In many ways, I have the CV of a policymaker.
For the first part of my career, people generally assumed that I would head into policymaking at some stage; that running an operational team was a precursor to heading off to think hard about what might work better. I could see why they thought that, and have often been tempted by the excitement and productivity of good thinking – I enjoy playing around with ideas and writing; and I love the satisfaction of solving a complex problem. In the time-honoured manner, many of my best friends are policymakers…
But, despite all the attractive reasons above, something in me has always been drawn to the mess of implementation – the chaotic glory of getting things done.
It is, in many ways, a thankless task. The truth is that, if implementation goes well, people tend to assume it would always have done so; when it goes badly, there are a myriad of reasons given, but it is rare that the core process itself is challenged. People would perversely rather think of the ‘wrong policy’ or, more often, the ‘wrong people’ than to look at the process of implementation itself, and wonder what could have been done differently.
To me, this is a missed opportunity.
The real understanding about how to get things done often lies in the chaos of the doing itself. I have lost count of the number of incredibly able and intelligent people who assume that, ‘because we had a great workshop’, implementation will surely follow. I am endlessly reminded of Ross proudly announcing Rachel’s speedy delivery to the hospital as they begin their parenting journey, and her deadpan response ‘Yes Ross, the hard part is truly done’.
The workshop; the policy; the idea are all simply seeds from which the real, practical change will grow. As with anything, it requires nurturing, care, and, above all, time to translate something brand new into normality.
So, what do we need to do differently to get this different result?
In my experience, there are two critical success factors for successful implementation and, as you might expect, they both fall into the ‘simple but complex’ category.
The first is to really recognise that successfully implementing something, i.e. doing something new, is often really about stopping doing something old and comfortable. This can be a simple as sitting in ‘your desk’, or as complex as an entire new set of operating procedures, but the main challenge is that the ‘old’ feels safe, familiar and ‘real’; whilst the new feels dangerous, risky and artificial. Neophiles may rush into the bright new future, heedless of what they are leaving behind but, often, what looks in many of us like resistance to the new, is a form of grief or fear about losing the old.
Understanding this completely changes the way you might approach the transition. Fear can be managed positively, but only if it is acknowledged as a core part of the change from the outset. And managing people who are feeling fear is very different from managing those who are resistant. As a simple example, a workshop may be a great way of getting ideas together, but it isn’t a great way of making them seem real and not frightening. The very ephemerality of the workshop creates a sense of it being a liminal space for organisational play; and, for the same reason, it often fails as a starting point for implementation.
One way to embed the new as being real, is to allow those affected to challenge it – to test it to destruction – but in a process where the current reality is similarly challenged. De-risking the future by destabilising the present is a classic change management technique, but has to be done carefully and with respect for the emotions and perspectives of the people involved. If people’s level of fear rises to the point where they become frozen, all change stops and they will retreat into anything that feels safe. Building the new around the old, and then allowing the old to slip away quietly is a sophisticated way to approach the problem, but one that actually works .
The main paradox of his approach is that, when done skilfully, it is a seamless shift that gets missed. Whenever someone describes a successful implementation, I would be willing to bet that someone, somewhere in the process has managed to achieve this sleight of hand; I am also willing to believe that no-one noticed them doing it.
The second critical success factor is time. Managing the passage of time through the implementation process accurately is key. Too slow and you lose momentum; too fast and people’s fear overtakes their ability to adapt. In this ‘Goldilocks’ model of change, reading the mood and rhythm of those impacted is key, and working at their pace. I can already hear people grumbling that they need to go faster than that pace will allow and, to those people, I would gently say ‘if you aren’t led by the people with whom you are working to create the change; you won’t change anything at all’.
Time itself is an elastic concept – a good implementer can make a week feel like a month, or vice versa, depending on the needs of the project or task at hand. Again, what matters is that time is a tool to create the mix of momentum and security that sits at the heart of successfully getting things done.
None of this is magic. In some ways it isn’t even particularly complicated. It does, however, require a deep understanding of people; and respect for how they respond to the world around them, how they construct their sense of selves, and how they respond to change in its broadest sense.
Great policy has the potential to change the world, but only if it can become reality. Great implementation takes the beauty and clarity of policy and refracts it through the messy complexity of the people who will need to behave differently in order to turn it into reality. It’s a particular form of alchemy – not rocket science but, when it works well, a kind of magic.