Getting Buy-In

Smart CIOs and business sponsors know user buy-in is achieved by continually including, in all aspects of the implementation process, the people who will use and be responsible for the solution

The woman listened impatiently as "grand-daddy of knowledge management" Bob Buckman addressed the UK knowledge management conference. Then, clearly anxious for answers, she said: "We've just implemented a knowledge management system but nobody will use it. How do we make them use it?"

Now perhaps Buckman was a little flummoxed, perhaps he was too tired to think straight. Maybe he had not clearly understood the question. At any rate, he gave what to fellow panellist David Gurteen's mind seemed a less than satisfactory answer. Since the cosmos loathes a vacuum, soon enough most of the audience seemed to be eagerly proffering their own sage advice. Suggestions flowed: What about offering incentives? Perhaps she could promise air miles as a reward for using the system?

Gurteen, who is an independent knowledge consultant, winced, thinking the whole notion of paying people to do their jobs smacked of bribery. Pay for performance is one thing, but start giving people incentives to do what they are paid for anyway and you are likely to end up offering bonuses if they will just get to work on time, he thought.

"They were talking about air miles and God knows what, and then I chipped in and I asked: 'To what extent were these people involved in the conception of the system, in the design of the system, and the rollout of the system?'," Gurteen told CIO. "And she answered: 'Oh, we didn't involve them at all'.

"She must have seen the look of utter astonishment on my face because she came back and said: 'We did actually think of it, but we didn't have time because management wanted the system yesterday'.

"I'm sitting there thinking: Okay, so you delivered this system on time, on budget and I guess probably to quality, and nobody uses it. That's really, really smart," Gurteen says


Smart CIOs and project managers know they need buy-in to get their proposals accepted, to tap the resources needed to implement them and to persuade people to embrace new ways of working. But getting buy-in is tough in the best of circumstances and can be positively fraught when your ideas are competing for resources or when the uninitiated find the raison d'etre impenetrable.


Buy-in is not just getting a multi-thousand dollar budget for a new project; it is getting the resources needed to see the project through and the commitment of stakeholders to capitalize on the new system or offering.

"Buy-in is the enthusiastic support, not merely compliance, by those responsible for providing information and implementing the actions," CEO for Executive Wisdom Consulting Group Ric Willmot writes in a paper called "Gaining Buy-in". "The best strategic and macro-management plans in a good organization are insufficient. Without buy-in, strategy remains on the tarmac and the flight to commercial prosperity remains at the end of the runway."

Although you probably will not need to get the entire enterprise to buy in to every project, failure to get buy-in from the right people can cripple your project from the outset.

"I use the term 'sniper' to describe where you have a stakeholder and everybody is committed, but there is a guy on the outside that can bring you unstuck. But because he's difficult to deal with, or because you don't think he has direct control, you ignore him," says General Motors Holden (GMH) CIO Julie Fahey. "It's absolutely critical that you don't ignore him, that you bring him into the fold, that you do everything in your power to educate him and bring him on board, because [such people] can be some of your best advocates when you're off and running."

CIOs attempting to swing buy-in positively in favour of new strategies and ideas will invest time and effort seducing spectators and victims alike into being enthusiastic implementers, Willmot says. "Having 100 percent buy-in prior to change or implementation is not always necessary. Being clear about who has to have buy-in is necessary."

Indeed, trying to get buy-in from everyone - even those with no stake in the system - actually can be highly counterproductive.

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In Getting Buy-In Before Implementation: Avoiding Traps to Successful Culture Change, IMPAQ founder and president Mark Samuel and senior consultant Todd Alexander challenge the practice of getting everyone's buy-in before making a change. The authors say that although getting everyone to sign on might seem like good sense and the empowering thing to do, their experience has shown that in practice getting everyone's buy-in will result in greater frustration and confusion, and take far too much time.

While some CIOs might try to get buy-in from the entire organization for every project, sometimes you can take short cuts, and sometimes you have no choice but to take short cuts, says HarperCollins Publishers MIS manager Spiro Katsilas. Just remember, if you do not get buy-in from the people who are going to be using the system, you may as well not do the project.

"I've seen a number of cases where projects have gone ahead to influence sales or to help sales departments, and the sales department haven't had that buy-in, so the project . . . had a negative effect on sales rather than a positive effect on sales because the wasn't there. So the project was never where they needed it to be."


CIOs cannot hope to enlist buy-in unless they themselves have credibility, Willmot points out. Organizations are most likely to resist new strategies and ideas promoted by the CIO when that CIO has a track record of over-promising, setting false expectations and managing by fiat, or where the organization has suffered from implementation processes that seem to continue forever without any conclusive operational result leading to a better workable system. CIOs who in the past have promised little involvement and lived up to that promise can expect to labour long and hard before they will get anyone to buy in to anything.

CIOs must also be cognizant of the "participation variable", Willmot says. That is, implementers are unlikely to commit to a decision made by the CIO unless they get to participate actively in the analysis. People might agree to be assigned tasks in developing a new strategy and establishing the implementation, but that does not mean they will feel responsible unless the decision is seen as the fruits of a "team plan".

