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?

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But what about…

Groupthink: A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” – Irving Janis

  • When you don’t share your opinion with your team because you fear that they will not like you anymore, you are contributing to groupthink.
  • When you don’t share your opinion with your team because you were threatened by one of the team members the last time you differed from the group’s aligned position, you were forced to contribute to groupthink.
  • When you attack a team member after they share their opinion because their opinion (or more strongly, the facts they presented) would weaken your group’s aligned position, you are demanding groupthink.

Beware the horrors and terrors that groupthink produces.  While you may think you are saving the group from discord or drama or days of discussion, you are really destroying–perhaps subtly, though often overtly–the group’s ability to function successfully.

When you observe a group deep into groupthink and you want to break them free, it will be an act of courage to point out the groupthink to them.

Why it is an act of courage?

Because the group norms that keep them in groupthink will make attacking your position appear, from their perspective, both rational and essential for the sake of their group.

I’ll admit I haven’t done enough research to be able to tell you a few great tricks for how to free a group from group think.  At this point all I can tell you is avoidance techniques:

  1. Know the term, groupthink, and be on the lookout for it growing in your groups,
  2. Don’t allow your own behavior to drive groupthink in your group (e.g,. ask the group regularly who disagrees and allow them to share their full position without question instead of forcing your opinion upon the group), and when all else fails
  3. Summon up the courage however you can to act forcefully to free those you see deep into groupthink.  Offer them a different position. Stand firm with your facts when they attack.  Take your beating and bear your consequences.  You may not win, but you  just might wake them up.

Extra Credit: You no doubt have heard of  the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, but did you know it is an often cited example of the real dangers of groupthink.

Read the wikipedia entry on Roger Boisjoly, an engineer who spoke out against the consensus and could not prevail in time.  He is quoted as saying, “the caucus called by Morton Thiokol managers, which resulted in a recommendation to launch, ‘constituted the unethical decision-making forum resulting from intense customer intimidation.'”

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Gathering commitment from the “voluntold”

Have you ever heard of the word “voluntold”?  It’s a combination of volunteer and told.  It typically means your boss ordered you to serve on a committee that you never would have chosen to serve with if you were given the choice.  Unwords.com lists the definition as:

1. (v.) When one has been volunteered for something by another person. Often against their wishes or desires.

Sadly, too many committees are developed from the masses of “voluntold” members.  It’s not surprising that these committees of conscripts rarely achieve an ounce of the impact a team of true volunteers accomplishes.

The other day I began to wonder, “Is it possible to take a committee of ‘voluntold’ members and turn them into a team of committed volunteers?”

Could you take a bunch of individuals waiting for the meeting time to run out  and transform them into a team willing to share tasking and push forward toward a common goal?

What if you pushed them to admit their past decision and choose their future ones.  What if you asked:

  • Did you come here today because you wanted to or because your boss told you?  Are you a volunteer or were you “voluntold”?
  • If you came because your boss told you, are you curious about the opportunity you have as a member of this team?
  • If you came because your boss told you, but you aren’t curious about the opportunity, are you willing to go back to your boss and encourage him or her to assign someone else to the team?
  • Do you think this team can accomplish a great deal if you can each commit to this opportunity?
  • Are you willing to act on that commitment and take an action away from today’s meeting?

I believe it is possible to gather commitment from the “voluntold” and it can be as simple as asking them a few questions about why they are here, whether or not they want to stay and what they will do to show their commitment.

Try it and see how you do.  I’ll love to hear if your experiment was successful.  We may be on to something here.

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Link Fuel

Daniel Pink has some resolutions for us for 2011, including a new term I love: Vuja de.

We’ve all experienced déjà vu—looking at an unfamiliar situation and feeling like you’ve seen it before. Vuja dé is the flip side of that—looking at a familiar situation (an industry you’ve worked in for decades, problems you’ve worked on for years) as if you’ve never seen it before, and, with that fresh line of sight, developing a distinctive point of view on the future. The challenge for all of us is that too often, we let what we know limit what we can imagine. This is the year to face that challenge head-on.

Rogue Polymath reviews his 2010 and asks for feedbackforward for 2011.

Captain Soule is back with his post, “Heresy – No such thing as a “root” cause?”  I agree that there isn’t a (meaning one) root cause.  There are several causes that lead to any problem or success.

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Not guilty

Sometimes I learn interesting things because I’m married to a lawyer.

One of the interesting things I’ve learned is that in some criminal cases a lawyer must prove the defendant did the crime and had a guilty mind (in Latin, their mens rea).  Hence, a defendant can plead not guilty by reason of insanity not because they didn’t commit the crime, but because they claim they didn’t have the guilty mind.

How does this apply to driving change?

When your boss (or whoever) is driving you to change, I think most of us assume that the boss (or whoever) knows they are doing something wrong and chooses to do it anyway.  We know they’ve committed the crime, and we assume they have the guilty mind too.  Do they?

