Do you really have executive buy-in?

Posted on September 3, 2014.


Seven years ago I moved back to the East Coast and took a job at an agency. Before accepting my offer I asked my potentially new boss how much support she believed the agency had for interaction design (they were strong on visual design and content). She replied with a note from the President of the agency claiming strong support and understanding for interaction design and UX as a whole claiming it was fundamental to the business’ success. When I left that job a year later, I found out that it was my boss who had written that note and the President had just signed it. That was icing on the cake. By that point it was clear the UX was not something this agency was deeply interested in.

Recently, someone emailed me a question about a new job prospect. It was a leadership position in a company that was undergoing process transformation and the question was about things to look out for as they entered this new role. The person who emailed me was leaning towards the gig strongly because they believed they had executive buy-in for this transformation and the inclusion of a strong design practice. It was a good question. While there are certainly many things to keep in mind coming into a new role, especially during a time of change, one of the most important is executive support for the change. But how do you know if you really do have the executive buy-in you need to make a successful transition happen?

The two things I mentioned in my response to that email are two of the most important things to keep an eye on. They are instrumental to building a successful, collaborative product development team that values not only great process but great design and engineering.

I’ve pasted my response to the question below:

“It sounds like you’re stepping into an interesting situation and with executive support it has more potential than most transformations to succeed. I would keep an eye on two things though before you jump in:


1. Executive buy-in and understanding of the value of design and UX — if the exec team sees UX/design as polish on a finished product, you’re best off going another direction. It will make integrating UX/design into the lean/agile process very difficult. If building a well-designed, delightful system is not that important to the organization then the great work you and your team will do will often get prioritized down to the point of not shipping.

2. Executive support should be absolute, regardless of the consequences — every exec thinks they need to “do agile” these days but very few actually understand what that means to the way they manage their companies, projects and people. If the org is truly bought in then the individual contributors who are pushing back will have to get on board or leave…and the company should be fine with that. Also, keep an eye out for blanket methodologies like SAFe for scaling agile as they often are not agile at all (note the lower case a) and allow execs to continue doing things the same way while the rest of the org slips into very rigid (i.e., not agile at all) release trains and schedules. These frameworks often discourage learning in favor of predictability and throughput — i.e., all the agility goes out the window. 🙂 “

Leadership requires an acceptance of change not just at the production level but also at the management level. If you’re wondering if you have executive buy-in ask yourself, in the face of objective evidence, how willing are my managers to change course?




6 thoughts on “Do you really have executive buy-in?

  1. My advice…

    If you are considering a job for which executive buy-in is important, talk to the executives before accepting the job. If they can’t find 15 minutes to talk to you then you probably don’t really have buy in.

  2. Yes! Thanks for calling out the kool aid everyone is drinking – “keep an eye out for blanket methodologies like SAFe for scaling agile as they often are not agile at all” 14+ years post agile manifesto it appears that many concepts are being usurped by consultants and groups more interested in selling services than delivering on the original desire of good software that customers want.

    Learning and adaptation is continual lest you plateau and become irrelevant. Knowing the signs to look out for helps steer clear of such orgs. Life’s too short to build a mediocre product. Thanks.

      1. I’ve seen SAFe work. It’s just like anything else: if you do it poorly it will fail. The bottom line is that when you have 15+ Scrum teams you need *something* to glue them together. The whole point of SAFe is that executives make strategic decisions about where to invest, while product managers and product owners make decisions about the features and stories that will provide return on that investment. If you want to frame that in the vocabulary of “lean startup” or whatever, you could say that executives decide which lines of inquiry to pursue, while product managers design the experiments. And I’m sorry, but if you have 150 developers building an enterprise software product, you need some process overhead to manage releases. Even if you have perfect CI and automated tests and push-button deploy (which almost nobody actually does), you at the very least have to coordinate releases with marketing, sales, support, etc.

  3. Great observation, Jeff! I have first hand experience in this department. Sometimes resistance to adoption of Lean UX exists a level or more above your immediate manager. So as UX practitioners we may find ourselves choosing between the methodologies we believe in and the teams we’re on. But ultimately the way to be happy is by finding like-minded people with whom we can create great products and experiences.

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