it. By changing your community, you’ll understand the place you live as never before.
Flickr photo by Matt Picio licensed under Creative Commons