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Building Bridges, Not Barriers: Three Powerful Techniques to Foster Buy-In and Drive Transformation

By David CarderMarch 18, 2024No Comments6 min read

Gaining buy-in is such a crucial element of achieving success in any context where people are involved.  In the context of advancing changes in organizations, it’s essential.  Yet, so often, the art of building buy-in is overlooked, causing resistance to grow, and leading to key moments that can become true setbacks that are hard to overcome.

This kind of resistance can come in many forms, from silence in a broader meeting, to direct challenges to an idea, to lack of responsiveness or involvement over time from key colleagues.  We know that lack of buy-in can look like – but what can we do to truly make a difference?

For over 20 years, I’ve seen so many contexts where lack of buy-in could have caused significant setbacks for a change effort, but instead, skeptics were engaged, and those that were resistant got involved. While much has been written about building buy-in, I wanted to capture three concrete techniques that have stood out as highly effective across a wide range of contexts. 

Capturing the Balance

Try to frame the source of resistance in a way that captures two ideas that need to be kept in balance, where one side reflects the essence of the change and the other speaks to what matters to those who are resisting. For example, I experienced a challenging situation involving labor unions and management in a regional utility.  Two serious safety incidents had recently occurred, heightening the need for union and business leadership to come together to find a new way forward. Part of the preparation for the defining moment when they were to come together involved me traveling across the region to have one-on-one, face-to-face conversations with each union leader. They needed a demonstration that they were being truly listened to, and that their views would be brought into the broader conversation that I would help facilitate. 

The session itself had its challenges throughout, but ultimately was a success. By many accounts, what guided the ultimate success of the session was reviewing key ideas early-on to keep a steady balance of opposing views going into the session.  Examples included:

Honoring the PastAspiring to Our Future
Aligning TodayFollow-through Tomorrow
Honoring ChallengesOffering Solutions
Healthy SkepticismTaking Steps Forward Together
Driving Positive Changes Through LeadershipDriving Positive Changes Through Actions/Solutions

Walking through these “Ideas to Balance” very early in the session fundamentally shifted the tone in the room  and provided “touchstones” to come back to later in the day when challenges emerged in conversations – gradually building buy-in over time. 

Invitations Into the Work

Over the years, I’ve found planning a vibrant, face-to-face working session focused on the change and presenting a “gallery walk” to senior leaders is one of the most powerful approaches to gaining buy-in. You want a session where thinking is captured across the walls of the space, and then you want to invite key senior leaders who most need to be bought in – into the room for a gallery-walk late in the day.  This can take the form of walking the walls with a single leader, or a “speed dating” approach where a group of executives rotate every 10 minutes across a range of stations where 2-3 team members bring their work to life. 

I remember one especially powerful moment where, for the first time, the CEO of a health tech company was serving as a sponsor for a trail-blazing change effort that was facing resistance from the core business it was focused on.  The initiative needed the influence and stewardship of the CEO to ultimately be effective, but garnering his time and mindshare throughout the effort was identified as a potential challenge. 

During the launch of the effort, the change team invited the CEO/sponsor in for a quick, 15-minute review of their plan, which had been built out along the entire wall of their workspace using dozens of colored post-its.  He ended up staying for nearly an hour, and he gained enough passion and energy to be engaged throughout the remaining 90-days of the effort. 

Learning What Matters

A third vital approach to building buy-in is doing the work to truly understand what matters to those whose buy-in you need, and how what matters to them is measured.  As the adage goes “what gets measured, gets done,” and this has a direct correlation to buy-in.  The challenge can be around getting the data – fully appreciating what others care most about and how they are evaluated.

A medical device company that had been dominant in their space, was facing growing challenges caused by an emerging competitor.  The competitor was getting innovative products to market faster, and building market share faster than anyone at the company had anticipated. 

The challenge in their response centered around how three core functions would be able to work together:  sales, supply chain, and product development.  Legacy metrics were getting in the way of speeding up time to market, with sales focused on revenue from existing products, supply chain focused on quality, and product development focused on innovation and emerging data from the surgeons using their products. 

The company was able to work through a range of approaches to articulate the significant go-to-market vision they were aspiring to, honor how performance had been measured in the past, and shape cross-functional efforts to align around speed-to-market goals.  Once people truly felt heard and were able to connect speed-to-market to what they were most passionate about – and how they saw themselves being successful – buy-in soared, and their results followed. 

Building buy-in is not just a crucial aspect of achieving success in organizational change—it’s an essential component that requires deliberate strategies and thoughtful approaches. From framing resistance to inviting leaders into the work and understanding what matters most to key stakeholders, fostering buy-in demands a multifaceted approach. By implementing the techniques outlined—capturing the balance, extending invitations into the work, and learning what truly matters—organizations can cultivate a culture of engagement and alignment, driving transformative change with confidence and effectiveness.