Why top executives struggle with change

Urban life 11 December 2017 Jeppe Ostersen

Public sector executives still struggle to grasp the dimensions of change projects. A new study on implementation examines the biggest barriers and how to overcome them.

8 mins

By Martin Christiansen

"For implementation to be successfully achieved, we must be able to measure effects at the end of the chain. We can talk a lot but at the end of the day, only effect matters. Does Anna grow more clever and smart in school?"

The words belong to Jesper Fisker, Permanent Secretary at the Danish Ministry of Children, Education and Gender Equality. His understanding of implementation indicates one of the biggest challenges in public sector development: The failure to identify the societal and organisational levels which form an implementation chain and to target the different levels consistently one by one.

Logical leadership not enough

In a new study, Ramboll Management Consulting has taken a deep dive into the latest developments in implementation research and interviewed 30 public sector leaders in the Nordics about their experiences. While the Northern European welfare states maintain a world-leading reputation, leaders still struggle to implement change successfully. Jeppe Ostersen, Business Manager in Social Economic Impact in Ramboll, elaborates:

"In many cases, the failure to implement is rooted in old habits and a traditional view of the leader’s role. No matter the type of change, you still see a stubborn belief among a surprisingly large number of public executives. They think that if a plan is based on a precise analysis, it’s simply a matter of sheer logic whether or not the implementation process will reach its objectives."

According to Jeppe Ostersen, implementation is not just about logic and analysis. People are the key, and while they are not altogether irrational, they are not completely rational either. This means that building capabilities, a feel for emergent changes and co-creation sometimes need to be prioritised – and the classic, rationalistic point of view leaves no room for these.

Download the entire white paper here.

4 types of barriers

The ‘mental’ barriers of old-school leadership are just one barrier hindering effective implementation. At an overall level, four types of barriers crystallises.

The risk of barriers runs through the entire implementation chain. A foregoing Ramboll analysis on implementation in the Danish labour market shows that the most important driver in creating successful implementation is the closest manager’s focus on the task. The initial analysis is complicated, but management must take full ownership and tailor its approach, efforts and tools according to the scale of the change. 

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Leaders have to focus on all types of barriers. The management barriers at all levels are the most important to address, but the cultural barriers – and even categorical resistance – can turn out to be more difficult to overcome. New ways of working demand new working cultures for administrative staff and hands-on practitioners alike. Leaders are the culture bearers. 

That management can be a barrier in itself is also highlighted by Harvard Business Review. Bureaucrats respect barriers by nature. Instead of knocking them over, they find ways to see over and around them, and this makes change processes difficult. 

A new understanding emerges

The Ramboll study comprised in a white paper is based on interviews with public sector leaders who show the way in how to pro-actively embrace the implementation challenge to successfully achieve the desired results at the end of the implementation chain, explains Jeppe Ostersen:

"More often, leaders recognise that changes, people and organisations are emergent and dynamic entities. But you need to realise that implementation equals change and not everyone welcomes that. So, you have to take on that challenge and work with practitioners as front-line staff having to change to reap the effects pursued."

One of several examples of authorities pro-active pushing for changes and put in the needed resources is found in the Swedish National Agency for Education. Director of Education, Anders Frederiksson points to long-lasting support as key:

"The accountable authority is offered support from a dialogue team from the Agency. This team is there during implementation and offers support to the accountable authorities needed. Cooperation may last up to three years. The new approach can be described as a new method of implementation."

Understand the behaviour you want to change

When developing the implementation strategy, the first step is to understand the behaviour you want to change. Leaders need to clarify the match between the new practice and the organisational capacity and its readiness for change. And this is not just an analytical task. 

"We have designed our implementation strategy from the point of departure that those people out there know best how they will succeed. They are educated well, so we should use them to make sure they achieve the goals. This goes for teachers, school leaders and administrators in municipalities. It’s a local ecosystem that we believe has the capacity to succeed", says Jesper Fisker. 

There are many tools available to guide the analytical process, but the dialogue with administrators, practitioners, end-users and experts is essential to understand the behaviour at all levels of the chain.

"Not all change processes are extremely complex. Once you grasp the challenge and the role of your project in the bigger picture, you can start calibrating the strategy to the specific context and practice", says Jeppe Ostersen. 

One of the tools and frameworks that supports you to understand the behaviour you want to change is the Behaviour Change Wheel, developed by Susan Michie, Lou Atkins & Robert West. The Behaviour Change Wheel makes it possible to understand routines and behaviour and the context in which it unfolds to a far greater extent than previously. 

Learn more about the Behaviour Change Wheel.