Implementation Teams: Don't start change without one.

Recently, I was talking with an executive about the design and implementation of a new process. After we covered three, key questions about the change, I asked: "So, who on your staff is available to lead the implementation?"  The leader's response: "Well....everyone! Everyone will be involved and leading from day one. It will be just how we do things!"  

Ah, yes.  Everyone.

The trick is that for everyone to play a role in "leading" the change, to use it like it's a no brainer, they need direction and support. Even super committed, high-performing staff will need guidance. Even when the change "is part of their job", they will need help getting up to speed. Even when the change is well designed and documented, there will be questions and problems that need to be worked through and worked out. Even when you are sure the change will lead to great outcomes, you will need to measure and track progress, just to be sure. Someone, not everyone, should be clearly responsible for these types of things.

Initial research indicates that it's often a good bet for that "someone" to be an implementation team.

As best as I can tell, research into implementation teams is still in its early days. Such teams have been conceptualized and labeled in different ways, e.g., change agents, integrators, coordinators or management groups ("Implementation Teams", n.d.). However, despite these differences in terms, one review of 25 implementation frameworks found that nearly 70% of them included the development of an implementation team as a key step (Meyers, 2012). Given that, establishing a team of people who are accountable for the success of the implementation seems pretty important.

In this two-part post, adapted from my upcoming book, The Implementer's Starter Kit, I review key factors involved in developing a successful implementation team. I do so by drawing on research on teams in general, while also highlighting unique considerations related to implementation teams in particular.

Specifically, I review three areas to consider when creating your implementation team: 

  • Mandate: The purpose, boundaries, and accountability of the implementation team.  (Part I) 
  • Skills and Perspectives:  The mix of capabilities and viewpoints necessary to support the implementation effort. (Part I)
  • Structure:  How the team is organized and positioned within the larger organizational context to best execute the implementation. (Part II)

Mandate

Focused on the successful execution of a particular change

Implementation teams are differentiated from other types of teams by their mandate. Fundamentally, the implementation team is responsible for the successful execution of a specific change — full stop.  Members of the implementation team often have responsibilities beyond their work on the team; however, the focus of their efforts on the implementation team should relate to a specific and defined change.

Responsible for the design and management of the implementation

Some researchers conceptualize these teams as solely for execution management. However, in practice, all implementation teams are involved to some degree in both the design of the innovation being implemented and the management of efforts to embed the innovation in the organization. For example, teams created only after a decision has been made on what to implement will still be involved in design tasks when they refine and improve the effort based on initial implementation results.

Not a governance body or steering committee

The implementation team should not be confused with a governance body, steering committee, or management team.  While the team will likely have some decision-making authority, it often relies on others for major decisions. What's more, this is not a team that does the majority of its work around a conference room table. It’s a team that is on its feet, working shoulder to shoulder with leaders and end-users. It is a roll-up your sleeves and dig in the dirt group of people. 

Not a group of adopters or end-users

That said, the implementation team is distinct from end-users. The best implementation teams often include representatives of the adopter or end-user community; however, an implementation team is not simply an organized group of adopters. Rather, it brings to bear specific skills and perspectives to support the implementation, as outlined in the next section. 

Skills and Perspectives

In order to fulfill its mandate, the implementation team must include members that offer a variety of capabilities as well as insights. For this reason, when creating the implementation team, it's important to consider both requirements for hard skills, as well as diverse organizational perspectives.  

Skills

Specific skills often represented on an implementation team include: 

  • Project Management: This includes skills that support effective planning, budgeting, scheduling, execution management and liaising with the governance body and other key stakeholders. 
  • Technical skills specific to the innovation and implementation effort:  Expertise related to the innovation being implemented, (e.g., a software tool, process or practice), is necessary to inform design, planning, training, and coaching. This is often provided by external consultants or vendors, but may also be sourced internally. Including folks who have experience and knowledge of good practice in implementation is also a good idea!
  • Training and Coaching:  Training is more than developing and reviewing PowerPoint presentations with a group end users. For this reason, each team should include members skilled in the design and delivery of effective training and ongoing technical support.
  • Measurement & Analysis: Measurement skills are critical to enable the team to monitor the implementation, gather feedback, assess outcomes, and identify necessary improvements.
  • Communication & Engagement: The ability to effectively tell the story of the implementation throughout its lifespan is critical— why it's being done, what it is, who's involved, how it will be implemented and what's been learned and achieved. 

In order to avoid assembling a group of experts who act independently, rather than as an interdependent team, it can also be useful to consider skills in teamwork and collaboration.  Further, as the leader of the team, it's a good idea to a) ensure all members are clear on their role and how it contributes to the shared mandate of the team and b) design team interactions to highlight the interdependence of members and shared goals.

Perspectives

Change is often viewed differently at different levels of the organization. Executives and frontline staff will have unique concerns and hopes for the innovation being implemented — they may also anticipate and be able to help mitigate distinct types of challenges. 

For this reason, several researchers, (e.g., Higgins, 2012; Hackman, 2006), have highlighted the importance of ensuring diverse organizational representation on the implementation team.  They suggest members reflect a “diagonal slice” of the organization hierarchy. This helps to ensure that the full variety of perspectives on the effort — from executive management to line staff — informs design, planning, and execution. 

A note about the stability of membership

The literature on teams often indicates that stability of members is essential (see more in this post). If people are constantly cycling in and out of the team, it can be hard to develop a rhythm or even to know who’s on the team. 

Given that implementation efforts are often long-term — lasting 1-3 years — the ideal of stability of individuals on the team may seem hard to attain. In their work on implementation teams, Monica Higgins and colleagues suggest focusing on functional or role stability, rather than the stability of specific individuals (2012).  For example, aim to ensure that project management and front-line staff functions are represented, rather than that Bob from the PMO and Kathy from customer service are always on the team. 


Up Next: Structuring your team for success

You've got a clear mandate.  You've got the right skills and perspectives represented on your team.  How do you structure the team to ensure both inclusivity and manageability?  I cover that in Part II of this post, where I provide a general implementation team structure and discuss how this structure plays out when applied, through three examples of real-world implementation teams. 

 

References

"Implementation Teams." Implementation Teams | NIRN Project site. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 July 2017.

Hackman, J. Richard, and Ruth Wageman. "When And How Team Leaders Matter." Research in Organizational Behavior 26 (2004): 37-74. Web.

Hackman JR, Edmondson AE. "Groups as agents of change." In: Cummings T Handbook of Organization Development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage ; 2006. pp. 167-186.

Higgins, Monica C., Jennie Weiner, and Lissa Young. "Implementation teams: A new lever for organizational change." Journal of Organizational Behavior 33.3 (2012): 366-88. Web.

Meyers, D. C., JA, D., & Wandersman, A. (2012). "The quality implementation framework: A synthesis of critical steps in the implementation process." American Journal of Community Psychology, 50(3-4), 462-480.