Buy-in and ownership

On the flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi I watched a two hour documentary on the ten year renovation of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is a tale of perseverance, human frailties, citizen input, ingenuity, and, most importantly, the difference between ownership and buy-in.

With our governance work we talk a lot about listening to the voices of the people, as if that is easy. The Rijksmuseum documentary shows what you have to be prepared for when you invite those voices in – in this case the voices of the bicyclists – and I can see why people prefer not to bring those voices in as it complicated matters beyond belief.

If your focus is on buy-in, rather than ownership, then the choice seems to be about anticipating a brief and intense outcry when all is said and done or an agonizing and drawn out process of arguing and trying to convince the other side, which in Amsterdam took 10 years and contributed greatly to increased cost and delays. The conflict was eventually resolved, all parties are happy now, but the price was high. If anyone calculated the costs and looked at the pros and cons of inviting the voices of the people in, I am sure the cost-benefit analysis would counsel for ignoring potential opponents and deal with the outcry later when things cannot be changed anymore. Eventually, one may expect, people get on with their lives and the protest will die down, except for a few very vocal people who may continue to speak up.

I am a fervent proponent of listening to the voices of those affected and involved to avoid problems down the line. The documentary showed clearly why we should never go for buy-in if we can go for ownership from the get go.  Getting buy-in is selling. In a highly politicized environment such selling tends to pit groups against each other into adversarial roles, amplifying parochial and narrow self-interests.

Getting ownership starts with the creation of a shared vision where everyone can see that their interests are recognized, even if not fully realized, but this for the sake of an overarching aspiration that everyone wants. The documentary shows why going for buy-in later is always more difficult (and very costly) than co-creating in the first place.

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