In reality, I’ve found that most bosses (or whoever) don’t realize that there is another option, besides driving people, for creating change.  Without them knowing of something better (driving change perhaps) how can we try and convict the bosses or whomever? How can we prove they had the guilty mind. We can’t.

May I suggest that you:

1. Assume they don’t know there is a better way.

2. Share this blog with them or have a discussion with them about driving change instead of driving people.  Describe what it would look like and what it would feel like if they were driving change.

3.  Mention that they’ll getter better outcomes and they’ll get the outcomes faster if they try this new way of making change happen.

4.  Tell them again, or better yet show them again, since they probably didn’t listen to you the first time.

5.  Repeat until it works.

If driving change were obvious everyone would be doing it.  If it isn’t obvious and most bosses or whoever need to be shown driving change first, then give them the benefit of the doubt until you show them, share with them and help them be more successful.

Now to an area I know, Newton’s laws of motion: a body in motion will remain in motion until acted upon by an outside force.

Be that outside force.

Nudge them into driving change.

Why not try?

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Seeking productive people

Administrators derive status from their organization and tend to identify themselves with it so that criticism of the organization is felt by them to be criticism of the administrator himself.  Productive people owe whatever distinction they may have to their own competence and are usually more open-minded about improving their performance.” – H. G. Rickover, then Vice Admiral, USN writing in American Education – A National Failure, 1963

When you’re driving change you’ll want to know whether you’re working with administrators or what Admiral Rickover called “productive people.”  Granted, there are shades of each on the line between the two, but to be successful you must learn to tell one from the other.

Here’s a quick way to tell the difference, at least from my experience.  An administrator will never use the word “new” as applied to information you have presented; they probably won’t talk much at all. Whether amazed by your findings or not, if they admit you knew something they didn’t then they have failed because your information would imply their organization is not today all that it could be, and if the organization isn’t all that it could be then they are not all that they can be, and their self-talk spiral goes up and up. The way to rewind the spiral is to talk about your change as opportunity to leverage the best of their organization and make it even better.  Even in the worse organizations there is a best part so you’re never lying, even when their best is everyone else’s average or worse.

A productive person however will use these words when in conversation with you, and will probably use them often: interesting, curious, challenging (in a positive way), new and different (again in a positive way).  Your problem with a productive person is that their curiosity for your information may cause you to run past your conclusions, getting you a few steps beyond the change you’ve thought out.  To keep your credibility when working with a productive person, always admit when you don’t know something and always share how far out you’ve taken your idea (e.g., we know what’ll happen in the next three months, but haven’t planned for “what ifs” past that). Always be on the look out for productive people.  They are an advantage on your good days and a treasured asset on your bad.

In the end you’ll be driving change with everyone, so talk up those administrators, care for those productive people and drive the change either way.

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Kairos

Just last week I learned that the ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos (the unfeeling time that flies by before us) and kairos (the human time of creating an opportunity for something important).

Often each week I’m asked how I get so much done.  I used to reply with a shrug of my shoulders.  Now I reply, “kairos.”

In the last week I prepared a command-wide presentation for our top executives, supported my son (he’s 2-and-a-half years old) through his fourth emergency brain surgery of the year, ran a half marathon, orchestrated a 70-person off-site session, attended a retirement celebration and an Elks club spaghetti feed, worked four days (plus 2 hours on the weekend) and read two books.  Oh, and I blogged some too and did four loads of laundry.  I also read books to my children every night, helped them with their prayers and kissed them before they went to bed.  And, I think I got in a snuggle while watching a movie with my husband.

I get so much done because I am constantly making time work for me.  Now, granted, I’ve been practicing at this for years and I’ve got some natural energy that I attribute to a genetic gift from my grandmother, but I also look at time as kairos not chronos.  Time doesn’t control me. Time works for me.

Whether you read Covey’s words about “first things first” or Drucker’s Effective Executive, the gurus tell you that harnessing your time to your purposes is the sure route to improving your performance and gaining the success you desire.  They believe in the power of kairos.

I think Peter Senge would tell you that you have a flawed mental model if you only assume time is chronos.  Break that mental model.  Add kairos to time and see what happens after you believe that you can create time.

Seek out kairos.  You’ll be surprised how much time you find.

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Try being indispensable

I’m not trying to make this a Seth Godin tribute blog; really I’m not.  But then Rogue Polymath tweeted about Amber Naslund’s Indispensable vs Irreplaceable post. She mixes two of my favorites–new terms and Godin’s Linchpin–so I can’t resist sharing her post with you.

Amber writes:

Being indispensable is about delivering massive impact no matter where you are. It’s much more of a characteristic – a mindset wrapped with skills and attributes – rather than the details and functions in a role. Indispensable people are the types that you can hand any project, put in nearly any role, issue a challenge to, and they simply make things happen by understanding what needs to get done and adapting their skills accordingly.

