How to Get Buy-in: What Can Kill a Good Idea and What Can Save It
by John P. Kotter and Lorne A. Whitehead
You believe in a good idea. You’re convinced it is needed badly, and needed now. But you need sufficient support to implement it. You propose a plan. You present it well. Then colleagues raise issues, some thoughtfully, some with inane comments and verbal bullets. The proposal is shot down, or it is accepted but without enough support to gain all its benefits, or it slowly dies a sad death.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We have found that attacks are commonly based on one or more of four strategies—fear-mongering, delay, confusion, and ridicule. And we have also found that recognizing these strategies can take you a long way toward dealing with them.
This kind of attack strategy is aimed at raising anxieties, so that people begin to worry that implementing a genuinely good plan, pursuing a great idea, or making a needed vision a reality might be filled with frightening risks—even though that is not the case.
The trick in creating fear is to start with an undeniable fact and then to spin a tale that ends with consequences that are genuinely frightening or that push the anxiety buttons we all have. The logic that goes from the fact to the dreadful consequence will be wrong, maybe even silly, but it can be effective.
Once aroused, anxieties may not disappear in the face of an analytically sound rebuttal. Words often play an important role. If the failure of a project led to layoffs a few years ago in your company, a mention of that project’s name can arouse very unpleasant feelings. More generally, terms such as lawyers, fire, or big government can stir up fear and anger in some people, as can phrases such as slippery slope.
Even when most people see an anxiety-creating attack for what it is, you might still have a serious problem if those who don’t see the fallacy of the logic constitute more than a small percentage of a group. And a single smart or credible person, if made fearful, can be tipped not only toward opposing a proposal, but also toward using attack tactics that tip still more people. Anxiety then builds like an infection.
There are questions and concerns that can kill a good proposal simply by slowing the communication and discussion of a plan so that sufficient buy-in cannot be achieved before a critical cut-off time. These questions and concerns seem logical suggestions, but, if accepted, they will make the project miss its window of opportunity.
Death by delay can be a very powerful strategy because it’s so easy to deploy. A case is made that sounds reasonable: “We should wait (just a bit) until some other project is done”; or, “We should send this back into committee (just to straighten up a few points)”; or, “(Just) put off the activity until the next budget cycle, or until we don’t have so much on our plate.”
Some idea-killing questions and concerns muddle the conversation with irrelevant facts, convoluted logic, or so many alternatives that the clear and intelligent dialog that builds buy-in becomes impossible.
A complex topic is not needed for a confusion strategy to work. Even the simplest plan can be pulled into a forest of complexity where nearly anyone can become lost.
Statistics can be powerful weapons in this connection when used to bewilder: “You are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Just look at this 22-page spreadsheet. I think if we study it closely . . . ”
Stories about which most people do not know the details can be lethal too. “What about the XYZ project [which no one has ever heard of] and the competitive strategy we have for the TX line of products [a strategy that half the people in the room know nothing of]? I worry that the interaction of Teledix, TX, and this proposal will hurt third-quarter income, at least in Asia, which would be very bad. Don’t you think so?”
4. Ridicule (or Character Assassination)
Some verbal bullets don’t shoot directly at the idea but at the people behind the idea to make the proposers look silly. Slyly or directly, questions can be raised about character and/or competence, sometimes with just an oh-so-innocent, yet subtly condescending, look on someone’s face.
Questions and concerns based on a strategy of ridicule and character assassination can be served with a dramatic flourish of indignation, but more often are presented with a light hand. The attacker seems to feel awkward even bringing up a subject, but nevertheless believes it is imperative to ask whether your dinners with your admin assistant might . . . No, no, that wasn’t fair. Forget I said that.
The ridicule strategy is used less often than the others, probably because it can snap back at the attacker. But when this strategy works, there can be collateral damage. Not only is a good idea wounded, and a person’s reputation unfairly tarnished, but all the additional sensible ideas from the proposer might have less credibility, at least until the memory of the attack fades.
A Counterintuitive Way to Save a Good Idea
Five interrelated elements, none of them complicated, work together to achieve buy-in:
• Capture peoples’ attention.
• With people paying attention, win their minds.
• Also win their hearts.
• Constantly monitor the people whose hearts and minds you need—the broad group, not
the few attackers.
• Prepare for these steps in advance.
One caveat: This method, though powerful, is not guaranteed to work well in cases with a particularly aggressive, nasty opposition. But for most of us, those cases are rare.
The most basic and counterintuitive of the elements is the first. Don’t scheme to keep potential opponents, even the sneakiest attackers, out of the discussion. Let them in. Let them shoot at you. Even encourage them to shoot at you! This solves the single biggest challenge people face when they need to gain buy-in for a good idea: simply getting attention.
Without people’s attention, you won’t have a chance to explain a hazard or an opportunity, along with your good, practical solution. Distracted people won’t listen carefully or long enough. They won’t listen with an open mind. You won’t have the chance to gain the emotional commitment that is at the core of true buy-in.
Once you have people paying attention, don’t try to overcome attacks with tons of data; logic and yet more logic; or lists of reasons that unfair, uninformed, or sneaky attacks are wrong, wrong, wrong. If you do, minds will wander.
Instead, make your responses—all of them—short. Brief and easy-to-understand responses will help clear the fog created by attacks and give you a real chance, over the course of the meeting, to educate the audience in what your idea is and why it’s a good idea.
Also don’t try to crush attackers with ridicule, counterattacks, or condescension. Just as simple, clear, and common-sense responses can do much to win minds, respect can do much to win hearts. Treating anyone with even a modicum of disrespect risks a backlash from that person or, more important, from the other people present, who might see you as unfair or unjust, raising the kinds of questions that give power to character assassination and ridicule strategies.
Conversely, treating others with clear respect allows you to take the high ground and to draw an audience emotionally to your side, where they are more likely to listen carefully and sympathetically.
In a world of information overload, having people genuinely listen to your message is a significant victory. Having them listen with a sympathetic attitude is a huge victory.
John P. Kotter, the Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership, emeritus, at Harvard Business School, is the founder of Kotter International, a firm providing guidance on transformational leadership. Lorne A. Whitehead is leader of education innovation at the University of British Columbia. This article is derived from their book Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down, from Harvard Business Review Press. To learn more or order the book, go to hbr.org.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpt from Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down. Copyright 2010 John P. Kotter and Lorne A. Whitehead. All rights reserved.