Books: Buy-in, by John Kotter and Lorne A. Whitehead

MT catches up with John Kotter to discover how we can stop our great ideas from getting shot down...

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
Ever had a brilliant idea that never quite came to fruition? This is the problem John Kotter - Harvard Business School professor and one of the world's foremost business thinkers - hopes to solve with his new book, 'Buy-in'. Kotter's basic thesis is that there's a limited number of ways in which good ideas get shot down - 24, he reckons, to be precise - and he and his co-author Lorne Whitehead have come up with specific ways to combat all of them.

Kotter is of course best known for his work on large-scale organisational change. And this book's another example of him drilling down into the eight-step process he came up with in the seminal 'Leading Change'; getting buy-in is important at every stage, obviously, but particularly the fourth, which is about communicating the vision. So why this particular angle? 'I pay attention to what people ask me about that I haven't written about', he tells MT. 'The kind of work I do is empirical, systematic journalism. I go out and I watch and I talk to people. Then you look at what works well and what doesn't, and ask yourself what the pattern is.'

As a result, he's ended up with one of his more accessible books - one that doesn't just speak to corporate bigwigs, but anyone who ever needs to convince someone else that their idea is a good one (i.e. pretty much all of us). The format helps: the first half of the book is done as a story illustrating the theory with a specific example (Whitehead's idea, apparently), which the authors go on to analyse in the second half. This makes it a much easier read for the kind of person who wouldn't normally buy a business book.

Kotter and Whitehead have come up with 24 specific attacks, which break down (roughly) into four areas: fear-mongering ('what if x happens?'), death by delay ('let's wait until x'), creating confusion ('what about x, y and z') and character assassination (shoot the messenger). The story itself is about someone proposing an idea for a library - and the 'hero' is a character called Hank, who deals smoothly with all the objections thrown at him. Kotter uses Hank to demonstrate the value of being calm, prepared, respectful, brief and above all, non-aggressive.

Now we don't know about you, but we don't know too many CEOs like Hank. In fact, we can't help wondering if corporate culture actually mitigates against this? Kotter accepts that those who make it to the top of the greasy pole tend to become well versed in the power games of office politics - rather than throwing ideas out to be shot at, they're more likely to 'smoothly manipulate behind the scenes', he says. But this inevitably means that you don't end up with the same level of buy-in - so ulimately, it makes change much harder to bring about.

Although much of what Kotter and Whitehead have to say is common sense (not that this is always in plentiful supply in the corporate world), there are some interestingly counter-intuitive angles to it. The first is that keeping nay-sayers away from the discussion is actually a bad idea; getting them in the room, and diffusing their objections, will lead to much greater buy-in across the board. Another is that it can be a mistake to get bogged down trying to deconstruct objections in front of everyone; you're better off just addressing the point briefly and moving on. And a third is that you need to focus not on those objecting, but the rest of the room (since you need to convince the majority, not every single person).

You might argue that trying to break down objections into 24 types is too simplistic - and it's true that most attacks will be a combination of several of them. But Kotter and Whitehead take a pleasingly practical approach to dealing with all of the objections. So it's hard to imagine there being anyone who won't find a useful nugget in here.

Read MT's exclusive Q&A with John Kotter online now.

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