Mark McDonald

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Mark P. McDonald
GVP EXP
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

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Buy In offers a concise toolkit for every professional – a book review

by Mark P. McDonald  |  September 7, 2010  |  1 Comment

Buy In by John Kotter and Lorne Whitehead is a modern day version of how to influence people. The books basic premise is that having a good idea alone is not enough to create value.  You need buy-in and a buy in that come from using spill, clear and commonsense responses delivered to both supporters and detractors of your ideas.

Sounds simple enough, but as anyone who has championed new ideas knows, its harder than it looks.  This is where this book comes in.   Rather than focusing on the change process — Kotter’s earlier works — this book concentrates on the crucial process of gaining acceptance and support of a new idea at the beginning when it is most vulerable and where the relative skill of its advocate is crucial to adoption.

Kotter and Whitehead recognize an old management truism that it is better to engage your detractors directly and with respect rather than trying to keep them at arms length or out of the process.  The management adage is about having your enemies in the tent with you …  rather than outside working against you.  The authors are also right in recognizing that the process of handling objections is crucial in attracting and keeping the organizations attention and support.

The book is organized in two parts.  The first is a ‘business novel’ that illustrates how you would use these techniques in a public setting.  The issue is an innovative approach to getting the local library new computers and the story illustrates common objections to new ideas and how to handle them.

The book discusses four basic ways people attack new ideas:

  • Fear mongering
  • Delay
  • Confusion
  • Ridicule

The second half of the book is a detailed description of the 24 common objections to new ideas and how to respond to them.  The objections are organized into three main groupings based on different reactions to new ideas:

“We don’t need your idea, because the ‘problem’ it ‘solves’ does not exist”

“Okay, a problem exists, but your solution is not a good one.”

“Okay, a problem exists and your solution is a good one, but it will never work here.”

Kotter and Whitehead grope 24 objections and responses across these three groupings.   The book provides a comprehensive view of the normal objections people have to a new idea.  The comprehensive coverage, but the focus on simple, clear and concise issues makes this book a ‘must have’ for managers and innovators.

The coverage of the issues in a concise format — only 190 pages in a booklet format and large type make this a welcome part of any professionals toolkit.  The book is recommended for managers, executives, professionals, consultants, just about anyone who has to deal with resistance to new ideas.

The book has some weak points.

First it seems to assume that all objections to new ideas come out in a meeting setting rather than the one-on-one meetings usually involved in framing ideas.  This is an oversight that would have been easy for the authors to address as the objections na the response work equally well in a group or individual setting.

The second major weakness is that the responses to several of the objections are overly simple and fairly generic and somewhat patronizing.  For example #6 Attack: Your proposal leaves too many questions unanswered.  What about this and that and ….  Response: All good ideas, if they are new, raise dozens of questions that cannot be answered with certainty.   You can see the reflexive logic here.  More guidance on the types of experiences, sources of information and other tousle to tailor the response to a specific circumstance would have made the difference between this being a good book and a great book.

Finally, the business novel first part is very flat, stereotypical and not particularly illustrative of the issue.  A business novel approach can be very enlightening, but in this case it was not the best use of the readers time, at least in my opinion as it was too predictable and the eventual success of the new idea too easy.

Overall, the book is recommended, particularly for the second half.  A word of caution though in that you will need to tailor your responses to your organization’s culture, the context of the meeting and the nature of the idea.  On the surface Kotter and Whitehead present what appears to be a cook book with recipes for creating buy in.  However, your ideas are not generic and it is the spice that you bring to the recipes presented in the book that define success.

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