Willmot says regular meetings with those you need to buy in can not only help keep a project on track but also instil a sense of ownership among the members. Meetings are where members can get their issues addressed, discover what is going on, build a team spirit and continually reaffirm that the "mission is on course".

"One must understand how essential it is to determine what motivates each member of the team they want to have buy-in," Willmot says. "An organization is like an engine, and if any of the cogs are not working, it will not work effectively and with synchronicity."

A sense of team ownership was exactly what COO Grant Salmon was aiming for when Aviva was preparing for its adviser's desktop n-link roll-out, a complex project with multiple streams of functionality. To foster buy-in of a project that had the sponsorship of the CEO, Salmon says all parties with an interest were brought on board from the start under strict project management guidelines.

"There was lots of communication. Everybody right up to the exec level had the CEO's sponsorship and everyone understood what we were trying to achieve and how much it was going to cost and what resource there would be. The group program office also provided through their planning full status updates - which come out each week to myself and all the general managers that are involved and then once a month to the executive - on all the projects and any significant cost projections."

Salmon says a steering committee was responsible for overseeing change requests, maintaining a tight scope and gaining executive input. As a result, every module has gone out on time, overall quality to market has been excellent and adoption rates highly satisfactory, he says.

The relationships the CIO has developed are as important as their track record to their success in getting buy-in. "I think a lot of buy-in comes from having good prior relationships," says Garry Whatley, CIO Corporate Express Australia Limited. "So I think you need to have a fair bit invested up front in regard to relationships with people in the organization so that when it does come to that stage you're in a position to work with people, [you've] got credibility.

"As a strategy you should always try to have good relationships with key people plus as many other people in the organization as you can." And, Whatley adds, you should also try to be as much a part of the business as you can and be seen to be adding to the business.

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To get buy-in, Willmot says, CIOs must engage and entertain. CIOs often try to ensure their erudite vision, or strategy, or change process receives positive buy-in by boring everyone with a "technical" communication process. Better to bring the new strategy alive through lively engagement, reflection, moments of learning and outbursts of sheer exuberant fun.

"Given a choice of listening to a well-designed, technically-crafted strategy of impressive genius poorly told, or an average tale of generalizations being tossed in the vague direction of the corporate mission brilliantly told with charismatic dialogue and links back to the lives of the people in the organization - they will always choose an average tale. The lesson for CIOs is that you have to be credible, fast and authoritative with stories that will positively impact people's motivation," Willmot says.

It's important to establish a sense of urgency to overcome apathy and inertia by identifying and discussing crises or potential crises and examining recent market trends and potential opportunities and benefits. CIOs also must explain the linkages between the new buy-in and the organizational successes achieved, he says. Supporting a climate of continuous improvement is valuable in achieving consistent buy-in.


CIOs wanting to get buy-in often lose sight of the fact that the best way to get people to buy anything - be it an argument, a concept or a new product roll-out - is to sell it to them. Gurteen says he sees examples all the time of people - from new graduates wanting permission to go on a course to CIOs trying to present an idea for a new system to the board - who have either forgotten this basic principle or who have never truly absorbed it.

"This is obvious stuff, but time and time again we forget it. People come to get permission for something, come to get that buy-in and they don't sell it on the business outcomes, they sell it on something else. Or they simply ask for what they want. You don't go to someone and say: 'Can I have a chunk of money to do x'."

Gurteen likes to use an example from his own area of expertise, knowledge management (KM). One of the reasons KM has acquired such a bad name, and a major contributor to knowledge management project failures, is the tendency of proponents to talk to senior managers and CEOs about improving knowledge sharing in the organization. Improved knowledge sharing may indeed be a good thing, he says, but it is not a business outcome.

"The question is always: 'Why do you want to do that?'," Gurteen says. "Of course the senior business managers and senior managers in the organization get where they are by performing in monetary terms: an increase in revenue, or an increase in profit, an increase in quality, an increase in market share. If you're lower down or you're a project manager it is about delivering your project on time or on budget, or getting some new resource for it: the everyday business outcomes. What so many people do is forget that [the business outcome] is what will sell something and so they simply ask for what they want. It just takes a very little switch in their mind-set to approach it very differently."

"The key to buy-in is in ensuring you attach it to a business goal or a business need," agrees HarperCollins's Katsilas. "I think too often the IT people come at it from an IT point of view when a process of the business requirement is the key to getting buy-in."

Projects also need sponsorship from the highest levels of the organization and must align with business goals, Katsilas says. CIOs selling the project must strip all technical jargon from their presentation and talk in terms of business resources. "Talking about how great this machine is going to be and how it is going to do this, this and this doesn't get any buy-in at all. If you sit there and say: 'We will be able to process reports faster', then you can get buy-in."

Projects must be submitted for approval based on their value to the organization, says Tony Talbot, Group IS manager, Dairy Farmers Limited. This might be value creation, competitive advantage, cost reduction, risk reduction or any combination of these. "It must never be pushed as the latest technology or some sort of morale boost for IT personnel," Talbot says.

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