Written by Bhavani Krishnan
on April 27, 2021

When undertaking a significant organizational change such as shifting from a Project-to-Product focus or scaling Agile , a key challenge is getting interdependent teams, business units and other organizational layers bought into the change and work together. Leadership and strategy are crucial factors, but what works best?

Executive level leadership, support and buy-in at the top level are necessary to set and stay the course, but a top-down approach can fizzle out if the changes are not informed by on-the-ground operating realities. Top-level leaders have the authority and ability to carry out the necessary steps, but don’t have a complete information set. A bottom-up approach can gain traction and get the implementation ball rolling, however without executive buy-in and support that will fizzle too. It is informed by operational reality but lacks established processes and authority.

The key is to focus on all layers of an organization for successful transformations. The simplified top-down, bottom-up example highlights the importance of each organizational layer. Executives need the perspective of on-the-ground operational teams to inform their strategy and set expectations. Operational teams need a clear, collective direction to drive their efforts. Every other layer of the organization has its unique, crucial perspective and role, but each layer is also dependent on other organizational levels for information, direction and authority.

Getting buy-in and leadership at all levels of an organization is key, but it isn’t an easy task. Change invariably comes with resistance due to uncertainty, lack of familiarity with the new direction and what it all means. There are few seamless transformations. How can you make them smoother?

Strategize by assessing where the organization is, identifying gaps, setting out a roadmap and planning for success. Start small by creating a team of internal champions that includes members from every level of the organization. This allows for the transformation to start gradually and lets new methods take root. Small victories can then be used to build momentum that can be leveraged for the larger, organization-wide transformation.

Communication is crucial as resistance to change is often grounded in not understanding the reasons for change. Make sure everyone understands the big picture and the “why” for the change. Focusing on the “why” keeps people on-board through the challenges that come with disrupting the status quo. Keep everyone looking forward and visibly celebrate the small victories, progress and momentum as an organization. Communicating an organization-wide understanding of the destination or “why” and awareness that positive progress is being made are key components of building support and momentum for change.

There are no “one-size fits all” or cookbook solutions to getting organizational buy-in at all levels but there are best practices and previous examples across the commercial, nonprofit and government sectors to draw on to find what works best in a given situation. What does apply across the board is the importance of effective leadership and buy-in from all levels of the organization. Top-down plus bottom-up leads to permanence when the middle layers are on-board and used to align the authority to influence change with the true reality of operations at the ground level. Establishing true leadership at every layer of an organization is necessary to drive the cultural shift that powers Agile transformation.