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Why ‘more buy-in’ is not the answer

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

I caught up with a leader last week. He wanted to talk with me about building momentum behind a major business change that had been underway for about 9 months. To his frustration, the change had made slow progress and was draining a lot of time, money and resources.

As we sat down, the leader said “…the problem is, we’re not getting the stakeholder buy-in we need. We’ve communicated the vision until we’re blue in the face, but even some of our leaders still don’t get it”.

It’s a common challenge to which leaders often respond by doing more of what hasn’t worked. However, what’s needed is for us to take a step back and explore the mindset that sits behind the idea of ‘buy-in’.

When we ‘buy’ something, we are usually agreeing to pay for the future benefits of using something that someone else has created. I recently bought a set of wireless headphones. While I was excited when I bought them, I truly bought-in to them when I put them on and experienced the incredible sound quality.

People rarely buy-in to a distant possibility. It's too hard. It’s like asking them to imagine a colour they’ve never seen. 'Real buy-in' comes through experience, which is why when we attempt to have teams buy-in too soon to a vision, we are frequently disappointed with the results. In change, buy-in comes later, it's something that becomes possible with time and when the future in nearer and more tangible.

However, when we pursue buy-in at the very start of a change, we’re not dealing with the most powerful force of all. Namely, the here and now and the real experiences that go with that. Therefore, to achieve momentum from the beginning, we need people to more than ‘buy-in’ to the future benefits of the change. We first need them to own the change itself. More specifically, we need them to have a deep appreciation of the reason for change. This means, they need to know that it is for a good, logical reason; that it will make a positive difference to something or someone who matters. They need to know that the change has been grounded in a deep understanding of the way things really are and not just some random idea.

It's like being a trapeze artist, swinging from one trapeze to the other. To be successful, they first need to let go.

The start of change has nothing to do with the future. It’s much more about helping people to let go of the past. Without making this the first step, no matter how hard we try to have people buy-in to the future, the force of ‘reality’ will always present a more compelling argument.

As we get back into the new year and moving into another strategy development and delivery cycle perhaps it’s worth asking some questions.

  • Are you asking people to buy into a new future, without first helping them to let go of the past?

  • Are you selling your strategy (ie. asking stakeholders to buy a finished product) or are you building a sense of ownership and creating a vehicle for change?

  • Are you building momentum, or is it producing a document?

Some food for thought.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you’ve found it useful and you think others in your network would too, please remember to share it. If you want help creating a strategy that has your leaders fired up and ready to deliver, you can find out more here.

About the author

Kate Christiansen is an award-winning business author and momentum expert who has been navigating uncertainty in for over two decades. As a master facilitator, mentor and keynote speaker, Kate enables leaders and their teams to create momentum and move what really matters.


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