The Three Questions To Ask When You Need Buy-In

It was soul-sucking.

I had spent weeks putting together the processes, documentation, and tools to help my team work better with the product team. However, without buy-in from the VP of product, all my efforts were doomed from the start. The VP never bought into a problem ever existing in the first place, never committed to putting in the work to fix it, and definitely didn't want to follow through with actually putting the plans into action.

I've since learned a lesson: Buy-In And Commitment First, Help Second.

I thought if I were to subscribe to a "commitment first" philosophy that would go against my principles of lending a hand at every opportunity. I reality, getting commitment first allowed me to do more work, and more meaningful work, to help my team and others. I discovered that good intentions only get you so far. To successfully collaborate with others, I need ultimate buy-in from everyone to turn intentions into a solution.

From my lessons learned, I now ask 3 crucial questions as a test of buy-in before collaboration. I ask these questions to gauge the level of alignment between myself and the other party on how serious we are at fixing a problem. The questions are:

  1. Do we agree that we actually have a problem?
  2. Are we fully committed to solve this problem, no matter the effort?
  3. Are we going to fully support each other in front of our teams?

Agree That A Problem Actually Exists

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By asking "Do we agree that we actually have a problem here", we are offering (and hopefully passing) a critical litmus test to see if we're actually doing work that matters. When we ask that question, we open up the possibility that your counterpart may disagree that a problem actually exists. 

When someone says "no, I don't agree with the problem", that's actually a good thing. It allows everyone to dissect the problem more so we can go beneath the surface and get to the root pain. It also means everyone is engaged in the problem discussion because there are different viewpoints and opinions to be heard and debated.

Once the root pain has been distilled, then we ask again "Do we agree that we actually have a problem"? After a spirited debate, the chances are that there will be an agreement, or you're getting close to one. Once there's an agreement, we can always point back to this moment if someone deviates from the solution. It keeps people focused on the reason why we're doing something, and eliminates excuses when it comes time to actually doing the work.

Agree To Work On Solving the problem

With an agreement that a problem exists, we now need everyone to actually put in an effort to solve it. Group problems require a group to solve, so it shouldn't be the case where only one person puts in the effort (that is unless the problem is of a unique nature... like Legal or HR). The next question we have to ask everyone is "Are we fully committed to solve this problem, no matter the effort".

We want to make sure that no one person is saddled with all the work. Why? It's about ownership: If a solution is delivered in full, people are less likely to value it as much compared to solutions where they have put in the personal effort to make it happen.

The last part "no matter the effort" is important. It commits everyone to do everything they can to solve the problem, so we don't end up with half-assed solutions that no one will find satisfactory. When someone starts flaking out, we can always point to the "no matter the effort" clause to drag that person back into participating. 

Agree To a United Front

Being united to solve a problem will yield a really good solution, but when it comes time to actually execute on the solution, everyone needs to be united in its follow through. As leaders, when we roll out multi-team solutions, we need to be united in our resolve to follow through. After all, how can we expect our teams to buy-in and execute on our plans if we can't be bothered to do the same thing ourselves? That's why we ask "Are we going to fully support each other in front of our teams".

Teams naturally look at their leaders when they need direction, and when we have leaders who are wishy-washy (or worse, vocally disagree) with the solution, it sends a message to the team that the people who are delivering the solution don't care, so they probably don't need to care either. The best-laid plans disintegrate and fade into the annals of incomplete projects, and collaboration ultimately fails.

The Bottom Line: Get Clarity. Get Commitment

I'm the type of person who would jump head first into diagnosing problems and coming up with a solution so everyone feels less pain, but when it comes to a multi-team problem, we need to look everyone in their eyes and ask the big questions on commitment. Commitment is the foundation of good solutions, so get clear answers on the three questions we should all ask before starting down the journey of solving big hairy problems.


My approach to collaboration and buy-in is based on the writings of Patrick Lencioni of the Table Group.

This week's article is inspired in part by his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team