Did You Get Buy-In or All-in?


What question are you asking and what answer are you looking for when you ask for executive buy-in?

You’ve no doubt heard the “can or may” challenge in grammar. A student might ask the teacher, “Can I go to the bathroom?” The teacher then jokes, “You can, but you may not,” meaning the student is able to leave the room but does not have permission to do so.

When looking for executive buy-in for a new project, people sometimes make a business case that’s the equivalent of asking “Can I innovate?”  In other words, they simply inform their leaders of what they plan to do. The attitude is, “If you want to stop me, speak up.”

“May I innovate?” is seeking permission.

In other words, the project can’t move forward without approval.

With either question, think about what you need to or expect to hear in response. The answer is rarely yes or no, stop or go, permission granted or permission denied. What if you asked for one of these more nuanced answers:

  • We’re in strong agreement.
  • We agree.
  • We’re neutral.
  • We disagree.
  • We strongly disagree.

Would these answers change your approach? These five choices make up the Likert scale, a widely used approach to scaling responses in survey-based research. It’s most useful when trying to understand unobservable characteristics, such as attitudes, feelings, or strength of opinion.   

I recently worked with a senior director of marketing who made a “May I?” business case to create a new role for herself along with a centralized content strategy. She brought in consultants, did the financial analysis, assembled the budget, and laid out the 12-month roadmap for executing this change. The executive committee agreed and approved her project.     

About six months into her project, though, the company experienced a small budget shakeup. Her project – and subsequently her new role – was put on indefinite hold. She was confused and disappointed. As it turns out, the executive committee only approved her project because they could find no strong objection to anything in her plan. No one felt excited about or even desired the change. She’d made an efficient business case with solid performance metrics none of them could say no to. But she hadn’t made them care. So, when it came time to defend it against other budget issues, no one felt strongly enough to back it.

You don’t always need a gushing endorsement before moving forward with a new idea.

Too often, I’ve seen innovative projects never attempted just because bosses didn’t squeal with delight when they heard about them. Still, it’s useful to understand that executives’ buy-in doesn’t mean they’re “all in” when it comes to your ideas.

As you assemble new ideas to tackle, you’ll be challenged to assemble data, arguments, best cases, and identified risks before you ask “Can I?” or “May I?” Just make sure you understand which question you’re asking and what answer you need to move forward.

It\’s your story. Tell it well.

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