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Change Management; What Exactly is Buy-In?

When it comes to change management, the term ‘buy-in’ is tossed around the office like a baseball around the diamond in a pre-game warm-up. It is a term used to indicate the need to convince everyone to get on board the change train, as it is destined for great things. But I find this term funny, because it indicates the change has already been decided, the train is leaving and I better get on or…well stay behind. And then we wonder why there is resistance to change.

But what if change was not something that was imposed on people, but was something they themselves came up with?

So many times I have worked on a project where a decision is made at an executive level, and then announced to the business with a fancy PowerPoint slide show, a few bullets about what the benefits will bring, and the overall concluding message of “we are doing this regardless, so you better get on board”.  And then we wonder why there is resistance to the change. But the fact is, if you make the decision to change without first asking the people the change will affect most, chances are pretty good there will be a defensive and resistant reaction.

One example that comes to mind is a company that decided to reorganize the entire organization without telling the employees until a company wide meeting was called one morning. Employees shuffled in, took their seats and found staring back at them, a man dressed up in a bear costume and fireman’s helmet, there to put out the ‘fire’ (and make the PowerPoint presentation). Needless to say, the reaction from the employees was not a good one (and going into the many reasons why might just be another article all on its own). In the end the meeting was not a productive one and, in fact, put many employees on the defensive about their job security and their role within the company. Everyone left more confused than when they had  arrived, and nobody remembered any of the benefits listed within the PowerPoint presentation (but will probably remember the bear costume for life!).

But what happens if you skip the fancy PowerPoint slide show, and get the non-IT folk to come up with the idea in the first place? Would there still be resistance?

People have a tendency to want to own things – whether it be their house, car, yacht, or the job they perform on a day to day basis. Because to many people a job is a set of daily routines and procedures they have become accustomed to doing on a daily basis; and more than that, have become very good at.  To then introduce change into that daily routine without consulting or involving them, is the equivalent of stealing their car from their driveway and trading it in for something new, without asking them. Now some people might be happy with a new car, but many people would resist the new car and want their old one back. Maybe they wouldn’t like the colour because they didn’t pick it, or maybe they didn’t really want the upgrade to a sunroof because they once had a bad experience sticking their heads through one. Maybe they just did not like the fact that the decision to get a new car was not theirs. And there is no difference with change in the workplace.  If you just suddenly take something away from somebody and replace it with something that you may think is better, you can almost be guaranteed they will find something wrong with it, and NOT think it better.

So then, how should change be introduced?

How about driving the change from a lower level? With so many change initiatives coming from the top of an organization, you constantly have a top-down channel of communication, which often puts those on the bottom on the defensive. How many times have we heard in reaction to a change: “Why do we need that? What is wrong with the way I do my job now?’ But what if what if those who would be most affected by the change were approached at the start and asked things like:

  • So what currently holds you up in your job?
  • Is there anything you do now that is completely manual?
  • Is there anything in the current process that you think should be changed which might make it easier for you to do your job?
  • Would you like to be involved in looking at new software for what you do?

Would they then see it as change, or would they maybe see it as something they can own, or do, to improve their jobs?

To me, getting others in the business to see the issues, own the issues and then, because of it, want to be part of the solution is the key to incorporating change into a company. It is surprising how often people are willing to be a part of projects, if they are just given the chance to get in at the start. But to be just told they are on a project, which ultimately affects their job, is often times a setback right from the beginning.

There will always be those who think making the decision and then showing the fancy PowerPoint presentation with the benefits of the solution is the answer to introducing change. But to me, change should never have to be introduced to the business – it should be generated upwards from the business. Getting people to realize the problems themselves, and come up with the solution themselves, will almost always work because people take pride in what they own and want to make their ideas work. Because remember; there is very little difference between ‘change’ and being ‘creative’. The only difference lies in where the direction comes from. You tell somebody to do something and they cringe at ‘change’, but if you get them to come up with the idea themselves they are ‘creative’, and will take pride in being so.

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Kelly Burroughs is a Business Analyst/Project Manager for Halsall Associates, a professional services engineering company. She has several years experience in implementing larger scale technology changes into businesses, as both a business analyst and a project manager. She can be reached at [email protected].