Screw buy-in… start a grassroots revolution instead

Posted November 8, 2011 in Latest News & Insights

Over the past few weeks I feel like I’ve been having lots of conversations about projects, programs, ideas and initiatives that are being stalled or derailed because of “lack of buy-in”.  It got me thinking that sometimes getting buy-in is completely over-rated and what you need to do instead is start your own grassroots revolution.

One of the things you’re always taught about leading new initiatives and making change stick is that it has to start at the top and you need to have the buy-in from the top to make things happen.  There’s no question there’s truth to that approach and it’s easiest when the people at the top are fully bought in to the initiative (which frankly means it usually has to contain some type of “what’s in it for me” element).

The problem, as I see it, occurs when there isn’t an immediate and evident “what’s in it for me” for the executive team to rally around and actually drive the initiative.  Most of the time, I see this happen around anything that smacks of being “soft”.  For example, I challenge you to find many senior executives who wouldn’t say publicly “people are our most important asset” and yet many of their actions seem to shout: “shareholders are our most important asset”.

So, what can you do if you’re leading something that is lacking the senior level support you think it needs?   Start a grassroots revolution instead.  Here’s how you do it:

  1. Start small… Forget trying to roll your project out across the full business even if the senior team is telling you to do it that way... pick an area, get some wins and build on it.  Call it a “pilot” so that people who are skeptical about the long-term viability of your project don’t derail it.
  2. Choose your pilot area wisely… pick a part of the business where the senior leader is onside with your idea and, best, if they carry clout at the senior table.  It’s important for any cause to have champions/supports in influential places.
  3. Leverage testimonials… instead of running around trying to sell the benefits of what you’re doing to the rest of the organization or senior stakeholders, enlist the people who are onside already to do the talking for you.
  4. Talk business results relentlessly… this is especially important if you’re leading anything “soft”.  The most crucial thing about having a grassroots initiative work is the ability to demonstrate concretely how it’s driving business results.  If you don’t know how what you’re doing is hitting either the top or bottom-lines, stop and re-evaluate why you’re doing it in the first place.

Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson started a grassroots revolution at Best Buy when they initiated the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE).  My guess is that if their approach had gone through “proper channels” and had “executive buy-in”, it would never have seen the light of day.

So, next time you’re getting frustrated because that company wide roll-out you’re leading isn’t getting traction, think about spending less time whipping up another powerpoint presentation for the executive team and more time making it happen outside your own door (or cubicle).  Who knows where your revolution will take you?

Happy leading!


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  1. Giselle says:

    Totally agree! A bottom up approch can be very successful. Keep an eye out for trends in the organization, leverage successes and wins, and build excitement around them. If you chose wisely, it can positively influence company culture and the bottom line. Executive buy-in will follow. Not quite as simplistic as it sounds, but it can and does work. We built on our people’s passion for sustainability, formalized strategies, engaged more broadly and everyone has benefitted as a result. Employees satisfaction is high and the company has been recognized as a global leader – that’s win-win!

    • LeaderTalker says:

      Thanks Giselle for sharing your example. I was thinking about how Steve Jobs used to say something along the lines that the customer doesn’t always know what they need… I think sometimes companies/executive teams don’t always know what they need either. I think there are lots of opportunities that leaders have to start initiatives and create ripple effects that ultimately lead to the win-win you describe. Kudo’s! And thanks for dropping by with a comment.