“Buy In” vs. “Ownership”

By Guy Higgins

I can’t even begin to estimate the number of times I have heard someone in a leadership position say something like, “We need to get buy in from everyone on this initiative.”  That kind of statement raises my hackles.  I think that there are a number of things that are just wrong with the entire concept.

  • “Buy in” implies that the initiative or decision is not one that will be welcomed with open arms by the “buyers.”  If the initiative were a widely welcomed one (we’re going to give everyone a 50% pay raise), there would be no need to get people to “buy in” to the idea.  Since the initiative or decision has to be “sold” to people, it is probably not a welcome one and will require some significant effort to truly develop support for it.  I think that this is both an ineffective and an inefficient way to generate support for initiatives or decisions.
  • The fact that the sponsors of the initiative or decision need to get buy in means that the initiative or decision was made in isolation with limited or no input from the people to whom it’s to be sold or who would be affected.  (A related note: Making a decision in a silo is not a good idea – people can fall prey to many decision-making pathologies while, simultaneously, failing to take advantage of diverse, alternative solutions or approaches.)
  • People know when they are being “sold” something, and that recognition can create distrust or even outright hostility to the initiative or decision being “sold.”

So, what’s a better way?

A better way is involve the affected people or a representative number of the affected people – to have them participate, at some appropriate level, in the creation of the initiative or decision.  This participation must be real, and leadership must be prepared to modify or even abandon their own ideas in the face of better ones (not always as easy as it sounds – my ideas always sound better to me than someone else’s ideas.  If my idea weren’t a good one, I wouldn’t have had it).

A transparent process that is rigorously followed and in which stakeholders participate provides a number of advantages:

  • It can bring diverse perspectives into the process, improving the likelihood of achieving a better result
  • It can bring additional information and knowledge into the process, again improving the likelihood of achieving a better result
  • It creates a sense of ownership throughout the organization.  Investing the equivalent of “sweat equity” into an initiative or decision generates a deep appreciation of the work and integrity involved in the effort, and results in a feeling of ownership – “our” initiative rather than “their” initiative.

Creating ownership is never easy – in fact, it’s almost always harder than simply announcing the initiative or decision and assuming (or pretending) that people have accepted it (only to find that lackluster support marginalizes or even dooms it in the long run).  Creating ownership requires a great deal of work on the part of leadership, but it yields much better results – and that’s what leaders should be looking for.

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