Being irreplaceable is the opposite. It’s about being locked into a role because you’re harboring finite knowledge, skills, or information that you can’t or aren’t willing to share with anyone else. Sometimes that’s borne from insecurity. Other times it’s a false sense that if you protect your sandbox so that only you know its secrets, you have job security for life.

Knowing the difference between irreplaceable and indispensable made me wonder:

How do you know whether your organization is based on irreplaceable or indispensable people?

Have you ever heard someone in your organization say,  “Bob is the new Bruce (and he’s no Bruce)” ? If you have, you’re in an organization of irreplaceable people.

Sadly–and I’d guess unknowingly–organizations have ensured their future failures by maintaining their systems of irreplaceable people.  Irreplaceable people systems fail because they tie their worth–and then the inevitable loss of their worth– directly to the passing of time.  As an engineer, I have a hard time believing anyone would knowingly tie their organization’s success to the passing of time–a variable so manifestly outside the organization’s control.

Organizations full of irreplaceable people are seemingly shocked to find their organizations built up by the dutiful and time consuming accumulations of horded knowledge then abruptly crippled by each irreplaceable person’s departure.  These organizations lament retirement rates and their losses of corporate knowledge, yet their predicament was entirely predictable.

They put articles in their newsletters about the decades or centuries of knowledge that left with their retirees last month, mourning the retiree-shaped holes that pockmark the metaphorical field of the organization into a scarred bombing range.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  An organization can wrestle control from the passage of time if the organization selects, rewards and sustains indispensable people.

You may be in an organization of indispensable people if in reference to someone taking a new job, you hear your organization’s leaders emphasizing the attributes that made the current person excellent for the job as the job is today and most especially as it is projected to be in the future.  You may hear something like, “Jenna brings her unique talents that the organization needs to win today and triumph tomorrow.”  (Okay so maybe I got a little carried away with that one.)

There does exist a middle ground between an organization locked in the irreplaceable and a utopia of value to the indispensable.   In my career, I’ve gotten to this middle ground by either taking jobs that no one has ever done before (no irreplaceable personality or qualifications to live up to) or doing the job in a way no one else has ever considered (erasing as fast as possible the hole left by the last person so that all they see is me in the job).

Those of you who’ve been asking me how you get a job like mine, now you know my secret: be indispensable regardless of what the organization is asking for.

Be indispensable by driving change.

Be indispensable by storing up your value in the achievement of the future, not the glory of the past (though the past is fun to study to help you succeed in the future).

Be indispensable by taking the best of what worked and joyfully making it better.

Be indispensable by leverage yourself for the situation, instead of forcing the situation to meet your past, or even your current, expectations or skills.

Be indispensable and bring about the organization of tomorrow.

Be indispensable because that’s what your organization needs today.

Why not try being indispensable?

Trust me; it’s a lot of fun.

——————————

Bonus question:  Does the organization want you to be irreplaceable or indispensable when it says it is “opening more opportunities for career growth and providing a working environment that will broaden experiences and prepare our employees for higher-level duties.”? [Source:  NAVSEA On Watch 2010]

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Stockdale Paradox

If you don’t know what the term Stockdale Paradox means, you must.

When you can “maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be,” you are embracing what Jim Collins calls the Stockdale Paradox. [source: Good to Great by Jim Collins]

Collins writes about a conversation he had with Admiral Stockdale, as Stockdale remembered back to his time as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton.  Stockdale told Collins,

I never lost faith in the end of the story.  I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When Collins asked, “Who didn’t make it out?” Stockdale replied:

Oh, that’s easy.  The optimists. ..Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go.  And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again.  And they died of a broken heart. .. .That is a very important lesson.  You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end–which you can never afford to lose–with the discipline to confront the brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

How does this apply to you, someone trying to drive change?

Simple. Ask yourself: Have I  ever given up on a change I wanted or needed because I played the optimist and allowed myself to break my heart, my will to drive change?

Sadly, I’ve had people quit driving change because of the simplest of defeats:

  • They were let down when a top manager, who has never delivered on a promise of support, fails again to support them.  (And they thought this time would be different. Nope.)
  • They thought the change would be complete well before the summer was over and now it’s late into the fall.
  • They tried and failed to change something in the past and refuse to try again.
  • They think driving change should be more happiness and less frustration (often it isn’t), or
  • They think others (name the group) should help more and complain less. (They rarely will.)

You have not been defeated by some outside enemy when you quit, when you allow yourself to break, or when  you refuse to face the Stockdale Paradox, accept it and persevere;  you have defeated yourself.

Know the Stockdale Paradox.

Seek out and face the brutal facts.

But, keep the faith that someday you will achieve the change you are driving.

You will never prevail unless you believe you will.

Why not believe?

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