The Book Shelf -- Help Uncle Sam Help You

New book explores ways to win the influence game in Washington -- or with local governments.

Government has a history of intruding in companies' business in the interest of balancing free enterprise with consumer rights. But government intervention doesn't have to negatively impact your business, say the trio of authors from Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., who penned Winning The Influence Game: What Every Business Leader Should Know About Government (2001, John Wiley & Sons Inc.). Authors Michael Watkins, Usha Thakrar, and Mickey Edwards maintain that if companies invest the time to build relationships and influence with those who make the rules governing business, they can help shape the regulations that impact their business. Winning The Influence Game is a 258-page road map for doing just that. Thakrar, a Harvard Business School research associate, Watkins, a Harvard Business School associate professor of business administration, and Edwards, a former Congressman and now teacher in Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, have distilled the "influence game" into seven fundamental principles they develop throughout the book. The process begins with a diagnosis of how and where government can help or hinder your business. Organizing your government-relations efforts to act as a bridge between the worlds of business and government is the next step. The authors lay out various options to achieve these goals. Accumulating relationship capital, which "means more than just cultivating relationships with key people inside and outside government; it also means being able to mobilize these relationships when you need them," is a key to winning the influence game. The right network of relationships, say the authors, helps companies anticipate problems and prevent them from becoming full-scare crises. Novices often wait until the last minute to try to build those relationships and hence have no credibility, the authors write. "You cannot hope to influence rule makers and referees on your own, even if your company is large and powerful, so it is essential to build coalitions," the book notes. This realization is one of the keys to "crafting winning strategies" for the influence game. Other keys cited by the authors are identifying where to exert influence and conforming your message to serve your purpose ("An effectively framed message is like a song with a catchy tune," the authors write). The book examines common mistakes novices make, such as lacking clear and realistic goals, having preconceived notions about allies and adversaries, not recognizing when to shift goals, and not having a backup plan. The authors illustrate their points with real-life examples of successes and failures, including the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the antitrust suit against Microsoft Corp., and the National Retail Federation's campaign to keep the Internet untaxed.

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