08/09/2012 02:47 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

Getting "Buy-In": Mobilizing Commitment To Your Change Program or Strategy

"I say 'Charge!' but when I look behind me, there's no one there."

So says my CEO client as we sit talking at the end of a long day in the quiet and privacy of his inner office. He's detailing for me his version of contemporary management's biggest challenge: mobilizing an organization - in his case a large bank - in the direction of a chosen strategy. In other words, getting "buy-in."

The bank's strategic plan has been developed and "rolled-out." Employee meetings have been held to "cascade the plan down through the organization," as the familiar expression goes. Internal newsletters explain its implications, complete with "up-close and personal" interviews with the CEO and members of his "team." And so on and so on.

Yet, after several months of "campaigning," the new direction has gained little "traction" in the company, and, as he says again, "There's just no one there."

In this age of "gen-X-ers" and "millennials" - tougher-to-sell "knowledge workers" than Peter Drucker ever knew -- what is a contemporary CEO to do? Our short answer would be to stop explaining, dictating and directing and, instead, try "leading."

Organizational "Judo" Anyone?

In our experience, leading successfully is a kind of organizational "judo" that stops trying to "sell," and "install" from above and, instead, generates organizational commitment from within. The kind of leading we're talking about provides real opportunities for people to get involved in actually moving the new game-plan forward in meaningful, measurable ways.

Given the opportunity to get some "skin in the game," people start to become invested in the new strategy or direction. Acknowledgement and praise for what they achieve builds momentum for still more change in the right direction. As a result, the effort quickly becomes "our" program or strategic plan or agenda, and not just "management's." And the resulting positive momentum continues to fuel meaningful action that's aligned with the desired strategy.

But how do you start this "spiral-up" dynamic? How do you step back from directing and dictating and actualize the latent potential that often lies dormant in so many organizations? While it's not necessarily easy - especially if you're not used to it - there is great precedent for this brand of organizational empowerment and mobilization, and, most importantly, it works!

Remember: You're Still in Charge

The first point to be made here is that there is no abdication of executive authority when you engage in this type of activity. None at all. Rather, leading simply means going about it differently, by providing freedom of action for individuals within carefully-defined boundaries. You establish the priority, provide the resources, and maintain oversight, but within that context, you empower freedom of action in line with strategy.

That's the theory. Over more than twenty years, we've worked with scores of senior of executives of all stripes and in all manner of companies and industries to supply the "mechanics" that enable this theory to succeed.

What follows, then, is a concise primer on those mechanics. It explains broadly how to "get out of the way" and enable your people to follow your "lead."

Mobilizing Commitment: The Five Critical Ingredients

In our experience, there are usually five essential elements to involving and empowering the members of your organization relative to your strategic plan or change agenda. These are as follows:

1. Providing Strategic Direction and Oversight

2. Ensuring Effective Cross-Boundary Teaming

3. Applying Sound Process Expertise

4. Defining and Maintaining an Accountability Structure

5. Celebrating and Reinforcing Success

Let's look at these one by one.

Providing Strategic Direction and Oversight

As we said above, empowering your organization doesn't mean abdicating your leadership role. Leaders still define direction. They set strategy. They establish important priorities. They make clear what it is that needs to be fixed, or changed, or created anew.

Once that's done, however, leaders can and should move from the general to the concrete, from the strategic to the tactical, to determine just where meaningful action by employees is not only possible but absolutely necessary. That's where effective teaming comes in.

Effective, Cross-Boundary Teaming

For instance, you are a bank. And you've decided that to distinguish yourself against the competition in your market, you simply must improve your level of service to your customer. Your plan, therefore, contains the goal of achieving "world-class customer service." So much for strategic direction. But what about the concrete? According to your back-office staff, it currently takes you 7 to 9 days - and in some nightmarish situations 10 to 15! - to return a customer's lost or stolen debit card.

Don't look now, but you've just identified a place where a critical team of your people could not only help, but will be absolutely indispensable in removing a glaring obstacle to "world-class" service - if you'll only lead them to it.

It's simply a fact of organizational life that people know the details of their jobs better than their senior managers do. Consequently, the guiding principle here is to identify individuals within the organization who are closest to the problem at hand. This should be done without regard to organizational boundaries internal or external. In other words, all individuals who directly touch or influence a given problem or process should be engaged. If appropriate, customers, suppliers and other "business partners" are also fair game.

This team of internal "experts" must be carefully "chartered," that is their "mission," and "deliverables" must be clearly spelled out. It must be made clear to them what the "scope" of their work is, what "boundaries," if any, are inviolable, and how their success of failure will be measured. This is how you empower within limits. This is how you "lead" members of your organization in the desired direction by giving them a piece of and a stake in "the action."

