With buy-in comes support and resources, so let’s do it right.
While getting buy-in is often thought of as an activity, I believe it’s a subtle yet powerful skill — one that can differentiate between starting and killing an initiative.
And it’s definitely a skill worth having. Seemingly small omissions can backfire heavily, whereas minor adjustments to our tactics can dramatically increase the chances of success.
Let me share a few lessons I learned the hard way. With buy-in comes support and resources, so let’s do it right.
Stakeholders are not created equal. Sometimes one person’s opinion carries disproportionate weight.
The more people we need to cater for, the harder it is to win everyone. In these cases, we have to find this 20% of stakeholders carrying 80% of the influence.
I’m not talking only about the organisation hierarchy. Yes, the executives’ opinion is one of the most important, but there’s more to that.
There are influencers who are trusted and whose opinion is highly respected among others, regardless of their title.
We have contributors & sponsors, people whose input will be vital to make the proposed plan come true.
There are disruptors, people who might make it harder for us to have a productive discussion and get buy-in from other people.
And many more — each environment and each initiative will have its own unique set of key stakeholders. Let’s make sure we know them.
Next, we should understand their priorities and how they assess new ideas to see how our concept fits into them. In most cases, all we need to do is to openly ask.
Knowing our key stakeholders and their needs will help us prepare our argumentation and choose the best approach to secure their buy-in.
It’s almost common knowledge, yet it’s often neglected.
We tend always to have more on our plates than we can chew, and it’s just more convenient to pitch the idea to ten people simultaneously rather than trying to approach them individually, right?
It often backfires, though.
I experienced it myself just a few weeks ago. I had an idea which I believed was a no-brainer. I confidently presented the idea on one of our strategic meetings and … got bombarded with unexpected objections and aversion. Some just needed further clarification, some were great improvements I hadn’t thought of.
In the end, not only have we spent way too much time bouncing back and forth before giving it the green light, but only half of the team truly bought into the idea.
The whole meeting would look differently if I had invested some time in reaching out to individuals first. There’s an enormous value of securing individual buy-in beforehand, and the more significant buy-in we need, the more time we should invest here.
- It’s easier.
We have more time to address specific doubts and dig deeper into how a particular solution affects that person’s goals. It’s also easier to sell the idea than in a group setting.
- We get more insightful feedback.
We can discuss feedback in more detail, plus some find it easier to share their thoughts privately. Removing peer pressure changes conversation dynamics a lot, too.
- We improve our pitch.
The questions people ask show where our pitch lacks. If every second person doesn’t understand how the change contributes to current goals, then either the idea is flawed, or we can’t articulate it properly.
- We get supporters.
Once we move forward with the idea, we won’t be alone; we’ll already have an established base of supporters, making getting further buy-in easier.
A rule of thumb — the more impactful the change, and the more people it affects, the more effort we should put into winning individuals first.
For minor decisions, efficiency is often the key; we make dozens of decisions like that every day. In this case, it’s okay to skip individual conversations and go straight to the meeting — stakes are low anyway.
On the other hand, pushing major initiatives that affect many people without getting initial buy-in from at least a few key stakeholders might be risky.
If in doubt, it’s better to have one too many one-on-ones than to fall short.
Conflicts are good; don’t avoid them.
We can’t satisfy everyone. However, satisfaction isn’t the key requirement for a buy-in; more important is for people to feel heard and respected.
Whenever there’s a difference in opinion, it’s essential for everyone to speak their minds and disagree if needed. If we don’t work through the differences, people will hold them inside, and even if they agree, deep inside they won’t be fully bought in. Artificial buy-in is worth close to none.
However, just letting people vent is not enough. Our peers must trust that whatever the final decision is, it has the company’s (thus their’s) best interest in mind.
We should frame conversations with the company and product goals in mind, and everyone should end up knowing how does the idea…
- …fit into our current company priorities?
- …contribute to the long-term vision?
- …affect our customer pains and gains?
- …serve the product and the market?
Disagreeing on an idea while framing the conflict around company objectives is the best way to get genuine buy-in, even if not everyone ends up happy.
Substantial buy-ins result from co-created solutions.
We should involve stakeholders as soon as feasible, since:
- It makes it their idea as well.
- It gives us more opportunities to refine the concept to accommodate various needs.
- Even if some contributions don’t make it to the end product, they will be glad that their opinions were considered during the process.
In the end, we’ll get more robust support for the initiative and, more importantly, a better solution itself.
Disclaimer: Some people prefer it polished
Early collaboration doesn’t work with everyone; it might be even counter-productive in some cases. Some people are just too busy or disinterested.
Ask them directly if they’d like to head-on or not —don’t assume everyone has time and willingness to contribute.
When it comes to feedback, also understand if they like it quick and dirty or polished. Short feedback loops are great, but if a stakeholder expects to see a polished solution and we show it half-done, we might create a wrong first impression that will last and lower our chances for buy-in later on.
Most stakeholders should be involved early, but not everyone.
Crucial buy-in should be on writing, and there’s more than one reason for that.
When we talk about written confirmation, the first thing that comes to mind is getting proof that someone agreed on something. I
However, a written confirmation has another, perhaps even more important aspect. It encourages careful consideration.
I recently had a situation when I believed one stakeholder, and I saw eye to eye on an issue — we confirmed it orally a few times. At some point, I needed to be 100% sure, so I wrote him an e-mail asking for formal confirmation. You already know where it’s heading, don’t you?
Not only we have miscommunicated on some aspects, but my request also prompted him to think through the whole concept. He didn’t like it after all.
Lesson? Get things in writing. It forces us to clearly articulate what type of buy-in we need and encourages the other side to consider the idea carefully before “singing it”.
The written word just carries more weight than a spoken one.
Nothing is set in stone.
I remember a situation when I had a stakeholder fully on-board with a particular idea. She was downright excited!
Imagine my disbelief when she actively opposed the very same idea two weeks later.
Somewhat shocked, I approached her after the meeting and asked what had just happened. I heard something like: “I was totally in, and I still am, but in the meantime, a few priorities pivoted on our end, and we can’t support the initiative this quarter”.
In retrospect, that was naive of me to think that once received green light will be valid forever. Had I confirmed it before the planning took place, perhaps we could tweak the idea to satisfy both her and our needs rather than killing it.
Buy-ins have expiration dates, and we never know what the date is.