Beyond Grassroots: Securing Leadership Buy-In (Part 1)

In Part One of this two-part series Lean Startup Co. Senior Faculty Lead Marilyn Gorman and Dr. Tendayi Viki discuss why it’s critical for corporate intrapreneurs to secure leadership buy-in and the version of Lean Startup that’s right for your organization.

Be sure to check out our companion blog below where we dive deeper into six key steps on your path to securing buy-in, including: who to ally with, the right questions at the right time and diversifying the business model.

“Yeah, I’m happy to take a risk -- as long as nobody screws up.” -@CvlleMarilyn on change-resistant leadership culture. Share on X “What's really true about culture is that it represents what people are embarrassed to do in public.” -@TendayiViki Share on X

If you’d like to read the full transcript of Marilyn Gorman’s conversation with Tendayi Viki, you may download it. 

Six Steps to Secure Lean Startup Buy-In

We regularly get questions from our community about scaling entrepreneurial ideas from the individual to the larger organization. We hear from the lone wolves out there who dream of the day when everyone is speaking the same Lean Startup language, when their companies are testing more ideas and responding faster to customer needs. These pioneering folks often want to know, “Where should we start?”

We’ve turned this common question of Lean Startup buy-in into a webcast discussion with Lean Startup Co. Senior Faculty Lead Marilyn Gorman and The Corporate Startup co-author Tendayi Viki. You can watch the webcast video and read the full transcript of their conversation. Or, if you’re just here for the takeaways, we have you covered with six things you can do to secure buy-in, based on part one of this conversation.

Ally Yourself With Early-Adopter Leaders

Viki believes that every organization has at least one early-adopter leader. This is the person to identify early on—someone who can go to bat for you with the senior leadership down the line. It’s vital to partner with people who can help you get, and then amplify, that early win. Viki says the first win may be more incremental than transformational to start, but it helps set a precedent that using Lean Startup methods can deliver results.  

“An early adopter is the kind of leader that will let you fumble around, mess it up, and figure it out within the context of the organization because they truly believe in the ideas and the principles that you’re actually practicing,” says Viki. Once you gain momentum testing your ideas, this leader helps celebrate these successes in the larger organization and helps recruit more people to work on projects, slowly and incrementally transforming the organization.

Figure Out What Works Best for Your Company

Regardless of your passion for Lean Startup—or any innovation methodology, really—your excitement will fall on deaf ears if you rely on jargon. Understand the language and context of ideas that will resonate most with your organization and build your case from there. “This is not a religion,” says Viki. “There is a version of the Lean Startup methodology that works for different organizations.” Working with that early adopter can help you decipher what will and won’t fly when you try and implement a Lean Startup practice—which in turn will strengthen longer term conversations with senior leadership, many of whom won’t be sold on buzz words alone.

Foster a Culture Where It’s Ok to Be Embarrassed

As Viki rightly points out, having a solid entrepreneurial culture doesn’t boil down to bringing foosball tables and bean bag chairs into the office. It’s about demonstrating that people should take chances doing things they’re embarrassed to do in public—such as failing in front of their coworkers, and asking questions that help everyone better understand the problem you’re trying to solve.

“I remember having somebody tell me, ‘Oh, I can’t ask my manager questions about the outcome that they want because they’ll think I don’t know how to do my job. They’ll think I’m stupid,’” Viki says. “And of course, my response is, ‘Well how much more stupid do you look if you get it wrong?’”

He adds that lasting change comes only when leaders rethink what they’re incentivizing in teams—shifting from revenue-based rewards to rewarding behaviors.

Ask the Right Questions at the Right Time

Viki explains that innovation succeeds when you’re creating products people want based on a sustainable, profitable business model. “Before you find all of those things,” he adds, “questions about scale and five-year projections are the wrong questions to ask.”

Instead he suggests making better decisions based on questions that help answer if you’re moving in the right direction in the first place. Look for different types of evidence, he adds, and be willing to have your hunches and guesses challenged by data.

As one example, he says, “Tell your teams, ‘Right now, I don’t care how much money this is gonna make in five years, I just want to know if there’s a market for this thing at all. Does anybody care? Is this gonna deliver value to anybody? And I’m not gonna give you three-and-a-half million to make the product, I’m gonna give you 10 grand to figure that question out. And if you come back to me and say there isn’t a need, and here’s the evidence that there isn’t a need, that’s fine. We’re failing for 10 grand.”

Work at this level of questioning first, before worrying about scale, says Viki. Step one is “figuring out all the moving parts and the risks, and dealing with all the assumptions.”

Make Sure Your Innovation Initiative Aligns with the Company’s Strategic Goals

If the project you’re working on isn’t aligned with the company’s strategic goals, Viki warns, it’s dead on arrival. He suggests asking questions like, “What is our vision of the future? And how do we plan to use innovation to respond? What kind of things do we want to solve for? What kind of customer market/emerging trend do we want to use innovation to solve for?” The answers to these questions create the guard rails for teams to ideate within. “Then the teams know that they’re working on something that their leadership is thinking about taking to scale,” says Viki, “rather than to say, “We need an innovation lab. Get me some startup guy. Alright startup guys, welcome, now go work on some cool stuff.”

Start Diversifying at the Business Model Level

Stop thinking about your company as a portfolio of products and services, Viki says, and start diversifying at the business model level. In order to do that, he says leaders need toolboxes that allow them to track the progress of their innovation portfolio. These tools should help them understand the exact cost of the experiments they’re funding. “[They can] decide to double down on [some] projects and stop other projects, now [that] they feel they have the same control over their investment decision-making that they do over the core.”

Senior leadership should be investing in the future, he adds, by incentivizing innovation strategies and balanced portfolios. “That’s how you start to hold leaders accountable,” Viki says, “because if they’re thinking about that, then they can then turn around and start working collaboratively with their innovation teams.”

In the end, making this leap toward sustainable entrepreneurship can be scary. As Viki points out, investing in innovation means taking risks (and losing money that shows up on those P&L reports). But the flip side is a company that remains static, and short-lived projects that suffer from high mortality rates.

“Innovation doesn’t really become successful until the company launches it and scales it,” says Viki. And when it is scaled, he adds, you’re able celebrate what you’re doing out in the open, as your work becomes part of the company’s strategic focus. “You’re not having to constantly politicize, cajole, beg, plead … in order to be successful in terms of innovation.” Getting that early buy-in in the first step in systematizing entrepreneurship throughout your organization.

Thanks to Jennifer Maerz for contributing this piece. Want more on Leadership Buy-in? Check out Part Two Three Practical Approaches to Leadership Buy-In.