Fortune Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How do you get buy in for a new idea? is written by Ernest Gundling, managing partner at Aperian Global.
Winning support for a new idea or direction has never been easy. For many reasons, groups don’t readily embrace change, and whether we seek to impact employees in our own offices or remote team members on the other side of the world, there will always be resistance. This can stem from contrasting market environments and priorities, perceived risks that outweigh future benefits, entrenched interests, pressures to achieve existing goals, budgetary and resource limitations, or even the inertia of established habits.
In our own work in global talent development, for example, we have seen a trend in which products that we have previously offered to client companies in a business-to-business format are now moving to business-to-customer transactions. Rather than relying on their own employers for what they need, many people are sourcing these products and services directly online. We want to provide them with the solutions they need, but enabling large-scale B2C transactions requires real buy in from employees in several different geographic regions.
Here’s what we learned in rolling out this B2C initiative:
What looks like a valuable proprietary resource in one region may seem like more of a commodity in another. We’ve had to consider how to best balance the needs of a rapidly changing market in one location that appears to be hungry for these B2C offerings with the interests of other regions that don’t want us to enable local competitors by making our intellectual property so widely available. When you’re building a case for change, it is important to create a sense of urgency around a business model that is declining, and point to where the existing trend lines are headed.
Reflect on history
Compared to many of our B2B sales, the doubters say, most online transactions will be smaller. They’re right. Much of what we’re currently experimenting with is unproven and the volume is small — at first. Yet within our own history, we can point to a current product line that was once small and unproven but now provides almost a third of our revenue. Reminding your team of the company’s history and creating a track record for the new product line based on structured experimentation are two ways to address such natural skepticism.
Reinforce persuasion with infrastructure
While gaining buy in requires persuading others to support a new direction, you might still be swimming upstream because your people have been effectively recruited, trained, equipped and rewarded to do other things. The change we are making is like starting a new business, but inside of an existing business. This can actually be more difficult because people need to unlearn previous patterns of success while learning new ones, and some may be most comfortable remaining within the old system — even in a dwindling business. We’ve found that we need to tackle the infrastructure issues one at a time: marketing methods, database links, software, pricing, payment methods, and so on. Only in this way can we begin to covert conceptual buy in into larger-scale customer engagement and actual business results.
Establish new priorities
We’re currently in the mode of borrowing employees’ time from other products and priorities. Even if they’re convinced of the potential value of our new direction, employees who are on loan from other projects can only provide limited support. True buy in requires full commitment. The success of the new venture should be your primary goal and yardstick for your own success.
Based on past experience, at some point soon we will have to “go big or go home,” or move from structured experimentation and modifications based on customer feedback to scaling up and making larger bets. That means changing from an organization that tolerates experimentation on the side to one that fully embraces the new business model across all of our geographies and functions. Otherwise, we’ll need to pull the plug and call the experiment a failure. Although some arm-twisting may be necessary to get things rolling initially, buy in ultimately can’t be forced. It must be earned based on customer feedback, a gradual accumulation of results, and our growing, shared conviction that this is the right way to go.
Ernest is coauthor of Leading Across New Borders: How to Succeed as the Center Shifts (Wiley, Sept. 28).
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