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John P. Kotter
Before you can get buy-in, people need to feel the problem
By: John P. Kotter
Mar 1st, 2011

In light of our current Page to Practice feature of Buy-In, we are pleased to cross post this article by author John Kotter.

Picture this: you're in the middle of presenting your proposal and a person at the far end of the table raises her hand. "I'm not even sure the 'problem' you're describing exists, or is a big deal at all!" How do you deal with that?

From reading your responses to my previous posts, I find that many people aren't able to even reach the point where they can debate the merits of their proposal. Many get bogged down in the quagmire of trying to effectively communicate the nature and extent of the problem. If you can't do that, it doesn't much matter what your proposal is. People aren't going to consider anything until they are convinced there is a problem that truly needs to be addressed. In scenarios like this, I've found that it's effective to highlight the problem and the people affected by it in a way that makes the problem feel real. What's less effective and far more common is to make a dry business case that, even if correct, is usually less persuasive and less memorable than it needs to be.

On this topic, one story I've always liked (from my book The Heart of Change) I affectionately call "Gloves on the Boardroom Table." A large organization had an inefficient purchasing process, and one mid-level executive believed that money was constantly being wasted with each of the organization's factories handling their own purchases. He thought there could be tremendous savings from consolidating the procurement effort. He put together a "business case" for change but it went nowhere. His boss said that senior executives didn't feel it was truly a big problem, especially with so many other daily challenges taking up their time. So the manager had an idea: he collected the 424 different kinds of work gloves the factories collectively purchased and tagged each one with its different price and supplier. He carted the gloves in and dumped them on the boardroom table before a senior executive team meeting. He first showed the pile to his boss, who was taken aback by this powerful visual display of the waste inherent in having dozens of different factories negotiate different deals for the items they needed! The boss showed the CEO, who scrapped the meeting agenda to talk about procurement because what he was looking at was so memorable, so compelling, and so real. It galvanized the executives to action. Ultimately, they overhauled their procurement process and saved a great deal of money.

I've called the process used here See, Feel, and Change, as opposed to Analyze, Think, and Change. The latter is all head, no heart, and often fails to motivate people to recognize the importance of a given problem. It's too easily forgotten or ignored if it doesn't feel real.

So what is my everyday advice if you can't always collect, catalogue, and cart around 424 pairs of gloves? One way is to highlight the real, personal consequences of the problem you want people to see, and to highlight the real people who suffer because of it. My newer book, Buy-In, features a story of someone presenting a plan to provide new computers for a local library. When dissenters don't listen because they don't think there is a problem with the current computers, the presenter has two options. He could use PowerPoint slides to compare the library's computers to current computer models sold in stores, showing the difference in processing power, memory capacity, and modem speed. Or he could relate the true story of a local fourth-grader from a poor family who relies on the library's computers for homework computers that are too slow and outdated to allow her to finish her assignments, leaving her underprepared for school.

Which case would you find more compelling? Which case makes the problem feel real?

by John Kotter 


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