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The Implementation Myth

29 August 2017

For decades the dominant change paradigm in organisations has relied on separating social and technical aspects of change. As the excellent Paul Plsek once described it to me…

“The technical aspect of change is like throwing a brick. When we know the forces that apply and where we want the brick to land, the rest is maths. The social aspect applies when we realise that most change is more like throwing a bird.”

Approaching change as if these two aspects (the social and the technical) are separate in practice is actively unhelpful (something Paul knows well). It is to perpetuate the old and outmoded command and control philosophy of management, where thinkers think and doers do. It turns change into a sales process, where effort is lost to generating “buy-in” at the expense of generating more improvement, faster.

And all of this would be just fine, of course, if it worked but it doesn’t.

The landscape of change is one where seemingly good ideas repeatedly fail to stick. “Resistance” is a word so synonymous with change as to be assumed as an essential feature. We rationalise that “change is slow”, “change is hard” or “people don't like change”. We label people as “early adopters”, laggards”, “resistors” or even “organisational terrorists” (!) and we behave as if these labels describe something that is true of the people involved in change rather than something that is a consequence of the change approach being used.

So it’s time to abandon the implementation myth; the idea that successful change lies in getting from idea to execution. Conceived differently, ideation and execution are not separate processes; change is a “learn by doing” not a “learn then do”.

Embracing this alternative conception of change means collapsing false divides between specification and delivery, policy and practice, strategy and operations. It means recognising that unlocking improvement at scale is a consequence of widespread experimentation at pace. Critically, it means recognising too that the more we push “big ideas at scale” the more we cripple our organisations' ability to successfully experiment at pace. In other words, a focus on more, bigger, faster implementation will only amplify the usual failures of change, not remedy them.

So in the new age of change, we need to create environments where rapid and relentless experimentation happens by default; where the birds in Paul Plsek’s metaphor, are responsible for deciding where to land and for understanding the consequences that landing there has for performance; change as a process of constant learning and adaptation but not as an imposition or threat. 

Interested in “how to”? Contact us at to discuss how we can help. We will take the time to understand your situation and we won’t give you the hard sell.


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