Getting buy-in for your ideas


“It’s an uphill battle,” Art told me last summer. Art was the CIO of an international development company. After six years at the company, he was noodling on a new business idea. His team had created software to more efficiently manage currency exchange. Art saw potential to move beyond using it internally. He thought they could create a software business and sell this and add-ons to their existing customer base.

Art was not just any CIO. He was a progressive leader, very heads up about organizational issues and about innovative business ideas “In my next life I’m going to come back as an entrepreneur,” he would tell people.

With this new product, Art saw his opportunity to be an entrepreneur in this life.

This was the first time the company had even contemplated starting up a business internally, so he knew he’d have to thoroughly think through how to get this done. He had created a solid business plan, but he also had to “work the crowd.”

Art and I discussed the three tools he could use to get buy-in: 1) Build alliances in advance; 2) Start small; 3) Appeal to their interests

1) Build alliances in advance. You can’t just summon up alliances over night.  Alliances are the result of building strong business relationships over a period of time. When you get things done in the trenches together; when you have experiences of mutually helping each other; when you have built-up good will; then you have people who will “vote” for you when the time comes.

Art already had pretty good relationships within the company and with his peers. “My score is about an A-” he said. A great starting point, but even so he realized he’d have to upgrade some of them. He drew a quick chart of his peers on the executive team. It wasn’t hard to see that the more contact he had with someone the better relationship he had. He decided to pick two key peers to deepen his alliance with – the head of HR who would have to sign off on anything related to a new entity and the head of marketing who was particularly influential because the company saw itself as a “marketing-driven” company and, oh, by the way, he was an old friend of the CEO’s.

To build these alliances, Art realized his first step should be to increase the frequency of contact. He offered to sit in on the Marketing/IT task force meetings that the head of marketing ran. His presence allowed quicker decision-making and more thoughtfulness in discussions, which the head of marketing really appreciated. His personal attention also helped them develop an easier rapport and, predictably, created even more contact in follow ups, building the alliance even stronger.

Art set up a monthly 1-1 check-in with the head of HR to do a business health check. After a few months of regular discussions they got to know each other better, and they helped each other in small ways – the HR head gave Art some good ideas about dealing with a difficult employee and Art lent her a resource to help with an internal project. Favor exchange is a great way to build alliances!

2) Start small. Sometimes people are ready to “vote” for a big idea all at once. Most often, though, they are more comfortable voting for a “pilot” or “proof of concept.” Many people feel more comfortable going in stages.

Art didn’t quite know how to create a “pilot” out of an entire new business. As we discussed it together, we realized that perhaps he could manage a “proof of concept.” His group was already deploying the software internally and it worked well. 

He decided to simply ask the executive team to approve an implementation within one or two existing customer sites. He thought they could surely say yes to that. It would allow his team to get feedback on the product, and they would learn about the process implementing it with actual customers, not just internally. Once they had that up and running for about six months, Art figured they could use the feedback to refine the product and the implementation process. If things went well maybe one of these test customers would endorse it. All of this would help the executive team vote “yes” for creating an actual business.

3) Appeal to their interests. It’s just the truth: people you need to get buy-in from have their own agendas. (If you’re being honest about it you will admit have your own agenda, too.)  These agendas can be perfectly appropriate – the good of the business is an agenda we hope everyone has. The trouble comes because “the good of the business” is actually pretty subjective and is based on people’s values, assumptions and beliefs, their background, their line of sight etc etc etc. Add to that people’s personal agendas to be successful, build their careers, move forward a pet project, and it’s a wonder anyone can agree on anything in the corporate world!

Art had no illusions about this. He knew his new business would collide with other’s self-interest Just as a starting point he would have to poach people from his peers to start it up – they sure weren’t going to like that! Here he needed to engage the head of HR to help. Luckily he had gotten to know her over the past few months – remember that part where you build alliances in advance? Not for nothing, right?

Art had discovered during their monthly meetings that the head of HR craved to work on something new and to be known as a more innovative leader. Perfect! He asked her for her advice on setting up the new organization with existing staff without alienating the executive team. She came up with the idea of rolling it up into a career developing “rotational program” for high potential employees, and they both felt very optimistic that could be sold the executive team, since they had been clamoring for a program to use to develop their high potentials.

As we sometimes say in my business: Ta da! Using these tools Art was able to secure buy-in from the executive team. The business is now running very successfully and growing quickly.

When you want to get buy-in for your new ideas, remember to: build alliances in advance; start small; appeal to their interests. I would love to know what results you get!

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