Using our bank card example above, everyone who touches the lost/stolen debit card replacement process - and perhaps even a representative from the supplier who produces the cards for the bank - might well find themselves on this cross-boundary team. For the simple reason that they, and only they, are the company's resident "experts" on this issue.

Many years ago, we worked for a major appliance manufacturer who was experiencing quality problems: there were simply too many dents showing up in brand new refrigerators. As an astute senior executive with the company observed, "The guys driving the fork lifts in the warehouse are going to be much more helpful in fixing this problem than the vice-president of marketing!"

Our sentiments exactly.

So, you have your team of "experts" identified. Now, you need to "support" them - not direct them - but support them so they can do good work.

Process Expertise - from Inside or Outside

Whether sourced from within your company or from the outside, any effective involvement or team-based program requires support from individuals who understand how to carefully and correctly charter and moderate problem-solving or process-improvement teams.

In our experience, this kind of support often exists within the human resources function. In larger companies, capabilities within human resources may be completely sufficient to support the effort. We've also seen situations where human resources supplies some of the needed support and gets help from outside providers or consultants. And, of course, in smaller companies, support for involvement teams might have to be completely outsourced.

Whatever your situation, solid process support is a must. There is no worse outcome than allowing teams to fail in their first attempts. This demotivates and takes positive energy out of the system - exactly the opposite of the dynamic you want to create.

Well-defined Accountability Structure

As we've said repeatedly, the approach we recommend provides empowerment within a carefully defined structure. And this concept of structure applies to more than just enlisting and chartering your involvement teams at the outset. It also applies to how you monitor the implementation of what they recommend and assess the real-world results of what they do.

We are often asked to significantly accelerate the improvement of a key business process or the advent of a positive new approach or program. Consequently, we often define an accountability structure that extends for 90 to 120 days, with progress check-points at every 30 days. However, this is not always necessary, or even possible.

One of our clients was attempting to improve the cost-tracking process for the manufacture of a highly-complex, multi-million-dollar piece of machinery that, typically, took a full year to build. Clearly, then, the team accountability structure needed to span an entire year. Timing here is not so important as ensuring that tracking a team's progress and results remains a focus and a priority until the project goal has been achieved. And this demands visibility and "calendar time" on the part of senior executives who have set this process in motion. This is part of what we meant at the outset by "leading" vs. "directing." The team, by this point, is usually motivated enough to direct itself against its mission within established boundaries. Senior executives just need to keep leading by maintaining focus and emphasis and by regularly monitoring progress toward the goal.

Celebrating and Reinforcing Success

Well-chartered teams against clear, concrete, relevant missions can achieve extraordinary results.

The banking team referred to above shortened their lost/stolen debit card replacement process by over 40%. Their achievement was celebrated throughout the bank, fueled other improvement teams and resulted in the bank's developing its own internal change capability to continue to charter and manage improvement teams completely on its own.

The case of a well-known bio-tech firm we worked with illustrates perhaps better than any other we can think of the kind of success that can happen when senior executives "get out of the way" and "lead" vs. direct. A cross-functional team from their manufacturing operations, in one week, identified the root cause that had consistently prevented one of their factories from producing as much product as an identical "sister" plant routinely achieved. Significantly, prior to this team's effort, a high-level task force led by the Senior Vice President of Research and Development had tried to solve the same problem - unsuccessfully - for over six months!

But clearly, to maximize the benefits of this kind of success, that is, to ensure that it continues to fuel increased commitment and ownership within the organization, team successes need to be celebrated and reinforced. This is perhaps the easiest, but unfortunately, sometimes the most ignored aspect of "leading" through involvement and empowerment.

Done properly, however, it generates organizational "pull" for involvement. It is always a significant milestone for us, when we are engaged in supporting this kind of work for our clients, when an individual approaches us to say, "Hey! When you do another one of those, I'd like to be on the team."

"I'd like to be on the team." These are words, of course, that any contemporary senior executive loves to hear. However, they require not so much "selling" individuals on a change program or strategy but involving them and empowering them - within limits - to help bring it about. The good news is, with careful adherence to a few, fundamental principles, business leaders can predictably ensure that when they look "behind" them, somebody will, indeed, be "there" following their "lead."

Ray Gagnon is Principal and Founder of Gagnon Associates, a management and organizational consulting firm with a long-standing experience in strategic planning, change management, GE Work-Out, and Team Effectiveness, located in Metro-West Boston, Massachusetts, USA.