So what’s all the fuss about implementation?

24 March 2016

Topic: Active implementation
Author: Melissa Van Dyke

As I’m sure you know all too well, creating meaningful change in organisations and systems is really, really challenging. John Kotter (1996), a leader and expert in organisational change and transformation who I often look to, states that 70% of all major changes within organisations fail. A good example of this is literacy levels in the United States. Despite a joint effort by educational leaders across the board for more than 40 years, national literacy levels have remained the same.

Why does major change in organisations fail?

That’s a really big question but fortunately a growing understanding from both experience and the literature has helped us to make sense of the inability to ‘move the dial’ on this. In reviewing the implementation literature, we learned that the most common approaches to implementing change actually produce few results. Used alone, approaches like:

  • diffusion and dissemination of information, evidence and learning
  • training (no matter how well done)
  • developing and implementing policy
  • providing funding
  • reorganising structures

have not produced the expected return on investment related to the types of education, health or social care outcomes that are of most concern (Fixsen, et al. 2005; Durlak & DuPre 2008; Proctor, et. al. 2009). As this has become more widely recognised, the interest in ‘what works’ when implementing change has increased. 

What works in implementing change?

An expanding collection of evidence and lessons learned from implementing change means we now know what combinations of approaches are needed to make meaningful change happen. To do this, it’s important to decide:

  • What problem are we trying to solve?
  • What interventions are available and will be effective?
  • What organisational support is needed to implement and sustain effective practice?
  • What political, regulatory, financial, and partnership arrangements are needed?

So, a formula for success looks like:

An active implementation graphic: Effective approaches multiplied by effective implimentation methods multiplied by enabling contexts equals socially significant outcomes.

Source: National Implementation Research Network, 2013

Effective practices to guide change

By learning lessons and tapping into the growing evidence around implementation, people working in research, policy, and practice can see how current practices can actually block change.  Here’s a set of effective practices that help guide successful implementation and system change:

  • Careful selection or development of well-defined, effective approaches which are teachable, learnable, doable, and readily assessable.
  • Applying different activities at the developmental ‘right time’ to guide implementation.
  • Identifying core implementation supports needed to implement, scale-up, and sustain effective practices.
  • Developing local teams, to guide, manage, and sustain the implementation and scale-up process.
  • Using improvement cycles and processes to support teams and organisations efficiently, to solve problems and become more effective (Fixsen, et al. 2005; Fixsen, et al. 2011; Van Dyke and Naoom 2015).

Meaningful change = making a difference for real people

Even with all the implementation knowledge you can possibly have, the change process can be daunting.  It takes knowledge, skills, professional courage, and personal commitment for successful implementation to achieve desired change. This work isn’t for the naïve or faint of heart!

Effective systems and services do make a difference to real people.  Educational leaders know that literacy is key to educational success, and educational success is important to many aspects of a person’s life. We know:

‘A parent’s educational level is the greatest indicator of whether their child will grow up in poverty’ (Literacy Partners).

Nurturing and effective parenting provides children with a much stronger foundation for development. Toxic stress

 ‘derails healthy development for children’ (Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child).

Responding effectively to those in crisis or need can mean the difference between a downward spiral and a managed and productive way forward:

‘some of the starkest evidence for this collective failure to properly help families is to be found in the frequency of problems which are transmitted from one generation of the same family to another’ (Working with Troubled Families report).

So what’s all the fuss about implementation? 

Well, educators, social workers, health providers, community developers, and many others want to know that what they do makes a meaningful difference to the children, families, and communities they support. And because Scotland has a great vision and commitment to Getting It Right For Every Child!

Hear more from me on implementation and how we can deliver on the Children and Young People Act (Scotland) 2014 for our most vulnerable children.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.

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