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The Agenda Mover

By Samuel Bacharach

(BLG Books, 166 pages, $36)

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The word "agenda" has become pejorative in many circles lately. It started with people sneering over the agendas of political groups and now they are often treated as illegitimate or manipulative.

But leaders should have agendas. They should haul their organizations in definite directions, rather than just passively steering. Beyond that, a crucial issue is whether they can implement their agenda – whether they have the skills to move their ideas forward.

"A great idea without execution … is hallucination," Cornell University Professor Samuel Bacharach writes in The Agenda Mover.

Agenda movers are pragmatists. They know how to get into a campaign mindset to implement their ideas, mobilize support, negotiate buy-in and sustain the effort until implementation. "Without those skills, your most brilliant innovation, your best-laid plan will get stuck in the quagmire of inertia, in the muck of reputation, in the doldrums of inaction. Your dreams will become delusions, and your agenda will be nothing more than talk," he warns.

He stresses that the challenge of moving an agenda forward can happen anywhere in an organization, from the CEO's office to the mail room.

If you want to push change – push an agenda – you can't rely solely on the power of the idea or your personal charisma. He points to Steve Jobs: Often overlooked in the many articles and books on his personality and stage presence is the fact he had to develop a specific set of skills to push his agenda forward.

"Jobs succeeded because he knew how to make things happen. He knew whom he had to spend his time with, how to identify and categorize his priorities, and how to manage people who would do the day-to-day work of designing great products."

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Prof. Bacharach highlights the skills you need to take your ideas to fruition:

– Anticipate the agendas of others: The first challenge is to be aware of how others will react to your ideas, since those proposals will have implications for many people's lives. If you ignore the impact on others, your idea may be crushed before it even gets a hearing.

"The lack of anticipatory skills can trip up the unprepared leader. Such a leader might think everyone is on board but is caught off guard by unforeseen resistance," he says.

Think of your idea in terms of the power dynamics of the organization. Map the stakeholders – top dogs, the organization's decision-makers; gatekeepers, folks with authority over a limited set of issues where they have considerable power, such as the finance committee or at a university the deans; gurus, senior people who are not involved in the daily life of the organization but have sway, such as the board of directors and external consultants; and finally, players, the influential stakeholders whose specific activities will be directly impacted by your initiative. You need to anticipate their reaction.

– Mobilize your campaign: You must focus your message, justify your agenda, establish credibility, and gauge your support as you seek to stimulate others.

Make sure your message is clear, unambiguous, and suitable to your audience. Sometimes, he advises, choosing your audience is the first step in focusing your message; you need to introduce your idea at the right time, in the right way, to the right people.

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Justify your agenda, by looking at the numbers, so you have a well-structured presentation on how it fares compared to alternatives. That may mean falling back on best practices – others are doing it – or the fact you have no choice given outside pressures. Establish credibility by demonstrating you know what you're talking about, and delineate who are your active, passive, reluctant, and weak supporters, as you prepare to work with them.

– Negotiate support: You need to gain buy-in by reducing the anxiety of others, letting them know the benefits of joining your coalition, making power arguments if necessary that show what's in it for them, and managing the stage on which you present – be it a park bench, coffee shop, or meeting room -- by being sensitive to tone and place.

He says you have to be prepared for a "little power-political minuet, a dance that is often executed but rarely celebrated or even acknowledged because it flies under the radar and smacks of manipulation and Machiavellian machinations." Other parties know you need their support so in response you have to convey some independence from them, indicating there are other alternatives to gaining their backing.

– Sustain your coalition: You need to ensure once things get going that people don't drift off and momentum get lost. As well as creating some traction, you will have to pivot on occasion to make adjustments to events, manage with agility, and remain politically astute.

In trying to get things done, agenda movers sometimes lose focus on maintaining a continued campaign mindset. Instead, remind people why they're on board, reinforcing the payoff, keeping an optimistic outlook, and maintaining your credibility.

Innovation and change are dependent on agendas – not a derisive term – and agenda movers. These four steps will help to entrench your ideas in the organization.

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POSTSCRIPT

Before I was CEO (Wiley, 220 pages, $35.95): Media strategist Peter Vanham collects stories from various leaders about their experiences before hitting the top spot.

Superconsumers (Harvard Business School, 225 pages, $37.55): Consultant Eddie Yoon looks at diehards who can help power your brand's growth.

Consultant Joe Carlen looks at the pioneers, profiteers, and racketeers who shaped our world from Mesopotamian days to today in A Brief History of Entrepreneurship (Columbia Business School, 243 pages, $29.95).

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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