One of the most challenging questions I receive is about changing an organization. Individuals who want to change the company for the better and just don’t know how to do it. It’s not easy – both creating change or answering questions about creating change. I do know one thing, change gets easier when you create buy-in.
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. John Kotter speak about organizational change at the SHRM Annual Conference. Dr. Kotter is chief innovation officer at Kotter International, which works with organizations looking to undertake major change at a rapid pace. He’s also Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus at Harvard Business School.
Little did I know Dr. Kotter has written a whole book on the subject of getting buy-in to create change. Needless to say, I was thrilled when Dr. Kotter agreed to share his thoughts…
From an organizational perspective, why is getting buy-in so important?
Buy-in is critical to making any large organizational change effort happen. Unless you win support for your ideas, from people at all levels of your organization, big ideas never seem to take hold or have the impact you want. Our research has shown that 70% of all organizational change efforts fail, and one reason for this is executives simply don’t get enough buy-in, from enough people, for their initiatives and ideas.
Are there ever circumstances when a person shouldn’t seek buy-in?
In some situations, you face someone I call a ‘NoNo.’ This term is based on a character in my book, Our Iceberg Is Melting, which is a fable about life in a changing and turbulent world, set in a penguin colony. NoNo is one of the main characters, and you can imagine how he reacts to any new idea. He not only shoots them down, but is very effective at convincing others to join his side. If you face a group of NoNos—or even just one—seeking their buy-in just won’t work. They will continually disrupt conversations and delay action, doing everything they can to discredit an idea and derail processes that attempt to create real change.
NoNos are more than skeptics. If there aren’t too many of them, skeptics can actually be helpful: they can keep naïve impulses in check and, once they have been convinced their opinions are wrong, can become an idea’s biggest champions. But NoNos won’t be convinced. The only way to effectively deal with them is to distract them so they cannot create too many problems, push them out of the organization or expose their behavior so natural social forces (i.e. other people who want change to happen) will reduce or stop it. My books A Sense of Urgency and Buy-in have more information on dealing with NoNos.
What do you say to the person who is reluctant to use buy-in because they don’t want to hear criticism or negativity?
I tell them that avoiding attackers doesn’t work, nor does quashing their attempts to block support from others. It’s far better to respectfully engage these adversaries and stand your ground with simple, convincing responses. By ‘inviting in the lions’ to critique your idea, and preparing yourself for what they’ll throw at you, you’ll capture busy people’s attention, and that’s very important. Conflict engages. If people have no opinions, no objections and no emotions, it usually means they don’t care. And you’ll be hard-pressed getting their help when you have to actually implement your idea. But conflict shakes people up and gets them to pay attention in a novel way. This gives you the opportunity to say why your idea really is valuable and explain it in a way that wins over hearts and minds – securing their commitment to implementing the solution.
The next time you’re in a meeting where someone is advocating for an idea, see if some conflict emerges. If it does, watch the group and see how people sit up and the energy level rises. Disagreement may seem like a bad thing — but it grabs people’s attention.
What’s the biggest mistake people make when trying to get buy-in?
There are a few of them. First, they don’t prepare enough. People often misunderstand ‘preparation’ to mean just knowing their own idea forwards and backwards. But rehashing what you already know won’t help you avoid sounding defensive, frustrated or even disrespectful when fielding question after question on your proposal or idea – all things that can derail a conversation and hurt your cause. We often don’t even know we come off this way until someone tells us.
People really need to practice before they attempt to win buy-in from a large group. This means grabbing a colleague to role play, attack the proposal and practice real-life responses. Try testing your ability to defend your proposal live with select people who will be sympathetic, but who can really listen and provide honest feedback.
I think another key mistake is thinking that you can win people over with lots of data, logic and reasons why the attacks on your idea are wrong. Almost all education teaches us to think in this manner, but this approach can kill the crucial attention span I mentioned in my last answer. We’ve all seen eyes glaze over or people surreptitiously typing on their smartphones as meetings drag on and on. You really need to respond to dissenters with simple, clear, common sense answers –this will slowly but steadily win an audience’s minds and their buy-in. And you have to complement this approach by responding in a respectful manner to those who disagree with you, no matter how much you want to fire back with fighting words. Enthusiastic support from large numbers of people is rarely the product of a nasty fight. If you treat the ones who attack your idea with respect, you’ll draw more people emotionally to your side. And emotions – what we often call ‘the heart’ – are essential to changing behavior.
From your experience, what surprises people the most about using buy-in to create organizational change?
I think people are surprised at how well it works. A lot of people who reach senior leadership ranks have been schooled in traditional management training. They recognize a need to change, pick a task force of people (maybe the head of HR, a couple of mid-level managers, a senior VP) to oversee the change effort, assign the team their roles and instruct them to make it happen. They don’t always articulate an opportunity for their organization and then communicate it widely to obtain a broad-based sense of urgency, from employees, to pursue an exciting opportunity, before pressing ahead. When they do, they’re often shocked to see how quickly changes can start happening. In our client work, we’ve found that choice motivates people to be far more committed to driving change than being told they have to do it. It engages people who are passionate about making their organization better, harnesses their enthusiasm and empowers them to drive change. It’s something that seems very simple, but it’s rare for organizations and senior leaders to work this way.
My thanks to Dr. Kotter for sharing his expertise. If you want to read more of his thoughts, check out his blog, Change Leadership. And, while Kotter International typically works with large companies, they have just launched a new contest called Seize Your Big Opportunity, to help organizations of all kinds accelerate change and grow sustainably, even in a difficult economic environment. Be sure to check it out.
P.S. The folks at Kotter International have graciously offered to raffle off a signed copy of the book Buy-In. All you have to do is leave a comment by Friday, November 18 and you’re entered into the raffle. Tell us what’s the hardest part about getting buy-in or just say you want to win the book. Look forward to your comments!2