How “Buy-In” Gets It Wrong

By Ella Ingram & Kerice Doten-Snitker

Change leaders know that the agreement, support, and participation of others is necessary for successful change. They may hear about the need to gain “buy-in” (often focusing on surly faculty members or those all-important department heads). They may be admonished by others who say, “You have to get buy-in or this project will never go.” They spend a lot of time thinking about how to make buy-in happen. In the noble work of change, change agents spend considerable mental energy and social capital on buy-in.

The problem is that buy-in represents only one engagement goal. A change agent with a focus on buy-in invites varied problems. Buy-in is an incomplete approach to engaging with stakeholders because:

  • it is hierarchical and one-way, instead of collaborative;
  • it appears to be a first step that can be checked off a list, when the reality is that issues that block change require ongoing engagement; and
  • its perspectives match dysfunctional aspects of academic units (e.g., buy-in is oppositional) rather than fitting the approach of highly functional units.

We recommend a different strategy for change agents–one that is more holistic, on-going, and empowering to stakeholders. This strategy amplifies project success, provides new and exciting insight to problems, envisions new solutions and teams, and builds bridges instead of hierarchies between change leaders and their colleagues. The strategy? Creating shared vision. We contend that shared vision supersedes buy-in. Shared vision by its nature helps change be more sustainable and more institutionalized than change based solely on buy-in.

Our evidence for this advice derives from our experience and research with change projects and the change agents who lead them.  For the last three years, we’ve work alongside the NSF REvolutionizing engineering and computer science Departments (RED) grant awardees. Our project involves participatory action research with the 19 RED teams, exploring skills advancement, team dynamics, change processes, and more. By working with the RED teams, we discovered critical differences between garnering buy-in and creating shared vision.

Shared vision is inclusive; buy-in is exclusive.

When change agents focus on buy-in, they establish the people with the answers (the change agents) and the people with the questions (those from who buy-in is desired). In contrast, change agents pursuing shared vision erase the traditional divide between who asks questions and who contributes answers. Shared vision is by definition inclusive of varied voices and varied perspectives. An inclusive approach demonstrates a commitment to relationships that build lasting coalitions, the essence of shared vision.

Shared vision is enacted broadly; buy-in is focused narrowly.

When change agents focus on buy-in, they often think of the known population of curmudgeons (what we call CAVE people: Colleagues Against Virtually Everything). Great anxiety is attached to facing the CAVE people. We recommend Kotter & Whitehead’s excellent book Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea From Getting Shot Down for handling CAVE people. In contrast, a shared vision approach looks to varied stakeholders and identifies what information those individuals need to understand and contribute to this idea. In academia, stakeholders extend way beyond faculty and administration, to include students, staff, industrial advisors, student affairs professionals, K12 partners, policy makers, community members, and more.

Shared vision is empowering; buy-in is authorizing.

When change agents focus on buy-in, they are saying, “You can approve or disapprove, or participate or not participate in my project.” In contrast, a shared vision approach puts the change agent in an invitation stance, saying, “Your contributions are welcome and valued in this work. Come, let’s do this together.” Empowering stakeholders looks like asking them to match their motivations and skills to meaningful roles in the change project. Stakeholders become fellow producers of change, not recipients of change.

Change agents can find success by imbuing their work with a shared vision approach. Such an approach reaches out to a broad stakeholder base to ask for their ideas. It takes the stance of “How can we improve this proposal together?” over “Do you accept this proposal?” It explores how anyone who wants to participate can contribute their strengths, over specifying who should participate and how. Creating shared vision never stops; a change agent should always be building shared vision.

Creating shared vision is much harder to enact than garnering buy-in. It takes more time, more listening, more negotiating, and more reflection. But shared vision is worth it.

For more information on creating shared vision, please see Developing a Shared Vision for Change (ASEE paper) and Developing a Shared Vision for Change: Moving toward Inclusive Empowerment (archived preprint manuscript). For more information on the RED program, please see our website Academic Change (RED).

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