Of late, a lot of us in the United States have learned that nothing is more difficult than moving an agenda through a divided organization. Certainly, when we speak of Congress, we talk constantly about the notion of "stalemate"; lamenting how nothing gets done. The combination of inertia and perpetuation of interest-group politics has brought us to a situation where everyone seems to be pulling in their own direction.
There is a sense that the most important thing for the individual players is to protect their turf--that is, they want to make sure that their message is not diluted and that their intent remains pure. That said, there is nothing particularly unique about the current congressional situation. Blocking other parties from moving ahead--and therefore getting very little done--is the dominant state of mind across the political settings.
The blocking game is the premier challenge for Agenda Movers. Knowing how to unravel it is the ultimate test of political competence. This is not only the case in the congressional arena, but it is also the case in any organizational setting. Indeed, all organizations are made up of sub-interest groups, turf, and non-aligned business intentions.
This is truer today than ever before as organizations grow by mergers and acquisitions, as they bring on board new businesses, and attempt to expand their market share or increase their impact. Inevitably, even around the core mission, there may be a conflict that may not result in the dramatic stalemate that we see in our political institutions, but the conflict itself presents a challenge to anyone who is focused on moving their agenda.
What is the one mistake that Agenda Movers make in such an instance? They either underplay or overreach. In short, they fail to play the middle.
The Agenda Mover underplays their hand by continually talking to their base--that is, by engaging those with whom they are comfortable. Liberal Democrats talk largely to liberal Democrats, and conservative Republicans huddle only with conservative Republicans. As such, they establish and propagate groupthink, and are never able to extend their influence beyond their base.
The Agenda Mover who overreaches makes overtures to their opponents that have little chance of success. Think of the "Hail Mary pass"--a mainstay of American football. This is a long forward pass that has very little chance of success of scoring, but in the clinch, the quarterback makes the decision to go for it. It is the moment when the traditionalists reach out and hope to convert the revolutionary; or when the revolutionary reaches out with the hope of winning over the conservative. While overreaching may bring some success, the chances of it working--and having it stick--are not so great.
As in American football, moving agendas is a ground game: you play it up the middle. You try to reach out to those individuals with whom you don't necessarily share long-term goals--but with whom you have the possibility of sharing some short-term interests. You reach out to those who may not think like you, but they face the same problem you do, and are willing to work on it. And this is how you begin to carve out the incremental ground game that will move you--and your agenda--forward.
This is not an exercise of moving from win-lose to win-win. The reason for extreme deadlock in Congress is that the lawmakers have very little experience in moving the ground game up the middle. And this is the same problem that is faced in organizations.
Playing the middle game requires focused, methodical, continuous agenda-moving skills. It doesn't require the dramaturgy of charisma or the arrogance of self-righteous ideology. It requires individuals who know how to pitch the argument, get the buy-in, and create critical coalitions.
In history, Agenda Movers are often unheralded, and their skills are often ignored until history catches up with what they've actually accomplished. In politics, this is the case of Lyndon Johnson and Dwight Eisenhower. In major corporations, things get done when leaders at all levels focus not on underplaying or overreaching, but when they concentrate on playing the middle ground game.