Playing To Win

How to Get Buy-in for Your Strategy

Just [Don't] Do It!

Source: Roger L. Martin, 2022

Probably the question I get asked most often is how to get buy-in for strategy. I guess people observe that strategies that I work on — either my own or ones for clients — appear to have produced action and results, so they think I have the secret to effective buy-in. I do and I don’t. To explain, I decided to write my 18th Year II Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) piece on How to Get Buy-in for Your Strategy: Just [Don’t] Do It! You can find all previous PTW/PI here.

Cognitive Dominance in Strategy

Buy-in is one of a handful of strategy concepts that have achieved cognitive dominance, a state that is achieved when you don’t even consider whether to take a particular point of view once thinking about a subject. It is so dominant that it is an automatic feature of your mental landscape.

In strategy, one such cognitively dominant element is that you must have a thing called a strategic plan. It is not allowable to not have a strategic plan. Your strategic plan can contain just about anything you want. But the absolute default assumption is that you must have one. If you are a CEO and announce to your board that you aren’t going to do a strategic plan, chances are you will be fired.

A second element is that you must implement the strategic plan. If you don’t implement, nothing happens, and you will be seen to have failed to execute — and that is unacceptable. So, accompanying the strategic plan is an implementation plan. Again, if you don’t have this element, chances are you will be fired for incompetence.

A third element is that the path to implementation runs directly through buy-in without exception. You must achieve organizational buy-in to the strategic plan for it to be implemented.

Other strategy elements have near cognitive dominance. You should start a strategic planning process with a SWOT analysis. Boards of directors should have a strategy day every year. But those have a cognitive dominance at the should level. Only the big three — strategic plan, implementation, and buy in — have cognitive dominance at the must level.

Despite these musts, most readers would know by now that I am no fan of strategic plans. I love strategy and hate strategic plans, as I wrote about in this series. And I have a longstanding antipathy for the concept of implementation/execution and wrote a Harvard Business Review article, The Execution Trap, about it over a decade ago. On both these fronts, I believe that cognitive dominance is both thorough and debilitating.

So, you may well imagine that I might have a non-traditional view of the third element, buy-in, and, if so, your imagination would be correct.

The Concept of Buy-in

To review, you formulate your strategic plan and then to proceed to the implementation phase, you must get buy-in to your strategic plan. The cognitive dominance of buy-in is so complete that there are many dictionary definitions of buy-in that take this exact business meaning.

For example, Merriam-Webster defines buy-in as:

“Acceptance of and willingness to actively support and participate in something (such as a proposed new plan or policy)”

The Cambridge English Dictionary definition is even better:

“The fact of agreeing with, accepting, or supporting something that another person suggests or does.”

But the one that captures the cognitive dominance best is Your Dictionary with:

“The definition of a buy-in is an agreement to do something, even though the person agreeing didn’t have anything to do with the project beforehand.”

It captures the attributes of modern business meaning best. The object is agreement — the object of your buy-in may not be happy; may not concur logically; but agrees to do the required thing. And that is despite having zero to do with the project up until that blessed event. Trust the online upstart to be most up to date on what really goes on in business. That is just not Cambridge English Dictionary’s thing.

So, to summarize, the core concept is that the formulators come up with something that they need to get you to support and participate in. You weren’t involved at all in the formulation. But your buy-in is needed for the nitty-gritty of ‘implementation.’

Application of My Core Rule for Business

To get to better solutions, I always apply my core rule for business. It is not my creation or anything at all new. It is the Golden Rule, which is a centerpiece of all the world’s major religions and is most commonly stated as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

On buy-in, I always ask buy-in enthusiasts: Who here likes to be on the receiving end of a buy-in session? And I am specific. The situation is that somebody has come up with a conclusive answer. That person wants to review it with you. And the only thing the person wants is for you to say yes.

The 100% reaction — though often grudgingly because they figure out where I am heading — is that they hate it. So, I ask why do it to someone else then? Do you think they will have a different reaction than you? The answer — again grudgingly — is of course not. They hate it too.

Buy-in is in the broad category of business actions that violate the Golden Rule, which are generally going to end badly. That would include treating your customers as cash machines, as did Purdue Pharmaceuticals — would you like to have someone purposely turn you into a hopeless addict because it helps them earn obscene profits? It is like treating your employees, suppliers, and even customers (via fake ratings) badly because you are so overwhelmingly powerful that you can, like Amazon. This is one reason why the current craziness in corporate procurement is going to end badly. Companies are now enthusiastically treating their suppliers in ways that they would absolutely hate to be treated by their customers — and haven’t noted the irony. Good luck with that!

