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The Art of the Possible

Politics is sometimes described as the ‘art of the possible’, implying that making some progress is better than stalemate or insisting on an ideal solution that will never see the light of day. While it is easy to be cynical about politics I feel that business leaders can usefully apply some of the approaches used by the best politicians to build consensus for change in their businesses. The points that occur to me are :

  1. Play the long game. Have a clear vision of where you want to go but recognise that you may need to get there in steps. So develop a vision not only of the end game but of interim milestones.
  2. Timing is everything. Proposing a new direction only makes sense when others are ready to follow. The best politicians instinctively know when to act and when to hold off until the timing is right.
  3. Be principled.  Know what you stand for and be consistent with these values, otherwise you will lose respect from those whom you are seeking to influence.
  4. Know your constituents and consult widely. Take the time to build relationships with those whose support you will need, and invest in getting to know the perspective of different ‘interest groups’. Before taking a decision it is important to take on board the perspectives of difference camps (functional areas in a business context) and why they think the way they do. Even in a crisis, where time is limited, every effort should be made to consult as widely as possible.
  5. Be prepared to do a deal. Compromise in order to move in the direction of achieving important end goals is better than no progress. However, before agreeing to a compromise position be satisfied that it does not materially impact on your long term vision – good compromises remain directionally aligned to the ultimate vision and specific end goals.
  6. Honour your commitments. Negotiate hard but when the deal is done be as good as your word.
  7. Be courageous and take calculated risks. All initiatives that prove to be ‘game changers’ involve  risk. Bold initiatives are often needed to break an impasse or create new opportunities.
  8. Know when to cut your losses. Public representatives are well known for making ‘U turns’ if past decisions turn out to be mistakes or if the timing proves to be wrong. If it is appropriate to reverse or modify an existing decision, the sooner the better to limit damage to your reputation.
  9. You can’t please all the people. It is important to build consensus to get momentum behind an initiative, but not everyone is going to be supportive. Politicians and business leaders need to have ‘thick skins’ as almost every decision will have its critics.
  10. Act decisively. When a decision is taken act decisively and quickly to implement the decision. To do otherwise will only encourage ongoing objections from dissenters. If you have had an inclusive decision making process you have the right to expect everyone to pull in the same direction at the implementation stage.
  11. Communicate clearly but temper your language. Be measured in what you say and how you say it and take the time to demonstrate that you fully understand the dimensions of the situation, but always communicate clearly why you have decided to take a certain course.
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