Pragmatic leaders know how to move agendas. They understand that good ideas are not enough. Indeed, they understand that even the best ideas demand political competence. In town halls, in small organizations, in multi-national enterprises, in the halls of congress, unless leaders do their homework, calculate, persuade, and assume nothing, their agenda will never move. This past week in Long Island City, the skills of agenda moving were sorely tested. As smart as the parties involved have been over the course of their storied careers, the good idea failed. They failed. The failure is even more stunning as it occurred just as things appeared to be working, and as nuts-and-bolts issues were being resolved, such as an amicable hammering out of the terms for labor-management relations. In the face of pragmatic, measured solutions, the entire agenda fell apart.

Amazon's pullout from a tentative deal to make New York its HQ2 (or HQ3 if the location in Virginia is counted) caught many by surprise. There was hot competition for HQ2 and many municipalities across the US threw their hats in the ring with promises of tax credits, sweetheart land deals, and other goodies. Competition was fierce, and many were vying to be newest jewel in the tech crown. Part of the problem of deal in the first place is that because of all the ballyhoo that came before, the endless courting, the continuous speculation, the wishful thinking--that HQ2 seemed like the typical good idea that leaders like to promote.

In New York, the story, in superficial terms, is that after the Long Island City location was announced, there was a nearly immediate groundswell of grassroots protests that some politicians lent support to. Amazon, upon seeing that the welcome mat was not unanimously rolled out, shook its collective head and decided that it would have been too much work to mend fences and build a coalition of support. The Amazon story is an object lesson for corporate leaders and politicians about the importance of building support when developing an idea and rolling it out.

What should pragmatic agenda movers take away from this lesson in failure?

  1. Keep the ego in check. Don't assume that your past success, corporate or otherwise, assures future success. Ego, in this case, killed objectivity. The players involved did not consider the agenda from others who may be affected by the proposal. Their ego and faith in the proposal overrode practical, pragmatic considerations
  2. Understand deeply the political mindset of others. Agenda movers know who is a traditionalist and who is a revolutionary. They have sized up the parties who prefer to act conservatively and not shake things up and they have a pretty good idea of who wants to tear down the status quo and start from scratch. They can recognize the players in the middle who are searching for a compromise to placate the extremes. In the case of Amazon, everyone underestimated or misread the political mindset of other stakeholders.
  3. Encourage participation and the contributions of others. An idea that isn't collectively owned or shared isn't going to go very far. It is far better to present a loose frame of an idea, and ask others for help in filling in the plan. Draw them into the conversation, and view their voice as important.
  4. Focus the message. Agenda movers are clear and consistent about their message. They can be accused of reading from the same script, day after day, but at the same time, they are on message and detractors find it difficult to distract them with minutia. The detractors were bent on denouncing big business, but supporters had a hard time articulating the benefits.
  5. Justify the agenda. Agenda movers make a compelling case why their idea is the right idea, the right course of action. They persuade others by showing its utility--financial, social, and cultural. Or they show where similar ideas have worked well in other areas. If the case for Amazon was justified, it was done so quietly and under wraps that no one heard.
  6. Deal with their fears. When introducing any idea, you are encroaching on someone's territory. You are changing things for them, and you have to recognize this. The government and corporate players didn't take in account the fears of others--the fear of losing their neighborhood, risking their community, or dislocating their children.

As Thomas Edison once said, "Vision with execution is hallucination." And, as things turned out, the tenuous Amazon HQ2 was largely a hallucination. To make it a reality, the players needed to make a concerted effort to build a coalition of support is before they launched the idea. While the bidding war for HQ2 was a bit unusual, once the governor and mayor were committed to make it happen, they needed to do the groundwork to identify allies and potential resistors, and do what they could to soften the stance of the resistors. They needed to cast a wider net for stakeholders, and get more voices in the conversation--voices that would not be drowned out by organized opposition. Amazon could have been a more visible partner in the process, and had Amazon leaders publically and enthusiastically shared their vision as partners, the reception might have been a bit warmer.

Some might argue the Long Island City incident is evidence of the success of the opposition. But even more likely, the outcome is testimony to the failure of the key proponents to appreciate the micro-skills of agenda moving.

Published on: Feb 15, 2019
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