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Stakeholder Buy-In: the Secret to Project Success

Posted on December 14, 2016 at 12:58 PM

By Andrea May

It's been said that change is the only constant in life. I believe, however, that life holds one more constant: human beings are wired to resist change. In fact, it's been proven that our cognitive biases drive us to maintain the status quo. What's more, our resistance increases when benefit of change to us as individuals (the "WIIFM") is unclear or absent.

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In his article, How to Get a Stakeholder to Buy in on a Project, Scott Shpak provides a clear definition of project stakeholders:

A stakeholder is any person or group that affects, or is affected by a particular project. Along the path to completing your project, stakeholders can be partners, resources or roadblocks -- and potentially all three rolled into one. Stakeholder buy-in, the cooperation or positive participation of a stakeholder, is the preferred condition for any successful project.

In my experience designing and implementing training programs, I would go so far as to say that the positive participation of project stakeholders at all levels is not just a preferred condition for a successful learning project, it is imperative for success.

Let's say your organization or internal client is implementing a new company-wide system, and training is required to get everyone up to speed and ready for the change. You and your team should be able to sign-up everyone for the appropriate training, get them through their courses, and have everyone ready to start using the new system on day one, right?

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Nope. Not right. In fact, that approach is practically guaranteed to fail.

The reason this approach would fail is buy-in or, more specifically, a lack of buy-in at one or more levels of the organization.

In this scenario, a handful of people at the top levels of the organization have bought-in to the idea that a new system will improve efficiency, eliminate redundancy, and have a positive impact on the bottom line. They bought into this idea to the extent that they authorized a large sum of money to purchase and implement the new system, and have assigned the project to people in a position to make the project happen.

Here’s where buy-in begins to break down. Many executives don't make the effort to help gain buy-in from everyone, from those just below them, all the way down to the people who will use the new system every day to do their jobs. Instead, the project team itself is usually expected to gain this buy-in.

The project team is at the forefront of the impending change and is in the best position to communicate the details of how the change will impact each stakeholder group.  Too often the team is overwhelmed with tasks that seem more urgent, and fails to identify and understand the views of critical  stakeholder groups. This limits the project team’s ability to create targeted communications. 

So How Do I Gain Buy-In?

An article titled How to Engage Stakeholders and Gain Management Buy-In by Martin Webster provides this advice to project teams:

There are stakeholders and then there are stakeholders! So, identify them all and work out their needs. Think about the people you need to deliver the project. Think about the people your change will affect. Think about the people who are watching what you do. A project manager needs to identify his allies and his enemies and then develop strategies for dealing with them. Work out who wants you to succeed and who does not. Then find out what are their success criteria and their fears by talking and listening to them.

During a company-wide system implementation, the project training team must go even further. The team needs to identify end-user subgroups, along with groups that have an interest in seeing the end-users succeed or fail.

Then, the training team (or communications team, or change team), must communicate regularly with each of these groups to make sure that the needs of each end-user group are being addressed.

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It takes time for people to accept, and ultimately buy into, your change. To successfully implement a significant change, communicate early and often with your stakeholder groups. The importance of stakeholder commitment can't be overstated.

Our team often thinks about the process of engaging stakeholders in terms of Head, Heart, and Hands.

  • Frequent targeted communications help the head to understand, intellectually, why the change is necessary.
  • Next, stakeholders come to believe in their hearts that the change is the right thing to do for the company and themselves personally. This is buy-in in its purest form.
  • Finally, the hands must become competent through training and practice to bring the change to fruition.

Here are five specific steps you can take on your next project to improve stakeholder buy-in:

  1. Identify at least one person on your team who is "on the hook" for stakeholder buy-in. This person should have a background in employee communication, change management, or large-scale program management.
  2. Take time to assess the baseline “buy-in level” of your stakeholders going in to your project by conducting interviews or surveys. This will help you understand stakeholder concerns as well as identify potential pockets of resistance.
  3. Document specific actions senior leaders can take to ensure buy-in at all levels of the organization. Write email templates for them. Set up town hall meetings. Help them help you, by providing step-by-step instructions.
  4. Measure your progress. Conduct stakeholder interviews and surveys throughout the course of your project to see what’s working and what’s not, so you can make adjustments along the way.
  5. Read up on organizational change management. Books like Leading Change and Accelerate by John Kotter are a great place to start.

If You're Not Convinced, Consider the Alternative. 

The absence of buy-in at any level of the organization can derail a project.

  • Lack of buy-in from senior executives can doom a project from the start.
  • Lack of buy-in from the project team causes delays in the timeline.
  • Lack of buy-in from middle managers prevents them from generating enthusiasm for the change among those below them.
  • Lack of buy-in from employees on the front line can throw a wrench in system adoption and create long-term obstacles to project success.

Stakeholder buy-in is the glue that binds all elements of a project together and ensures that the change will actually happen. The absence of stakeholder buy-in can easily turn a multi-million dollar investment into a very expensive lesson about just how resistant to change we all can be. 


Stakeholders aren't the only one who can derail your learning project.  Find out who else might be the culprit and learn how to stop them! Download our Free E-Book!

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Andrea May

Currently Vice President of Instructional Design Services, Andrea joined Dashe & Thomson as Director, ERP Training in 2005 after working with the company as a contract Senior Consultant/Project Lead for almost 5 years in the areas of instructional design, training development, change management and communications. Prior to Dashe & Thomson, Andrea was an SAP Training and Change Management Consultant and Project Lead for DDS, Inc., where she provided consulting services to major companies in the Twin Cities, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Houston, and Saudi Arabia. Andrea specializes in customized instructional design and training development for large-scale ERP implementations, and in recent years her focus has shifted to primarily providing certified employee training programs for the propane industry. She is passionate about helping her clients find the best solutions to their unique training and performance challenges. She is a member of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and the eLearning Guild where she has served as a speaker at their national conferences. At home Andrea is a voracious reader, a long-time Girl Scout Troop Leader, and she does her best to keep up with her teenage and not-quite-teenage daughters.

Organizational Change Management