You’ve Got Buy-In, So Why Is Your Project Derailing?

The Perils of Buy-in

The project had a $30m upside across multiple divisions. Everyone agreed it was a no brainer. They’d given it a cool name and had an elaborate comms plan. They’d spent over $1m on project management and on the external consultants with the impressive track record and proprietary process. Stakeholders were being managed. And it was clearly dying in the ass.

Classic wicked problem.

The signs were clear. Senior stakeholders sending subordinates to the meetings or cancelling at the last minute — everything else was a bigger priority. The external consultants were being given the runaround, and were being met with everything from polite indifference to passive aggressive resistance to outright hostility. But it was still a great idea. It definitely needed to be done. They had all “bought in”.

Or had they?

“Buy-in” is a landmine waiting to go off. Why? Because it usually involves telling, not listening. Getting buy-in is a sales pitch, not consultation or engagement. Rarely does it mean any more than “Go for it, so long as I don’t lose out or have to do anything extra” or “anything to get you out of my face or keep my job safe”.

Getting buy-in is a sales pitch, not consultation or engagement. 

In this case that was the optimistic version. I was asked to see if design thinking could help get the project back on track. Being a human-centred approach, that’s where we started — with the humans. This was supposed to be a cross-divisional collaboration, a “one company” initiative, yet the key stakeholders had never even met each other. And while they had been interviewed and “managed”, it had been a tick-box exercise in delivering information and gathering data requirements.

We decided to hold a design workshop for all the key stakeholders, not so we could update them on the solution or get them to agree on a new structure for this particular thing, but so they could work together to design a solution that worked for them in the broader context of their various responsibilities.

And the true objective of the workshop itself was not to design anything, but to regain some trust and get as many as possible actually engaged in the process. But before we could do that, we had to find out what was going on. We needed to understand and empathise with where they were at. So we met with each of them, asked a couple of questions, and listened.

What was going on for them? What were their priorities? What were the headaches? What were they trying to achieve? What did this project mean in that context? How did they feel about it? What were their concerns?

As always, it was not about the project so much as what it signified. What it meant to them.

As always, it was not about the project itself so much as what it signified. What it meant to them. Most of them agreed with the goal in principle, but not the approach, and “not on their turf”. Few understood how other business units worked, and were adamant that a “one size fits all solution” was impossible. The project was pitched as a logistics exercise but most saw it as threatening valuable business relationships that they relied on to do their job. They felt ignored or patronised. Many saw it as a demotivating or even threatening indictment of their judgement and their teams’ capabilities. For a significant number it was “a change too far”, pushing them to breaking point or symbolising the unwelcome changes to their beloved company. Even the ones who were genuinely positive said that it just didn’t make their list of priorities.

Buy-in my ass. No wonder the project had stalled.

The listening paid off. They felt heard, so they came to the workshop. We presented all the (anonymised) comments back to them to discuss, so they felt publicly validated. Then instead of leaping into solution mode, we had them talk to each other about their jobs and what they loved and what they were trying to achieve. We had them talk about their teams and their customers and the experiences and expectations that those groups had. About where the company was headed and what the marketplace was like. And then, once the group had finally formed and the defensiveness had diminished, we had them discuss the project. What it meant, how it might work, how it might impact their business, and what would have to be true for it to add value.

Result? The project was back on the table. Not flying off to a guaranteed success, but definitely alive and kicking, and the stakeholders felt more strategically relevant and part of the “one company” than ever before. (Plus it made a pleasant change from constant fire-fighting).

The value wasn’t in their buy-in — it was in their engagement.

Without engaged people, projects will fail. 

Without engaged people, projects will fail.

And failing to listen, failing to truly understand and communicate with the people the project depends on, while instead opting for tick-box stakeholder management and comms blasts is a fast track to crippling a project.

So when planning your stakeholder management process to attract buy-in consider:

  • What will this mean to them? What’s at stake? What will they gain or lose? How important or relevant is it to them?
  • What capacity do they have? How many other projects are they juggling and what’s their overall workload? What are their priorities?
  • How disruptive will it be?
  • How enforceable is it?
  • What do they need to understand? And what do they need you to understand?

You might not like what you hear, but what you hear will give you a much better shot at running a successful project. Sounds obvious in hindsight, yet I’ve seen very few projects that believe they can afford to invest that time up front. Their deadlines are too urgent. They are afraid their idea won’t be validated. Everyone else is an idiot. It’s not efficient. So they fix the plan and opt for buy-in instead. No wonder 70% of major projects fail. And the bigger the project the higher the failure rate.

Buy-in guarantees nothing. Want your project to succeed?

Listen. Empathise. Engage.


Interested in more insights into how to use design thinking and creative approaches to navigate your messy strategic problems? Get in touch to see how I might be able to help.

And don’t forget to check out “Wicked Wisdom: Creative approaches to the problems that drive us crazy” — available here.


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