Training Your People to Move Agendas
Organizations—like people—have a tendency to get “stuck.” Inertia sets in, and patterns of past behaviors repeat themselves. How can we avoid this tendency, and enable people at all levels of an organization to move new ideas forward, without getting clogged up in an organizational quagmire?
One of the most important—and least talked about—skills for organizational success is the ability to move an agenda or project through this corporate maze. Your managers and high potentials may know how to do their jobs, but in a complex organization, can they move agendas? Are they able to lead an idea from discovery to concrete implementation?
I have been working with executives for more than 30 years, and I have determined that there are four fundamental skills required to move an agenda forward, which I outline in my recent book, “The Agenda Mover.” These are skills everyone in the organization needs, whatever their industry, position, or educational background. They are as follows:
When you are trying to innovate and create change, your idea inevitably is going to have an impact on others, especially when resources are scarce. You have to anticipate the reaction of others. You need to know who you’re dealing with, interpret intentions, gauge their resistance, and anticipate what arguments they will make against your initiative.
Once successful leaders formulate a good plan, they spend an equal amount of time mapping out the political terrain and figuring out how they justify their ideas. They don’t let resistance catch them off guard and, in fact, they expect it and plan for it.
You need to stop thinking you can do things alone. You won’t get much done if you insist on trying to do everything by yourself. To achieve results more effectively, it’s best to work within a coalition of supporters who are driving for the same thing. Not only do coalitions lighten your load, they also secure your credibility and protect you against setbacks.
To mobilize eithers, you must be cognizant of how you focus your message, careful about timing your message, smart about the language you use, and perceptive about the audience you’ll target. Support comes in various packages, and a politically competent agenda mover is able to discern one type of support from another.
As a leader of a coalition you have to keep people in your corner by negotiating support. You need to show others there is little risk in joining your coalition and indicate to them that while you rely on their support, you do not depend on it. You need to show coalition members what they can gain by aligning their interests with yours. Coalition members aren’t being Machiavellian—they are being human.
Getting buy-in is all about shifting your focus from sharing your passion to really thinking about where the other party is coming from.
Once you have a coalition of actors in your corner, pushing in one common direction, you have to make sure the ball isn’t dropped and momentum is preserved. It falls on your shoulders to maintain traction by creating short-term victories, supplying resources, and reinforcing an optimistic outlook.
One common mistake agenda movers make is to devote the bulk of their energy to developing the ideas and getting initial support, but letting their enthusiasm flag as they approach the finish line. While political competence is still important at this stage, you also must hone your managerial competence to sustain forward movement and achieve impact. Make sure your coalition becomes a focused, agile, coordinated, and forward-moving team. And you have to remain politically astute and make sure no one in your coalition is dragging their feet or pulling in another direction.
In the final analysis, moving an organization forward relies on your people’s capacity to take their ideas and work them through the maze of resistance, overcome challenges, and put those ideas in place. Training your people in the skills they’ll need to achieve this is key to success.
Samuel B. Bacharach is the author of “The Agenda Mover: When Your Good Idea Is Not Enough” (Cornell University Press, 2016). He is also co-founder of the Bacharach Leadership Group, which focuses on training leaders in the skills of the Agenda Mover, and is the McKelvey-Grant Professor at Cornell University.