Because it so grossly violates the Golden Rule, there is no use trying to make buy-in more thorough or do it in a kinder, gentler way. It is a bad idea and that is why ‘getting buy-in’ is so hard.

A Different Conceptualization

The current conceptualization is: You need to buy-in to my formulation so that you can engage in implementation of what I want. Seriously — who wants to be on the receiving end of that job? Do you? I didn’t think so. This conceptualization simultaneously demonstrates too much and too little respect for your subordinates.

It shows too much respect in that your job entails making a particular set of decisions with which the formal allocation of decision rights tasked you. CEOs have certain decision rights. CFOs have others. BU Presidents have others. Sales VPs have others. You don’t need the approval of your subordinates for the decisions you were tasked with making. It is your job not theirs. It is not even their job to opine on how your choices make them feel.

At the same time, it shows too little respect in that it relegates them to just implementing. I made the choices and now you are doing. As I have pointed out before, that is a complete fallacy. The reason you are having a buy-in session with them, whether you know it or not, is that they need to make real choices — remarkably like your choices — for your strategy to succeed. They cavil at being told they are implementing when it is just not true in any meaningful sense. You are making choices under uncertainty, constraints, and competition. They are making choices under uncertainty, constraints, and competition.

Instead, you need to inform them of your choice and ask them to get to work — the hard work — of making a consistent set of choices in their domain of responsibility.

Let me provide an example.

When I was appointed Dean of the Rotman School of Management, I inherited a School with a dreadful competitive position. We needed to fix it and make it a consequential global school. That meant competing globally on the global aspects of our operation — like the full-time MBA program and faculty research. It also meant competing locally in catchment area programs like the part-time MBA and (in-person) EMBA (because in both, prospective students only have relatively local options because they are working full-time). All our degree programs were laggards including EMBA, which was distinctly inferior to both our key local competitors.

As Dean, I made the strategy decision that we would only offer programs that had a winning WTP/HTW strategy (surprise, surprise) and we would exit any program that couldn’t achieve a winning position. Of course, I sought the advice of my senior team, students, alumni, and university administration as I considered my strategy choice. I bounced ideas off them, tested solutions, etc. To have not done so would have been stupid. But in the end, I made the strategy decision that my boss, the Provost of the University of Toronto, had appointed me to make.

After making the strategy choice for the Rotman School, I went to EMBA Director Beatrix Dart, who I had recently hired and informed her my overall strategy decision, explained the reasoning behind it, and discussed the implications for her program. That is, the Rotman EMBA would have to be reinvented to become the best program in the catchment area or be shut down.

I didn’t tell her how to do that. That would have been nuts. She knew much more about the EMBA competitive landscape than I did. I let her know that I understood she had a hard strategy task in figuring out how to accomplish that goal. I offered to support her in any way that she needed or wanted, including making a substantial investment in the program. And I sent her off.

She completely redesigned it, converting it a one-year accelerated program with attractive features that her competitors didn’t have. It became the most successful EMBA in the catchment area and the turnaround was so impressive that Beatrix was often invited to international business school conferences to talk about her redesign.

I never asked for or got her buy-in. I asked for her to figure out a clever strategy choice that was consistent with my strategy choice. I got it in spades! That is Strategic Choice Chartering in action, which I have covered previously. A key component of it is to also say to that subordinate: If you can’t do what I asked, then I will revisit my choice. For example, if all the programs had come back and told me that I needed to shut them down because they couldn’t find a way to win, there would have been no school left and my choice would have nonsensical. But none did and the rest is history.

Nobody’s time was wasted on buy-in sessions. That useless activity was substituted with Strategic Choice Chartering, a benefit of which is that numerous leaders in the organization, including Beatrix, are justifiably proud of the role they played in designing — not just ‘implementing’ — a winning strategy for the Rotman School.

Practitioner Insights

Stop engaging in buy-in. Even if you are powerful enough to force on your subordinates something that you loathe being forced on you, your longevity in your role will suffer if you cram buy-in down their throats.

Instead: do your job! Make only the decisions that you are more capable of making than anybody else. Explain these decisions to your subordinates and then ask (very nicely) that they make the decisions which they are better equipped to make than you are because they are one degree closer to the business, function, geography in question than you are.

If you do, you will have overcome one of the cognitively dominant but destructive elements of strategy.

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Roger Martin

Roger Martin

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.