Sharon Drew Morgen

Buy-In: What Is It? And Why Is It Important?

by Sharon Drew Morgen

Until now, we've all recognized that buy-in is necessary when implementing change. And yet we seem to have difficulty achieving it: we've assumed that if we offer people the right reasons to change, offer proven evidence of the change's efficacy, persuade people that buy-in would be in their best interests and reward them sufficiently, and give them the appropriate skills, buy-in could be handled with some modicum of reliability and ease.

But none of that is true. As most Fortune 500 companies will tell you, they spend more money on implementation and the problems that implementation causes than they do on the solution itself.

Inside Out vs. Outside In

Let's take a look at what 'buy-in' has meant – until now.

Buy-in is sought when an adjustment – often for logical, necessary, or profitable reasons - is required within the status quo. It can be a mission statement change, or a new software solution, a new team member, or a new initiative, for example. While the impetus for the change may differ, plans for implementation seem to be predicated on the basic belief that buy-in can be achieved, and a new set of actions agreed upon and carried out, once a logical, congruent case is made for the requested change.

I interviewed the CEO of a well-known copy company a few years ago, asking him how he managed change. He told me of an initiative that he and the Board were excited about, and had needed buy-in from their 30,000 employees. The CEO spent over a million dollars to create a high quality dog and pony show, and spent six months visiting many of the storefronts using his audio and video show to explain why the change was important and how the company and customers would benefit.

When I asked him how it went, he was excited. Everyone, he said, bought in. Everyone? Well, yes, except for about 10 percent.

SDM: What happened to those 10 percent?

CEO: It became a liability issue.

SDM: You fired them? You fired 3,000 people?

CEO: Yes, but it wasn't a problem. They were the folks that had been around 18 to 20 years.

He fired the core – the very history – of his company because his plea didn't work for them, because he didn't know how to encourage them to buy-in or change their beliefs, or develop passion for his vision. Others have since told me that a 10 percent fallout rate is a good number, that it could have been worse.

On the other hand, it could have been better. Because they didn't know how to easily go about getting buy-in, they fired people – most probably with some exit package for their years of service – and had to go through the process of finding replacements, and then train them. Not an insignificant cost in time and money.

We have assumed that by asking our target audience to tackle what we deem appropriate behavioral shifts – often leading to new job descriptions, or new relationships and skills, for example – we can get buy-in. But we are doing what sales people do: pitching an idea from our own map of the world and assuming that the listeners will react as we want, that with logical justification and the right amount of persuasion, we can get people to do what we want. We are pushing from the outside, hoping to get specific results from the inside.

The Systems of Change

We actually are using guesswork: we have no idea what criteria need to be met before others are willing to change. We have no idea what internal issues we're asking people to shift – just assuming that our idea and enthusiasm and logic and pressure will create a willingness to change.

We forget that before change can happen, people must assess the requested change, and have some comfort that it matches not only their personal, internal criteria, but the criteria already present within their status quo (i.e. their job description, their relationships and status, their reporting structure, etc). If there is any incongruence, they will not easily be able to un/subconsciously buy-in, and therefore may potentially exhibit some form of acting out.

Indeed, people will only do what they are comfortable with, to the level they agree with what they're being told, or the level they understand what they've heard. It's quite impractical to assume that others will change because they're told to. And many billions of dollars, not to mention the effort, time lost, and human capital, spent by not addressing this.

People systems include all of the criteria - including rules, relationships, beliefs, history partners, world economic factors, branding and competition issues, ego needs that the people within the system have already bought into, agreed with, and acted upon when entering the system (e.g., becoming an employee).

In fact, the entire range of criteria that folks have originally bought into is relatively impervious to change; otherwise it wouldn't be a system. And anything new that enters that system in the way of new initiatives must parallel the same norms, rules, beliefs, and implied outcomes included in the status quo, or the system will reject it.

For example, if you only buy cotton shirts, you won't wear polyester unless you reconfigure your beliefs about cotton, or your political views about fabric, or your fears of non-natural fabrics or whatever your internal issues are that led to your current belief patterns. Or if a team has been doing a job based on one set of rules for years, they may have resistance to changing their behaviors just because a new set of rules has been issued. Each person would certainly give it a try because the request comes from on high, but s/he might not know how to work with other team members with the new rules.

Indeed, when others must agree and acquiesce to change, when rules and roles and norms and relationships and skills must change as a result, the 'inside' needs to shift more than the 'outside' – the inner beliefs rather than the external behavior or rules. And throwing information at a system, and hoping it will shift because of the nature of the information or how it is presented will not lead to others making appropriate decisions to change.

But we know that, and continue to push change upon our organizations anyway, assuming that if our request is cogent and reasonable and its efficacy easy to recognize, that sensible people will be willing to 'just change'.

Change Our Beliefs

Let's change our belief. What if we believed that:

  1. each person – each person – has to buy-in to the change before they are presented with an action plan;
  2. a system will reject any element that threatens its status quo;
  3. people are doing the best they can at any moment, but may have conflicting 'sorts' to manage within the new rules. In other words, do they address problems with their colleagues, or try to manage on their own? Who do they go to? How do they know the right action to take at any given time? What if the change encroaches on their chain of command, or levels of responsibility, or interaction with clients or other departments? What if market issues are encroaching on their jobs and they don't understand the relevance of any particular change requirement? What about managing new partner relationships? ... A lot of ideas and responsibilities may be competing in the same category for the same mind share;
  4. unless there is buy-in at the belief level, people may not necessarily know how, or be (un)consciously willing, to change;
  5. people are generally willing to be compliant at a conscious level but un/subconscious issues may create a different set of buy-in behaviors that may be counter productive to the ultimate change requested;
  6. decisions don't need to get made right away – the status quo has successfully been in place until 'now';
  7. disagreement upfront might end up shedding light on inherent problems with a proposed implementation, and managing the disagreement might yield a more robust solution.

In other words, people may not be aware that they have issues that are causing them to not be compliant with the change request, and that without discovering and then managing these issues up front, there will be implementation issues that may derail the success of the project. Not to mention how the change process itself could enhance implementation.

How would you approach change management if you believed the above? How would you go about changing the beliefs of those you're asking to carry the change? How would you go about harvesting buy-in to give your change initiative a chance? What would you need to believe differently to achieve buy-in before and during implementation?

© Copyright Sharon Drew Morgen

About the Author
Sharon Drew Morgen

Sharon Drew Morgen is a thought leader, and the author of New York Times Bestseller Selling with Integrity, Sales on the Line, and Buying Facilitation: The New Way to Sell as well as over 400 articles. She is the pioneer behind the visionary sales paradigm the Morgen Buying Facilitation Method®. As the architect of a wholly original sales model, Sharon Drew has provoked, inspired, and motivated thousands of sales professionals world-wide.

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