Overcoming barriers to change: The role of frontline leaders

Urban life 22 August 2017 Jeppe Ostersen

Implementation is not just about logic and analysis. People are often the key. This article sheds a light on frontline leaders as the prerequisite for successful change.

12 min

If you ever watched a 110 meters hurdle race, you know that overcoming barriers can be easy and swift. Some hurdles are even forced down by the sheer pace of the runner. However, not everything comes easily in an organisational context. Anyone involved in driving large-scale change projects knows this.

A study by Ramboll Management Consulting shows that there are four types of barriers to implementation within technical, cultural, educational, and management domains.

Determining the barriers is not just a pessimistic opener of a change project. The insights generated define the following steps. Along with three colleagues, I have written a white paper on the topic deriving from the qualitative study.

Imagine if you thought that capacity building of front-line employees was needed and it turned out that the real showstopper was in fact lack of focus and clarity from top management or technical hindrances such as an out-dated IT infrastructure. To address this, you need to do a proper analysis at this early stage.

The four barriers

At an overall level, four types of barriers crystallises as hindering effective implementation. But the barriers always depend on the context and the composition of the intervention.

How to overcome the barriers 

 The four barriers are all common, but unfortunately there are no quick fixes on how to overcome them. So where does this leave the people in charge of public sector change initiatives or policy implementation?  Every implementation process needs careful consideration in terms of which tools and leadership approaches to apply.

Sometimes the best solution can be not to implement a full intervention programme because of the complexity required from this type of change. Instead selected elements can be implemented, providing a much higher and quicker take-up of those elements. This balance between fidelity and adaption is tricky and remains one of the central puzzles within implementation research and practice.

One way to handle the balance is to define the complex core elements of the intervention and also clarify the adaptable elements like structures and systems which will give flexibility for the local entities to adapt.

In this way, you can select which evidence based elements to implement: practices, methods, technologies or policies, he says.

Engage the frontline leaders 

 However, it is hard to think of a change project that did not involve frontline leaders in one way or the other. Therefore, a vital step on the way to successful implementation is to engage the frontline leaders systematically. Since change initiatives are often comprehensive, it requires attention from the closest leader to get a grip on how to implement the changes in the specific organisation or department.

These frontline leaders are actually one of the most important drivers for implementation, according to a Ramboll evaluation report on implementation amongst job centers and municipalities in Denmark. The employees call for clear leadership.

Successful implementation largely depends on the frontline leaders - on their capabilities. The report shows that 73 pct. of employees believe that attention and continuous follow-up from the closest leader is an essential driving force for the implementation process.

Both the political focus and management focus are assessed by employees and management as advancing for the implementation process. However, the vast majority of employees consider their closest leader's focus on the task as the most advancing factor.

This emphasizes the importance of day-to-day management, for example by team leaders, as these in many municipalities are anchored in strategic management but at the same time very practice-oriented. As one of the employees in the municipality of Vordingborg told me: “It was crucial for our success that the team leader participated throughout the whole implementation”.

That is why the leaders, and especially the team leaders, should be engaged in understanding and translating the intentions in change processes.

Patience, please 

 Engaging the leaders is one part of the equation. Once the leaders are engaged and understand the intentions, another important part of the implementation is to involve the employees. By anchoring the implementation firmly with the employees, chances are that the new initiatives will be better sustained over time.

The above-mentioned evaluation report not only pointed to front line leaders – it also showed that involving the employees is crucial for understanding the intentions and elements of the changes.

Six out of ten Job Centre Managers said that they had spent a lot of time informing and discussing the changes at meetings with the employees prior to and during the implementation process. The Job Centre Manager in the municipality of Horsens states it this way in the report:

"The management is obliged to ensure that the employees understand the meaning of the tasks they are responsible for. But before implementing major change, the management needs patience in relation to changing the mind-set of the employees."

Dialogue is a cornerstone 

 For many leaders dialogue meetings are a central implementation approach throughout the process; from preparation to implementation. The purpose of the meetings in the preparation phase is to inform and mentally prepare employees for the forthcoming implementation and to convey the underlying intentions and rationalities of the change. The phase just before the implementation is about giving employees the right skills and tools to implement the new workflows.

Dialogue meetings are a great tool but need clever steering by the leadership. The agenda depends on the stages of the process. In the beginning an open mode is the key as everyone has to make sense of what is coming. But further down the road, meetings have to be pointed and allow for deep-dives on specific cases, potential problems and discussions on how different scenarios can play and be dealt with.