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Success in Action Series: Surviving the Implementation Dip

May 10, 2018 Omari Burnside NASPA

Typically, taking on a new project or initiative may generate a healthy mix of anxiety, apprehension, excitement, and hopefulness across the institution. In response to these feelings, we may hold enthusiastic kick-off events, develop forward-thinking project plans, create catchy marketing campaigns, and flood the institution with communication materials about the work ahead. All of these actions spur a buzz across campus and can create a high sense of optimism for you and your colleagues – and then the “real” work begins.

Ready, set, go!

Fast-forward four months into project execution, the buzz has calmed down and you and your team have been hard at work. However, you begin to fully see the complexity of the effort and/or you are not making the progress you had hoped; resulting in you becoming less excited and confident about meeting the desired outcome. Change management expert Michael Fullan refers to this drop in performance and confidence as the “implementation dip” – the phenomenon that occurs “as one encounters an innovation that requires new skills and new understandings.” Experiencing this dip may be an inevitable part of any change effort. Whenever we introduce something new and different to others – whether you're spearheading the implementation of a new early alert system, or starting a new mentoring program on campus – we should expect that it will take some time for all impacted stakeholders to become comfortable with the change. Therefore we should not fear or get discouraged by the implementation dip, rather we should embrace it and identify ways to survive it.

Identify the root cause: Reasons for the implementation dip can be placed on a scale, with one end being “ability” and on the other end being “willingness.” Ability deals with the institution and/or staff having the right structures in place or practical knowledge and experience in order to do the work required. Willingness refers to those at the institution that may be hesitant to fully embrace change. Regardless of where your colleagues or institution land on this continuum, it is important to have the right level of supports in place so that the effort can be a success. For example, when implementing a new advising system, you could check-in regularly with the advisors, faculty, and other users of the system to ensure they feel they have the necessary skills to maximize the effectiveness of the system, and tailor your support accordingly. Or for instance, you may encounter a colleague or two that aren’t 100% on board with the direction the work is going. It may be helpful to create opportunities to listen to their concerns, problem-solve together, and continue to communicate why the work is needed and why they are critical to the institution’s success.

Utilize a guiding coalition: Anthropologist Margaret Mead once stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Now, we may not be changing the world, but the sentiment still holds true – you do not have to do all the work alone. Consider creating an informal guiding coalition that you can engage in sporadically throughout the change effort. A guiding coalition is a small group of powerful allies who can help you build support and overcome challenges in your work. Power in this instance does not just mean positional power, it can also be held by those who possess a high level of credibility at the institution, have a certain expertise that could be leveraged, or have well-established relationships with the appropriate individuals or groups. The guiding coalition can be used to address institutional barriers that may impede progress and provide you with thought-leadership as you navigate your way out of the implementation dip.

Persist through the distractions and monotony: Another factor in the implementation dip is the ability to sustain the level of energy needed to keep the work on track. When leading any change effort you may be confronted with crises, competing priorities, and unexpected events that can prevent you from devoting the necessary time and attention to the efforts. Additionally, leading change can become tedious, monotonous, and (dare I say it) quite boring after an extended period of time, which can make the climb out of the dip that much harder. Consider developing routine meetings with various groups across campus to collaborate and solicit ideas on how to keep the work fresh and engaging. Also, find and promote the successes that have taken place (who doesn’t love a party!). And most importantly, find ways to practice a little self-care. Sometimes, just taking a moment to regroup, can reenergize you for the work ahead.

 Photo Courtesy of Pixabay