By Otis White.

The most fundamental thing a leader has to know when trying to create change in a city is where to concentrate his efforts. You have only so much energy and attention. What should you pay attention to?

That’s where the three Ps–the three big questions every major change has to answer–comes in handy.

  1. How will we pay for this change?
  2. How will we manage the politics?
  3. How will we bring along the public?

Simple questions, but none will have easy answers. The first is a recognition that every important change has a cost, and nearly always it includes a financial cost. If you want to make your city more walkable, how will you pay for new sidewalks, pedestrian paths, and streetscapes? If your aim is to bring in new industries or encourage entrepreneurship, who will do this and how will you pay for their time? I could give a dozen more examples but you get the idea.

The second big question is about politics. Inevitably, every major change must be approved by someone, and that usually involves a political body (or two, or three, or more). Someone has to explain the changes and their benefits to elected or appointed officials and ask for their approval. And if you’re going to be persuasive, you have to understand these political officials and their interests and make a convincing case. That, in a nutshell, is managing the politics of change. How will you do that?

The final strategic question is about the public. Even if the change doesn’t require a referendum, it’s unlikely to succeed if the public is dead set against it. First, there aren’t many elected officials who will stand up to a large group of constituents who are enraged by a change. Second, there are simply too many ways for opponents to defeat unpopular policies. If they can’t get elected officials to vote it down, opponents will go to court. If that doesn’t work, they’ll turn to another government (say, the state or federal government). Or they’ll protest. Many an unpopular road project has been stopped by protesters chaining themselves to trees.

So before embarking on a change effort, work on strategies for each of the Ps. The bonus: They are mutually reinforcing. That is, the more the public supports a public policy proposal, the more political support you’ll gain. If you have a creative way of paying for a change, it makes public and political support that much easier. And if the public and politicians support an idea, others (foundations or private companies) are usually more willing to chip in.

Remember: Think through the three Ps. Do it from the start. And don’t neglect them along the way.