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Agreement vs Buy-In

Agreement vs Buy-In

agreement versus buy in

Let’s look at a common trap that you have probably seen in your life, work and relationships:

Somebody makes a suggestion, plan, decision or announcement.
They receive a mixture of nods, silence and somewhat reassuring comments.
Having proceeded with the plan, things become a bit more difficult.
People begin to waver, and either withdraw from the planning or start talking about alternatives.
The person who made the plan gets upset, either withdrawing back into their shell, or making angry comments about those who are balking from the arrangement.
Everyone is upset, but nobody is sorry.

Sound familiar?
Here are a three examples:

This week Australia changed its Prime Minister – a huge but not uncommon decision.
The Liberal Party agreed to support Peter Dutton in challenging Malcolm Turnbull.
The challenge worked, and Turnbull stepped down.
Immediately seeing that Dutton would be a terrible leader, the party then held a three-way vote for the new leader, with Scott Morrison appearing out of nowhere to become the new Prime Minister.
Scott Morrison isn’t really that different to Malcolm Turnbull, so what went wrong?
Dutton got his party’s agreement, but not their buy-in.
That is, they agreed to go along with the easy bit – kicking out the PM, but not the hard bit – choosing Peter Dutton as the new leader.
Everyone is upset, but nobody is sorry.

brendon goddard yelling at teammates

AFL player Brendan Goddard has not been offered a new contract by his club Essendon.
Goddard has been one of the best players in the league over the last 10 years, and was brought in to be a veteran presence who improved the younger players.
While Goddard is still a good contributor, his style of leadership has been…ineffective.
He yells at his teammates, but is unapologetic for his own mistakes.
They clearly dislike him, and don’t respond to his abuse.
So now we have a situation where a great player is out of a job, because he doesn’t get buy-in from those around him.
His comments are technically correct, but don’t influence the behaviour of others.
Worse still, every other club has seen this play out, and feel that his skills on the field are undermined by the bad energy he brings to the team.
Everybody is upset, but nobody is sorry.

Someone in your team suggests that you all start using Salesforce, and everyone shrugs or nods.
You buy the software, create accounts and enter your client’s details.
Things get busier and you stop logging in each day, or don’t copy your client messages to the new system.
The person who suggested Salesforce starts making passive aggressive comments, noting that people aren’t taking them (and Salesforce) seriously.
Three months later, the system is abandoned and people voice their concerns about why Salesforce doesn’t work for your business.
Most of these reasons aren’t that hard to address, and could have been spotted earlier.
Everybody is upset, but nobody is sorry.

Agreement and Buy-in sound like the same thing, but there’s a difference beneath the surface: how much people are willing to pay.
Agreement is where a group of people go along with a suggestion.
This might be through indifference, willingness to see how things play out, or even the lack of a better alternative.
Buy-In is where each person makes a commitment to a suggestion, choosing to trade off the downsides in order to get the more valuable upsides.
If you’re not sold on the benefits of an idea, you probably won’t be willing to pay the costs that come from committing to the plan.

When we say cost, we’re talking about money, time, energy, nuisance, opportunity cost, risk of embarrassment, etc.
For example, let’s say your friends suggest arranging a holiday in December.
You enjoy talking about the possibilities, and agree that it sounds like a good idea.
Buy-in comes when you take the time off work, say no to other plans, pay for your ticket and accommodation, and have to get up at 4am to catch the early flight.
If those negatives outweigh the positives, you’ll probably bail on the plans or suggest modifications that annoy the others in your group.

agreement and buy in

Trade-offs are about saying no to good things, in order to say yes to the best things.
Therefore, buy-in is about ensuring that each person sees enough good things in your idea that they won’t hesitate to say no to other options.
For example, you might like the idea of us all doing a half marathon.
You’ll struggle to get me to sign up, until you make me verbalise what I’ll get from the arrangement (e.g. getting fitter, starting a new hobby, achieving something I thought was impossible).
Once I agree that those gains are worth more than the pains (early starts, sore feet, registration fees), I’ll be excited about signing up.

It’s worth noting that buy-in tends to happen at an individual level.
Not just “Here’s what’s good for the group”, rather “Here’s what’s good for you as a member of this group”.

In the article What Type Of Conversation Are We Having? we looked at the five types of conversation – Tell, Sell, Test, Consult, Co-Create.
This is where those last few really shine.
By starting a plan with a Co-Create or Consult approach, you can understand people’s motivations and therefore pitch good tradeoffs.
e.g. “what would be your perfect holiday?” vs “We should all go camping”

This method requires you to know your own dealbreakers, then hold the other details loosely.
i.e. You definitely want to run a fundraiser, but it can be any Saturday in March, it can be a few different types of event, as long as you can get a crowd of 200+.

Once you know those, you can take suggestions and modifications from your group, adapting the details to accommodate their dealbreakers, while explaining the “Why” behind yours
i.e. “I really want it to be a big event, because that will help us raise more money and build a larger tribe, but the exact date is flexible”

There’s a useful rhyme to keep in mind when it comes to persuasion:

“A mind that’s changed against its will
Is of the same opinion still”

You might win an argument and get verbal agreement, but there’s no real buy-in.
As soon as the plan becomes expensive (time, money, energy, saying no to other options), you’ll see people start to flake and back away from the arrangement.

Patrick Lencioni’s meeting structure has an interesting solution:
At the end of a debate, once all views have been heard, the leader makes a decision and everyone is asked to buy-in.
Nobody has been silenced or ignored, and while some people might not have had their favourite option win, they lose the ability to snipe from the sidelines and undermine the decision.
They feel heard, and can raise alternative ways to get what they really want in the future.

Have a think about how these approaches can work for you:
Can you raise objections as early in the design process as possible?

Can you help people articulate their dealbreakers?

Can you explain your dealbreakers and why they exist?

Can your meetings ensure all voices are heard, then ask for commitment at the end?

Can you flag your own lack of buy-in earlier, so that it doesn’t catch others by surprise?


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