Policy Buffer

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?

7 thoughts on “Policy Buffer”

  1. Love it! I’ve actually been thinking about how the entreupeneurship (sp?) can work in a large organization. How about this:

    O – PB = SU

    Take an organization (O) with its structure and rules that perpetuates the status quo. Separate a small part where these barriers to change have been removed (because of the Policy Buffer, PB). What you end up with is a team operating like a start-up (SP) where there is engagement, innovation, and enthusiasm. What do you think- recipe for success or half-baked idea?

  2. April K. Mills

    I like it as a quick shorthand to show what environment is created inside the policy buffer. You definitely get engagement, innovation and enthusiasm within the policy buffer created by a Guiding Coalition living to driving change policies.

  3. Sounds like a fun discussion.
    It seems like change can begin anywhere, perhaps the time required for that change to become meaningful is influenced by the starting point.
    What is the difference between a policy and a policy buffer?
    If the purpose of a buffer is to absorb variation and protect the constrain, then what constraint is the policy buffer protecting?

  4. April K. Mills

    Grant – Great question. I think the constraint in the case of a small change within a large organization is the organization’s people’s tolerance toward variability in people’s behavior. If everyone in your organization is a finger pointer, when you take responsibility for your work you are breaking with the standard. To start a new change requires a new set of behaviors, so the policy buffer protects the new behavior variability from the group-think behaviors of the old organization. These behaviors could be compliance/non-compliance with current written policies or compliance/non-compliance with unwritten rules. The constraint is people’s ability to deviate from the organization’s standard behaviors without suffering an attack of some sort. You’ve elevating the constraint when you protect the people behaving differently from the abuse of the old system. Does that clarify or muddy the waters for you?

  5. So…company policy is X and it is driving counter productive behavior. A team/group/division decides that policy Y is a better way to unconstrain brains and so they implement it locally to buffer against the global policy. Correct?

  6. Pingback: Naive to expect « Engine For Change

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