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Establishing a healthy agenda

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Look up the word “agenda” in any dictionary and you will likely find a definition similar to this one: “a list, plan, outline, or the like, of things to be done, matters to be acted or voted upon.” While the definition seems innocent enough, we know that the word agenda is oftentimes viewed with negativity and mistrust, particularly in the work environment.

Where does our skepticism come from? Why does a phrase like “she’s got an agenda” strike a raw nerve? The answer is that we naturally assume that someone is aiming to manipulate, to prioritize their desires over our own. We resist because we loathe manipulation and power plays, particularly ones that alter our equilibrium or affect our routines and responsibilities.

You are likely aware that change-management guru John P. Kotter has written that 70% of change initiatives in organizations and businesses flop. Kotter outlines eight reasons for such failure, including leaders not establishing a sense of urgency, not creating a vision for change, and/or not effectively communicating their vision.

Too often, leaders do not appreciate the impact that change can have on an organization. People do not like change, even when the suggestion makes sense or appears to be correct and logical. This is principally true when such change threatens their status quo or demands that they learn new skills and/or engage in new work.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, change efforts fail when leaders do not create the necessary groundswell of support among employees. Included in this is their failure to bring employees into the conversation in a manner that makes them feel valued and a critical component of the project’s success.

Citing research from Richard Beckhard and David Gleicher, leadership consultant Deborah Macklin suggests that leaders would also be well served to create a strong case for change together with their primary stakeholders. This increases buy-in and mitigates fears of future second-guessing. As part of the “case,” Macklin suggests that stakeholders consider the following questions:

  1. What is the background for the change? What has led up to this need to change?
  2. What challenges or problems are we facing in the current situation that will cripple us if we don’t begin addressing them today? What is the impact of these challenges?
  3. What will happen if we stay the same? Why should we act now?
  4. What are we going to have to let go of and why?
  5. What will the change require? What will it cost us to change? What will it cost us if we don’t change?
  6. How will we know when we have succeeded?

By engaging in an honest, comprehensive process that looks at all angles associated with the desired change, leaders can gain greater clarity about the risks and rewards associated with their objectives. Such planning will allow them to craft a more compelling vision that they can sell to others within the organization, a vision that takes others’ thoughts and fears into consideration.

Most importantly, the outcome of such an honest, thoughtful process will reveal that the leader’s agenda is really the company’s agenda — a necessary, consensus-driven process that will provide benefit for the collective enterprise.

Naphtali Hoff (@impactfulcoach) served as an educator and school administrator for over 15 years before becoming an executive coach and consultant. Read his blog at