How to Secure Buy In for Your Strategic Initiative

The phrase “buy in” means people accept and support a specific concept or course of action. Because strategic initiatives involve uncertain outcomes, asking for buy in is asking people to make a decision under conditions of risk.

Let’s start with this question:

What is being bought and what is being offered?

Viewed as a transaction, “buy in” implies the exchange of promises. Here is what is being bought and offered:

Buy in involves the exchange of commitment for benefits.

Commitment is the willingness to invest resources – and stay invested – in the face of uncertain outcomes. Commitment is the second-ranked success factor for strategic initiatives (“correct strategy” is #1 in importance). A short list of what is committed in a strategic initiative would include:

  • Money
  • Hope and trust that the strategy is viable.
  • People’s time and talent.
  • Championing behaviors.

“In Exchange for your Commitment, I Offer…….Benefits!”

A successful sales person knows that customers buy benefits, not features.  Features cause benefits to happen. A classic example is drills and holes. A salesperson of power drills understands that the drill is a feature which solves a customer’s problem, they need the hole (the benefit).The sales pitch is something like this, “I offer you the benefit of holes, if you will commit to buying this feature from me.” The salesperson counters any objectives, and asks for agreement.

Strategic initiatives also involve features and benefits. Features are often called solutions and benefits are often called outcomes.  Examine the following three “pitches,” each of why offers benefits in exchange for commitment:

  •  “This initiative will add significant revenue growth to the company and increase market share.  This outcome is achievable for an investment of $20 million from your StratEx budget.”
  • “This strategic partnership will open up new distribution channels for our services and products, and will improve our competitive position.  We need your executive sponsorship.”
  • “Your department will be recognized for participating in this initiative.  We need you to convey its importance to your staff.”

Professional sales people tailor their pitch to each audience, and practice it so that it is natural.  A leader should do the same.

Strategic Stakeholders Have Complex Needs for Benefits

Strategic initiatives involve considerable complexity. People often can not agree on the nature of the problem or opportunity, thus they struggle with solution design. Often the initiative flounders as people begin to feel overwhelmed by the issues and the strategy.

In my previous post, I described how to energize strategic initiatives with a focus on outcomes. Here is an important insight:

Benefits are delivered incrementally, and
build the framework for realizing outcomes.

As you gain this more sophisticated understanding, it is helpful to recognize that there are two types of benefits:

  • Economic benefits
    are those benefits that are typically measured in units of money or production with standard accounting practices. Examples include revenue trends, attendance, profits, and utilization.
  • Emotive benefits
    are those benefits that create an emotional response in a stakeholder.  Examples include trust, confidence, and affiliation.  These benefits are seldom captured in traditional accounting measures. Some people call emotive benefits “soft benefits,” but I do not like the phrase because the word “soft” is often interpreted as “of lesser importance” – which, certainly is NOT the case.

People Mentally Evaluate Benefits Before They “Buy In”

Of course, our job as a leader of a strategic initiative is to gain the support of people who have different values and objectives. Our pitch will work with some, but not with others. One reason is that people rely to differing degrees on the different hemispheres (left and right brain) when making decisions. The left brain lights up when we consider economic benefits and the right brain is activated with emotive benefits. Since people use both brain hemispheres to make decisions, you should identify and communicate both economic and emotive benefits.

The Secret Sauce for Creating Buy In

I discovered that emotive benefits are an essential ingredient of the secret sauce. People learn with their heart as well as with their head, and many leaders lead from the heart.

Interestingly, there is a sequence for advocating for benefits: emotive first, building up to economic benefits.  Try this recipe:

  • First, identify how the initiative aligns with a stakeholder’s personal values. For example, if the person is interested in the topic of innovation, talk about the innovative elements of your initiative. Strategic initiatives center around business growth or cost efficiency, and you can look at the job or interests of the stakeholder through those two lenses.  Your communications strategy should be to reinforce the contributions of the strategic initiative to the stakeholder’s personal values, interests, and job duties.
  • Second, identify organizations that the executive would respect, and connect these with what is presently going on in the organization. Executives do pay attention to their peers. A great example of this was how Jack Welch and top managers at GE championed Six Sigma as reason for their operational success. Other CEOs found themselves saying, “If Jack Welch thinks Six Sigma is important, we should pay attention to Six Sigma, too.”
  • Third, you identify business outcomes, and now you can begin emphasizing conventional economic benefits.

 “Buy-in” Does Not Happen Instantaneously: It Builds Incrementally

As reported in How Google Will Save the News, the investigator reported a difference in people’s support for the strategic initiative over a year, moving from “dutiful” answer about the importance of the strategic initiative, to his impression that “people sounded as if they meant it.”

Because of perceived risk and ambiguity, people adopt new ideas in subjective – often slow – ways. A program leader’s job is to create incremental benefits. As stakeholders realize these incremental benefits, they edge closer to the conviction: “I’ll do everything I can to make it happen.” That’s true commitment!

In all cases, people want personal benefits AND they want to do what is good for the company.  The hardest part of securing buy in? Asking people to sacrifice for the good of the larger organization.

How have you created stakeholder commitment?

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About Greg Githens

Thought leader who helps others think strategically, make strategy, and turn vision into action. Coach, advisor, board member, and hands-on leader. Seminar leader and speaker of popular offerings "How to Think Strategically & Apply Business Acumen" and "Leading Strategic Initiatives (Program Management)." Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation.
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