It has often been said, people support what they help create. A common myth is that leaders are more open to change than others. It’s not true. Leaders more commonly initiate change, which creates the illusion they are more receptive to it. It’s the authority, not the creativity of leaders that makes us think they are more open to change. Just like everyone else, leaders support what they help create.
The bigger the idea, the more disruptive the change, the more important it is to get appropriately timed buy-in from the people who will be affected by what’s coming next. One of the mistakes leaders often make is believing the change initiative should be fully developed and ready for primetime before it is unveiled.
It can take weeks of behind closed doors processing to go from a raw idea to a fully formed presentation. The extended processing time gets translated into a one-hour presentation where the idea that started on the “back of a napkin” is shared in a “marketing ready slide deck.” Too often this produces resistance from followers who may not be rejecting the idea as much as desiring the opportunity to work through their own process of understanding and engaging it.
Four Stages of Big Idea Buy-In
I’ve identified four stages of big idea buy-in to help me apply the principle that people support what they help create. I call them the Napkin Stage, the Whiteboard Stage, the White Paper/Deck Stage, and the Market Ready Stage. Each stage informs who to include and when to engage them as the big idea is being developed.
Napkin Stage: The napkin stage is when the idea is just being formed. It doesn’t literally have to be on a napkin, but some good ideas have started that way, usually over coffee. At this point in the process the idea is almost entirely verbal or limited to information that could fit on the back of a napkin. Two groups of people should be included at the napkin stage. First, those you will most need to own and sell the idea. Second, those who could add unique value, often because of subject matter expertise.
Beware of trying to pitch these groups with a flashy, market ready slide deck as the first exposure. You will be communicating the wrong message, suggesting you already have this figured out. People are less likely to give you honest feedback and ground floor buy-in if they believe the idea-train has already left the station.
White Board Stage: The whiteboard stage takes the conversation from the “coffee shop” to the “conference room.” The expectation is that you have given this more thought but you are still using dry erase so there is opportunity for input. You can lay out your idea with passion and energy but still ask with credibility, “What do you think?”
Again, thinking about the level of ownership required and the potential for value-added input can guide your decision about who to include at the whiteboard stage.
White Paper/Deck Stage: The white paper/deck stage takes the conversation to the next level. Some organizations (Amazon is famous for this) use white papers to convey ideas and ban slide decks. Others prefer the visual option. Either way, this is design free idea only documentation. It is more carefully thought through than the dry erase markers on a white board but still an internal documentation of the idea that is not ready for primetime.
Market Ready Stage: The market ready stage is the presentation you will make about the change initiative to the widest audience in your organization. It might sample some external marketing copy and design to show you are ready but is primarily and internal sales pitch. Depending on the size of your organization, as many as half the people in the room for this pitch may have already engaged the idea and raised their questions at one of the earlier stages.
We can visualize these four stages, and the two variables, in a simple graph.
Ultimately you want as many people as possible to embrace your idea. But not everyone will need the same level of ownership to get it done, and not everyone will add the same level of value to make it better. The more ownership required and the more potential value that could be added, the earlier you need to include them in the process.
If you found this helpful, check out the latest episode of Learning @ the Speed of Life, Why We Miss Opportunities that Come with Big Change and How to Flip the Script with One Question.