Digital transformation: How to get buy-in

No digital initiative can succeed without team collaboration and support. Recent winners of the 2022 Wisconsin ORBIE Awards share insight on how to build relationships and earn buy-in
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With digital transformation or any big initiative, there are many decisions to be made – and many opinions to navigate along the way. Gaining buy-in and support is a critical, and often difficult, part of a leader’s job. Even when it’s easy to get a group of people on board with what goals to pursue, there are often many various and conflicting perspectives on how to achieve them.

We asked CIOs who recently won a 2022 Wisconsin CIO of the Year ORBIE Award to share their tips for getting buy-in. From asking the right questions to building strong relationships, learn how to work collaboratively to bring people on board with your next big idea.

[ More advice for IT leaders: Sell big ideas to busy people ]

Ask the right questions, and use the right tools

Neal Sample

Neal Sample, former CIO, Northwestern Mutual: I always recommend that teams take an inventory and reassure themselves that they have their goals articulated properly before addressing proposed approaches.

For example, if one group believes a team goal should be “increased sales” while another has no objections, but is more concerned about “increased profitability,” they could be heading for trouble. If you have more than one goal (and who doesn’t?), analyze which may compete for resources and agree on how you will resolve conflicts down the line.

To develop buy-in for your plans, I recommend asking an important, often overlooked question: Should I get buy-in at all?

Start there:

  • Is this something we need to “win” or is there an equivalent idea from another voice that we get immediate support for by adopting?
  • Does another partner have a greater right to win, to dictate the solution, etc.– e.g., does the primary partner live with/consume/operate the solution?
  • Is there a corporate, industry, or technology standard that limits the space of reasonable plans anyway?
  • Is spending political capital to win support for your plan really worth it?

Following this exercise, the best way to get to a solution is to immediately drop the debate, politics, emotion, appeals, etc., and to use a tool to frame the decision-making process. There are many good tool options out there (Pugh Matrix, weighted decision trees, lightweight architectural alternative assessment methods, to name just a few).

Tools like these allow for participating parties to specify the decision criteria driven by stated goals, the weights of those criteria, and then experts can fill in the attribute scores for the proposed solutions until the best answer reveals itself.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

If you ever find yourself debating hypotheticals in order to create agreement on a solution, you have already lost! Instead, start with a tool and let that agreed-upon framework guide the decision. You might even learn, in a low-stakes way, that your idea was not as good as you had originally thought and that there was a better approach!

Build relationships before seeking buy-in

Steve Hannan

Steve Hannan, CIO & CRO, Landmark Credit Union: Building consensus starts with establishing relationships. When you have a deep understanding of what drives stakeholders, you are better positioned to clearly and effectively demonstrate how your vision for technology can help others achieve results.

Knowing what matters most to your peers enables you to build a compelling story that goes beyond data/technology and elevates the conversation to one about the need for change and how technology enables the broader business strategy in meaningful ways.

Having well-established relationships also provides you with opportunities to socialize ideas with key stakeholders prior to formally presenting your vision. This gives you an important path for surfacing and addressing key questions or concerns ahead of time, paving the way to a smooth approval process.

Listen first, talk second

Chad Steighner

Chad Steighner, CIO, Clarios: Today’s IT leader has to be much more than tech-savvy, they have to be business-savvy. IT leaders of today are expected to identify and build support for transformational growth, even when it’s not popular.

At Clarios, I included “Challenge the Status Quo, Be a Respectful Activist” to our IT guiding principles, knowing that around any CEO or general manager’s table they need one or two disruptors – IT leaders should be one. However, once that activist IT leader sells their vision to the boss, now they have to drive change in their peers and the entire organization, without formal authority.

To gain buy-in, I like to address the lack of buy-in head-on: Listen first and talk second. A change leader must seek out and listen to their stakeholders to determine their biggest concern with the initiative, where they think things will go wrong or fall short of the goal.

After that, you can normally formulate a methodology that moves forward as you hoped but also addresses their concerns. If they feel you truly listened and incorporated their input into your plan, you’ve got their support.

Broaden your perspectives

Jeri Koester

Jeri Koester, CIO, Marshfield Clinic Health System: Our IT leaders can gain buy-in on new ideas by actively listening to our business partners. Our focus is to understand from their perspective the challenges impeding their work by rounding in our hospital locations to see first-hand the issues.

So when we propose solutions, it is from their perspective. Utilizing these practices, we can bring forth the vision of Marshfield Clinic Health System because we can implement technology that bridges human interaction between our patients and care teams, which is at the heart of healthcare.

Three Cs: Consensus, Collaboration, and Communication

Laurie Panella

Laurie Panella, CIO, Marquette University: Gaining buy-in is an iterative process and is done by gaining consensus, encouraging collaboration, and effective communication.

Consensus: Developing a clear vision of the problem to be solved is the first step in gaining consensus. What problem does your idea solve? What data and solid reasoning support the idea? If able, show concrete examples of the solution.

Collaborate: Invite others to be part of the development of the solution. Invite criticism and opinions to improve the idea, and leverage this feedback. People are more likely to commit if they feel they have contributed. This approach will help secure commitment, energize the stakeholders, and make them feel part of the process.

Communicate: Demonstrate incremental progress. Keep momentum and address emerging issues along the way. Help stakeholders continue to feel part of the vision by being a member of the integrated team, celebrating milestones and incremental successes. Your vision now becomes a team effort that has the impetus to succeed.

Celebrate incremental wins

Allen Smith

Allen Smith, CIO, Baker Tilly US: Organizations overvalue the big project or transformation and undervalue the incremental changes. With organizational pressure to deliver big transformations, how can CIOs and other leaders deliver both? One successful approach is to embrace relentless incrementalism and celebrate all victories, big and small.

[ Leading CIOs are reimagining the nature of work while strengthening organizational resilience. Learn 4 key digital transformation leadership priorities in a new report from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. ]

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.