If You Think You’re Prepared, Think Again
When you want buy-in on your proposal, never wing it, even if you think you know all the facts
Because achieving buy-in for new ideas is such an important challenge, I’m often asked to distill it down to one recommendation. “What’s the one best thing I can do to increase my chances of getting buy-in for my proposal at this upcoming meeting?” people ask. That is a difficult question, but Lorne Whitehead, co-author on my new book, Buy-In, has a strong opinion: Don’t try to wing it, even if you know all of the facts thoroughly, even if the idea seems bulletproof, and even if you expect a friendly audience. Preparation is key.
The problem is, people often misunderstand “preparation” to mean just knowing their own idea forwards and backwards. But that approach will only get you so far. Think of it this way: before a physics exam with one hundred problems, it is less useful to simply re-read your textbook than it is to practice actually solving problems. After all, that’s what the exam is. (I learned this lesson the hard way as an undergraduate engineering major.)
As silly as it sounds, most of us never actually practice achieving buy-in by considering counter-arguments and planning responses. And this oversight can be fatal. We think we are prepared for the task. We usually review our proposal and make sure we know the pros and cons cold. We may even memorize the thought process that led us to the ultimate decision, so we can walk audience members through the thinking, if necessary. By doing this, we believe we can think on our feet and answer almost any question that comes our way. Oh, that it could be so.
But rehashing what we already know does not prepare us to avoid sounding defensive, frustrated, or perhaps even disrespectful when fielding question after question on our proposal. In fact, we often don’t even know we come off this way. And this kind of rehashing also does not prepare us to parry attacks of confusion, delay, ridicule, and fear-mongering—the four tactical categories dissenters use against us. So we find the discussion easily derailed and difficult to get back on track.
What helps? Practice—real practice. For your best chance at success, this means grabbing a colleague to role-play, attack the proposal, and practice real-life responses. Try testing your ability to defend your proposal live with select people who will be sympathetic, but who can really listen and provide honest feedback.
At the very least, sit down, yourself, and think carefully about the most common attacks you are likely to face. For example, if it seems clear that someone could argue that she tried a similar idea and it failed, clarify what is different today or how your idea would avoid the same outcome. Perhaps make notes on a handful of relevant issues to guide your answers in the moment. As in a game of chess, think a few “moves” ahead, anticipating and preparing for what attackers might send your way.
Failure to do so—and allowing yourself to merely refocus on your own proposal and not on potential attacks and responses—is just plain complacency, and leaves you and your idea vulnerable. Again, the real test is about problem solving; so don’t just re-read your textbook. Yes, you need to know your own proposal. But you need to go beyond this to consider the likely attacks you will face, and how you will handle them. Only then will you be truly prepared to give your idea the best chance at achieving buy-in.