What Does “Buy In” Really Mean?

My colleague over at Automattic, Simon, recently kicked off a discussion inspired by this talk by Janice Fraser at Mind the Product.

The talk expands on three key points related to work and life, but it was her final point that stuck out – “You Don’t Get Buy-in in a Single Meeting”.

Fraser mentions that she isn’t a fan of the phrase buy-in for several reasons.

  • Nobody knows what it is.
  • Everyone thinks they have it.
  • Once we get it, we forget about keeping it.

She then introduces an acronym “UBAD,” which stands for understanding, belief, advocacy, and decision-making – the core components of getting everyone onboard with a direction/vision.

I’d encourage you to watch the entire video, but today, I wanted to share some thoughts around generating buy-in and overcoming the hurdles Fraser identified.

What is “buy-in”?

It might be a bit nebulous to define, but we can probably all agree on the attributes that a team exhibits when they have buy-in.

When a team has buy-in:

  • Everyone can clearly articulate the vision for the team/product/department/organization. If asked, they can summarize and repeat the vision back and answer questions about it.
  • Team members can translate the vision into daily actions that align with the intended direction. A symptom of buy-in is clarity in decision making, consistently relating those decisions back to the ultimate vision.
  • There’s open and honest conversation within the team. Buy-in can’t exist without this type of interaction.
  • They move in unison. Projects and tasks flow together because everyone is rowing in the same direction.

A team has buy-in if they’re exhibiting the characteristics above.

How to Develop and Keep Buy-in Over Time

If we can agree on what buy-in looks like, we have a better barometer to decide if your team actually has buy-in and avoid false positives.

One simple way to avoid the pitfall of assuming buy-in is to assume you don’t have buy-in. Assume teams aren’t on the same page. Teammates don’t understand the vision and mission. They can’t translate the vision into daily actions, and they feel pulled in many directions.

If you work from the perspective that your team does not have buy-in, you would default to doing the following on a daily basis.

Continually simplify and reinforce the vision daily. This is one of the foundational roles of a leader. To quote Adam Grant from Originals:

You know the lyrics and the melody of your idea by heart. By that point, it’s no longer possible to imagine what it sounds like to an audience that’s listening to it for the first time. This explains why we undercommunicate our ideas. They’re already so familiar to us that we underestimate how much exposure an audience needs to comprehend and buy into them.

Adam Grant, Originals

Applaud daily actions that correlate with the vision. The goal is to have the team all rowing in the same direction with the same end goal in mind. One way to make that happen is to deliver positive praise when you notice actions that align with the intended direction.

Constantly look for opportunities to link intermediate steps to the end goal. This goes along with continually communicating the vision. Essentially, you’re looking for threads across the organization that you can point to as steps in the right direction.

If you start each day with the idea that you don’t have buy-in, you won’t overlook opportunities to continue building it.


Fraser covers these points in her handy acronym UBAD:

  • Understanding: Does the team actually understand where we’re headed? Can they articulate the vision back to me? Do they understand why we’re pursuing direction A instead of direction B?
  • Belief: Do they actually believe that our vision is the right one for the product or service? Are they convinced this is the right call? Have we had open and honest disagreement about it? If they disagree, are they still willing to commit?
  • Advocacy: Can team members get others onboard with the mission? If they understand and belief in the vision, they should be able to actively promote it within the organization.
  • Decision: Is the vision clearly represented in daily decisions?

With the acronym in hand, you have a tool for diagnosing the breakdown within the organization and addressing the issue.

A great starting point though is to assume you don’t have buy-in and work to establish it on a daily basis.

Leave a Thought