Get Buy-In First Before Initiating Strategic Change

StrategyDriven Change Management ArticleInitiatives involve change. Yet no matter how essential or critical the change, change is fraught with pitfalls that are costly.

The problem is that too often the change is a push from the top, with the assumption being that because the initiative is important, and well presented, that folks will naturally buy-in. But we know that’s not true.

The conventional way of achieving buy-in usually involves some sort of influencing:

  • find the decision makers in a group or those deemed to be ‘in the know’;
  • inundate these folks with the importance of this particular new initiative;
  • get influencers involved with creating and testing a prototype;
  • get 5 or 6 influencers to use it and start a buzz going;
  • write up case studies and send them out to the user population;
  • test the results, make the necessary changes, and start the implementation.

Basically, it’s a sales job: it’s information-driven and does not manage a belief change; individuals are often left out of consideration; communication is often top down rather than across contexts and individual-criteria based.

A Change Initiative Deemed Successful

I interviewed the CEO of a well-known copy company, asking him how he managed change. He told me of a recent initiative that had needed buy-in from 30,000 employees. He spent over a million dollars on a high quality dog and pony show – and then went on the road for 6 months to introduce the initiative.

He said everyone bought in. Everyone I asked? Well, yes, except for about 10%.
SDM: What happened to those 10%?
CEO: It became a retention issue.
SDM: You fired them? You fired 3,000 people?
CEO: Yes, but it wasn’t a problem. They were deadwood: the folks that had been around 18-20 years.

He fired the core – the very history – of his company because he didn’t know how to get buy-in. Others have since told me that a 10% fall-out rate is great, that it could have been worse.

We have assumed that by asking our target audience to make behavioral shifts – often leading to new job descriptions, or new relationships and skills – we can get buy-in. But we are merely pitching an idea from our own map of the world and assuming that the listeners will react as we want. We are pushing from the outside, hoping to get specific results from the inside.

The Systems of Change

We actually have no idea what criteria needs to be met before others are willing to change. We have no idea what internal issues we’re asking people to shift.

We don’t realize that before change can happen, a series of internal agreements must be accomplished to ensure the congruency of the unique system the person or group has lived with for some time.

Until or unless a person or group is consciously willing to support a request for change, they will merely attempt to carry out what they think they’ve understood.

But what does that mean? It means people will only do what they are comfortable with, to the level they agree. It’s quite impractical to assume that others will change because they’re told to.

Let’s think about that for a moment. People-systems include all of the criteria – rules, roles, relationships, beliefs, partners, economic factors, branding and competition issues, ego needs – which the people have already bought into and acted upon when entering the system (i.e. 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 must parallel the same norms, rules, beliefs, and implied outcomes included in the status quo, or the system will reject it.

In other words, if a team has been doing a job based on one set of rules, they won’t change their behaviors just because a new set of rules has been issued. They would certainly individually give it a try because the request comes from on-high, but they might not know how to work together as a team with the new rules, or they might individually be carrying out functions inappropriately because their unconscious annoyance might kick in, or whatever.

Indeed, when others must acquiesce to change, when rules and roles and norms, 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.

Change Our Beliefs

What if we believed that:

  1. unless each person – each person – that will be a part of the change process has to buy-in to the change before they are presented with an action plan or they might end up unwittingly (or ‘wittingly’) sabotaging the operation;
  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 conflicts: What if the change encroaches on their levels of responsibility, or interaction with colleagues or clients or other departments? 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 necessary know how, or be (un)consciously willing, to change;
  5. people are generally willing to change and be compliant at a conscious level but un/sub conscious 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 up-front 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 might be enhanced as buy-in discussions might lead to increased creativity and leadership.

Let’s approach change by recognizing that buy-in should be achieve before attempting to implement any change initiative.

About the Author

Sharon Drew Morgen is founder of Morgen Facilitations, Inc. ( She is the visionary behind Buying Facilitation®, the decision facilitation model that enables people to change with integrity. A pioneer who has spoken about, written about, and taught the skills to help buyers buy, she is the author of the acclaimed New York Times Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and the new book Dirty Little Secrets: Why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell and what you can do about it. She lives in Austin, Texas.

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