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James Conklin is associate professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University in Montreal

The project team, hunkered down in their war room with flip-chart sheets taped to the walls and a floor-to-ceiling white board smeared with a growing list of bullet points, looks expectantly at the leader of the latest transformative change initiative. "Okay," he says, "How are we going to get buy-in from the employees?"

Buy-in: the mysterious elixir of organizational change, essential to all exercises in change management. We must get buy-in from employees, middle management, stakeholders, customers – from whoever is expected to absorb the meaning and practical implications of change into their daily lives.

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After more than 30 years of working on and conducting research about organizational change initiatives, from mergers and acquisitions to the introduction of new enterprise-wide information systems, from the implementation of a departmental operations plan to the adoption of a new clinical guideline in a family health team, I know that at some point in the change process a member of the leadership team will ask this question: How are we to get buy-in?

But what is meant by this ubiquitous term? Or, more precisely: What is being bought, and what currency is used for the purchase?

The desire for buy-in is a desire to maintain tight control of things during the chaotic process of change. We will get our "product" ready, we will polish it and work out all of the kinks, and then we will roll it out to the stakeholders. This sort of thinking also provides the change leaders with a ready excuse when things go wrong. "Well, we didn't achieve all of our goals because the stakeholders were so resistant to change." It's not our fault, in other words. Those other people are to blame.

When we think about organizational change as involving buy-in, we are imagining that we need to sell the change to some group of people in order to secure their co-operation or, at least, their acquiescence. Since we are involved in a sale, we use the tactics of salesmanship. We list benefits, we manipulate emotions, we instill fears of dreadful consequences if the sale is not completed.

There is, however, a different way to think about how stakeholders might be involved in organizational change. Consider the following alternatives. In your change initiative, are you doing things to people? Or are you doing things with people?

I once worked with a chief information officer who wanted to introduce a new information-technology strategic plan in an organization with numerous departments and about 10,000 employees spread across a vast geography. He brought in an expert from Arizona and me to help him create the plan. I asked him during one of our early discussions, "Are you going to involve others in the creation of the plan?" "You bet," he replied. "As soon as the plan is ready, I am going to meet with the directors to show it to them and get their buy-in."

That is precisely what he did. And at the meeting with his directors he encountered the extraordinary ingenuity of the human animal when confronted with plans that seem to emerge out of manipulation and coercion. They "resisted," and his strategic plan stalled.

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The lesson here is that stakeholders like to be involved in the change process rather than sold a piece of goods. Think less about sales pitches and more about conversations.

This doesn't mean that change leaders must give up their responsibility for solving problems and pursuing improvements and strategic goals. It simply means recognizing a fundamental reality concerning human social systems. Change is never guaranteed, and can never be subjected to the stringent management and control of a mechanical system.

Social systems are complex and nuanced. They are influenced by forces that can never be fully identified, understood and controlled. Instead of seeking absolute control over a change, change leaders can create opportunities for meaningful discussion, and recognize that just as the change initiative is pursuing a worthwhile improvement, so too can the change initiative itself be improved. Employees and other stakeholders, with their practical understanding of how things work, have perspectives and information that can make the difference between success and failure.

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