CRM initiative shows there's no lasting change without buy-in

Projects that sail along smoothly, with no resistance, are great. But it's the ones that throw lots of roadblocks in our way that end up teaching us things.

It was about the rockiest start to a major IT initiative I've ever been involved in. Because I'd implemented IT marketing programs (now called client relationship management, or CRM) earlier in my career, the CIO charged me with doing the same for his organization.

Of course, projects that sail along smoothly, with no resistance, are great. But it's the ones that throw lots of roadblocks in our way that end up teaching us things.

We were in trouble from the start. In a meeting with all of his direct reports (which included me), the CIO declared his intention to establish a CRM program. He didn't offer any reasons for this. He just announced that I would be directing the effort and stated that he expected everyone's full cooperation. The reaction from my peers was mostly silent, but I could feel the tension in the room. A few comments were made that made it clear why this initiative was receiving such a cold reaction. The one that best summed things up: "We're up to our necks in work, and we're now supposed to pony up resources and time to create whatever CRM is?"

I said that I would be answering the question of "whatever CRM is" at a meeting in a few days. I didn't sense much enthusiasm for that, either.

In the days that followed, several fellow IT managers called to ask about this "CRM thing." Most of them implied that we didn't need it at all. The more accommodating said it could wait until next year.

Negotiating buy-in

I could understand why some of my fellow managers might be panicking. We all had more than we could do already. Any new initiative was bound to sound like just another thing that we couldn't give the proper attention to.

It's been my experience that change can't be mandated. For it to really take hold and transform an organization, you need buy-in. Tell a group of people that you plan to make some major changes in the way things are done, and the thought going through the head of each and every one of them will be, "What's in it for me?" We hadn't even attempted to answer that question yet, and as the days passed, there was nothing to stop the resistance from growing.

Winning buy-in from stakeholders can be tricky in the best of circumstances, but I had a taller wall to scale than normal, simply because there had been time for rumor and misinformation to foster discontent. I wasn't sure how to overcome the resistance that was building at my upcoming meeting, so I talked to another IT manager. She didn't hesitate. Her advice was to show our peers what happens in an IT organization that doesn't have a CRM program and then show how things work in an IT organization with a mature CRM program in place. Then, she said, "explain the differences and ask us which one we'd rather be." It was a brilliant idea.

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