Last Saturday some friends and I sat around discussing our various techniques for creating change within large organizations.
During a portion of the conversation we were debating whether or not to create change in a large organization you need to…
A. Change policies from the top of the organization across the whole organization or
B. Start the change with a small group of people within the organization and grow the change from there.
At the start of the debate many of us assumed that top level change was the key to starting a change, so most of our talk revolved around how to get the attention of the right top leaders to get them to change the organization-wide policies.
I participated in the conversation, but something didn’t sit right with me.
In my experience, top-down, organization-wide changes are rarely effective. The best changes I’d seen started with a few people choosing to behave in a different way and gradually carving out a larger and larger space in the organization where their new behaviors were okay. I could describe these situations to my friends, but I was lacking a concept that could pull together the theme between all the situations.
Then, the light bulb came on.
If in projects you protect what matters (the due date) from uncertainty with a project buffer maybe what was protecting these start-small changes from failure was an equivalent buffer from the uncertainty of the organization: a policy buffer.
When a new boss announces he is changing the standard and X, Y, and Z behaviors are now expected, regardless of what the rest of the organization is doing, that boss is creating a policy buffer around his group.
When a small group of like-minded coworkers bands together to improve their team meetings or agrees to bring in only healthy treats to share, they are creating a policy buffer around their informal group: no bad meetings or donuts here.
When a community of practice shares their lessons learned, maintains standard behaviors in essential processes, and leads their people in empowering ways, they are establishing a policy buffer between them and the other communities.
A policy buffer is a set of explicit behavior and/or policy differences between the group changing and the larger organization or system. The group’s maintenance of this policy buffer is essential in protecting the new behaviors or policies from the influences of the old ways of doing things.
Use of project buffers revolutionized projects. Inventory buffers advanced logistics. No one knows yet what policy buffers will do for change implementations, but I have a hunch we’ve found a big piece of our grand solution.
I can’t wait to get started. I’m off to build my policy buffers for my important changes. What are you going to do?