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Source Manager's Journal: Implementation

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The television preacher Pat Robertson recently had his annual conference with God and predicted a very bad year for the United States. We live in an age of prediction, although most of the predictors don’t claim to have Pat Robertson’s direct pipeline to the Deity and must rely on their razor-sharp intellects. Television and talk radio are overrun with Nostradamus wannabes who claim to know what is going to happen in the future.
In recent years, I have fallen into the trap myself. Upon completion of a planning project, I ask myself what is going to happen now. That is, will the organization successfully implement the plan or the change that it is committed to? The continuum runs from “not a chance” to “this is going to happen.” The reason for engaging in this mental exercise is to try to identify actions that can be taken in the post-planning period that will help move the entity toward successful implementation.
I began this predictive process several years ago after having done a pro bono planning initiative for a school at which an old friend taught. At the end of the last day, everyone was excited and energized, but I said to my friend, “Nothing is going to happen.” His reaction ranged from disappointment to anger. How could I say that? I gave him the following reasons. First, the principal of the school had no sense of urgency about bringing about change. She was a very nice and intelligent person, but she operated in — and contributed to — a culture of complacency, risk aversion and blame shifting. Second, the animated participants were happy because the retreat had been a great success. They viewed the environment-relationship map that they did — the best I have ever seen — as an end in itself rather than as a tool for change. Finally, they all lived in a world in which it was easier to change labels than to change things. As the school failed to improve, they were shifting their model from “multicultural education,” whatever that was, to “global education,” whatever that was. It was all very sad, because the plan that they had produced was a solid one — one that, if implemented, could have changed the life chances of the kids in their school.
Execution is a discipline. One of its components is implementation, a set of tactics that support the strategy, people and systems and processes needed to get things done. I have tried to convert my predictive exercise into a checklist of the prerequisites for successful implementation. Here are the key questions: Is there a culture of execution and implementation? Do they do what they say they are going to do? Is there a sense of urgency about doing things? Are discussions concrete, realistic and action oriented? Is the group cohesive?
With respect to the critical quality of cohesion, this is one of those (infrequent) occasions on which a sports analogy is really useful: When asked to explain the reasons that his team had a successful season, a football coach cited the fact that each player had confidence that the guy next to him would do his job. This is the cohesion that is essential to effective implementation. (By way of contrast, an unsuccessful coach was asked to comment on his team’s execution. He responded, “I’m in favor of it.”)
If any one of these prerequisites is missing, the clock should be stopped, and the problem should be made explicit and addressed. Once this is done, here are some other checklist tools and tactics that are important in getting from here to there.
Reasonableness and achievability: To implement anything, the goal must be achievable. It’s worth applying a test of reasonableness: Can this individual or group perform these tasks with the resources that we have in the time period that has been projected? The answer to the entire question must be “yes” or it is unlikely that implementation will be successful. Simply put, don’t ask people to do what can’t be done or what they can’t do.
Clarity: Everybody has to know what they are responsible for, when the task or assignment has to be completed and what resources he or she will have to complete it. The outcome also has to be clear and should be measurable. For example, let’s say a public agency is implementing a change in the way that something is processed. Every aspect of the outcome should be clear: forms, the flow of work, communications and handoffs, system needs and the exact nature of the improvement, how it will look different and better to the customer. The eternal rule of effective management applies doubly when implementing something: clarity is good, ambiguity is bad.
Communication: The key to successful implementation is over-communication. “I explained it to them” is not good enough. There is a need for repetition and for different managers and leaders to be saying the same thing in almost the same language. A useful rule is also to at least double the volume of communication that the managers feel is adequate.
This means planning and preparation about the implementation process. Communication is a discipline: what exactly are we going to say? Who is going to say it? What is the best means of communication? In almost all instances, the best person to communicate change to individuals and work groups is their direct supervisor, not the top manager or boss. These front-line supervisors also serve as the most important cog in a feedback loop that identifies issues and problems that are emerging in the implementation process.
Accountability: Without accountability there is no effective implementation. If individuals or groups aren’t held accountable for commitments made, they become the standard of acceptable performance. The lowest common denominator prevails and, in the end, the organization will stagnate, decline or fail. In business, this problem is solved in a fairly rapid fashion. The company goes out of business. In government and the non-profit sector, it’s not so simple because there is no bottom line. For example, in the Virgin Islands, one can make the case that a government sector culture of non-accountability has grown in the years since Cyril King was governor, a virtual lifetime ago. Where no systems, processes or norms of accountability exist, putting them in place becomes job number one.
Small Victories: Between startup and achieving full implementation, there need to be small victories, benchmarks of success that tell everyone that this is serious and that it is going to happen. In environments where a norm of non-implementation is being changed and challenged, these small victories are particularly important because they tell those who are committed that they are in the mainstream and on the winning side and marginalize the opponents of change.
Tracking and Monitoring: In most instances, those implementing a change have other responsibilities, some of which are immediate or urgent. At the same time, implementation tasks, while important, may not be urgent. In life, the urgent often crowds out the important. Simple tracking and monitoring systems are safeguards against that crowding out. They inform individuals and work groups that specific tasks must be completed by defined dates. The easiest way to do this is via e-mail or a memo every two weeks reminding people that they have to complete something two weeks hence. This simple tool is another vehicle for convincing people that implementation is serious and that there is a path toward improvement.
We live in a world of bad execution and implementation. These failures are hardly limited to the public or non-profit sector or even to large bureaucratic organizations. Discipline and culture are inseparable in implementing change, whether it is products, services or programs. In a basic way, discipline is the culture, and the tools described above — reinforced by norms of urgency, high quality and commitment — are the building blocks of a superior culture. The organization — government, non-
profit, or business — that builds such a culture will not only succeed. It will be recognized as a leader and a model.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.
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