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All implementation teams are not created equal
How might the responsiveness of an implementation team influence end user perceptions of an innovation? That’s the question two IT researchers wanted to answer. To do so, they set up an experiment at a telecommunications company that was implementing a new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system at several of its locations. An implementation team supported the roll-out of the CRM at both locations, which were functionally similar. The team had the same mandate at both sites: to provide a system that met end users’ needs and to help them effectively work with the system. However, at one site, end users accessed the implementation team through a hotline, where they could report issues and ask questions. System issues reported to the hotline were handled using standard procedures. At the other site, the implementation team was often physically present to answer questions and facilitated quick turnaround on bugs and functionality requests reported by end users, in addition to being available via a hotline. What was the result of the experiment?
The end users who received a high-level of responsiveness from the implementation team perceived the team to be significantly more cooperative, had more favorable views of the CRM system, and were more likely to adopt the system than the end users at the other site, which accessed the team via a hotline. 
Sometimes called change agents, integrators, or coordinators, implementation teams are a central factor in effective implementation. In fact, one review of 25 implementation frameworks found that nearly 70% of them included the development of an implementation team as an essential step.
In this chapter, we review the factors involved in developing a successful implementation team, drawing from research on teams in general, as well as that particular to implementation teams. Specifically, we’ll look at three areas:
- Mandate, which relates to the purpose, boundaries, and accountability of the implementation team.
- Skills and Perspectives, which covers the mix of capabilities and viewpoints necessary to support the implementation.
- Structure, which focuses on how the team is organized and positioned within the larger organizational context to execute the implementation.
First, though, we’ll start with a discussion of why an implementation team is even needed.
Why is an implementation team necessary?
When I think of implementation teams, I often recall a conversation I had with an executive about the design and implementation of a new process. After we covered fundamental questions about the purpose and desired outcomes of the change, I asked: “So, who on your staff is available to lead the implementation?” The executive responded: “Well….everyone! Everyone will be involved and leading from day one. It will be just how we do things!”
The trick is that for everyone to play a role in “leading” the change, they need direction and support. Even super-committed, high-performing staff need guidance. Even when the change “is part of their job,” they need help getting up to speed. Even when the change is well designed and documented, questions and problems may arise that need to be worked through and worked out. Even when you are sure the change will lead to great outcomes, you need to measure and track progress, just to be sure. Someone, not everyone, should be responsible for these types of things.
Initial research indicates that it’s often a good bet for that “someone” to be an implementation team.
Some researchers suggest that a team, rather than individual change agents, may offer several advantages. A team may have a better ability to sustain momentum and motivation, offer diverse skills that can support the complex requirements of change implementations, and have greater credibility with stakeholders.
For all these reasons, establishing a team that is accountable for the success of the implementation seems pretty important. Just creating a team won’t make it successful, however. It needs to have a clear purpose, supportive structure, and requisite skills and perspectives, among other things. We’ll discuss these factors in detail below.
Focused on the successful execution of a particular change
Implementation teams are differentiated from other types of teams by their mandate. Fundamentally, the implementation team is responsible for the successful execution of a particular change — full stop. Individual members of the implementation team may have job responsibilities beyond their work on the team; however, the focus of their activities on the implementation team should relate to a specific and defined change.
Responsible for the design and management of the implementation
Some researchers conceptualize implementation teams as solely for the management of change execution. However, in practice, all implementation teams are involved to some degree in both the design of the innovation being implemented and the management of efforts to embed the innovation in the organization. For example, teams created only after a decision has been made on what to implement will still be involved in design tasks when they refine and improve the innovation based on initial implementation results.
Not a governance body or steering committee
The implementation team should not be confused with a governance body, steering committee, or management team. While the team will likely have some decision-making authority, it often relies on others, such as the executive sponsor or governance body, for strategic decisions. What’s more, this is not a team that does the majority of its work around a conference room table. It’s a team that is on its feet, working shoulder to shoulder with leaders and end users. It is a roll up your sleeves and dig in the dirt group of people.
Not a group of adopters or end users
The implementation team is also distinct from end users. The best implementation teams often include representatives of the end user community; however, an implementation team is not simply an organized group of adopters. Rather, it brings to bear specific skills and perspectives to support the implementation, as outlined in the next section.
Skills and Perspectives
To fulfill its mandate, the implementation team must include members with a variety of capabilities as well as insights. For this reason, when creating the implementation team, it’s important to consider requirements for hard skills, as well as diverse organizational perspectives.
Specific skills often represented on an implementation team include:
Project Management: Project management skills support effective planning, budgeting, scheduling, execution management and liaising with the governance body and other key stakeholders.
Innovation-specific expertise: Someone with a high-degree of competence related to the innovation being implemented, (e.g., software, process, or practice), is necessary to inform design, planning, training, and coaching. Such skill is often provided by external consultants or vendors, but may also be sourced internally. Including folks who have experience and knowledge of good practice in implementation is also a good idea!
Training and Coaching: Training is more than developing and reviewing PowerPoint presentations with a group of end users. For this reason, each team should include members skilled in the design and delivery of training and ongoing technical assistance.
Measurement and Analysis: Measurement skills are critical to enable the team to monitor the implementation, gather feedback, assess outcomes, and identify necessary improvements.
Communication and Engagement: The team should include individuals with the ability to tell the story of the implementation in ways that are meaningful to various audiences. For this reason, those with talents in engagement and listening are also good to include on the team’s roster.
Teamwork and Collaboration: To avoid assembling a group of experts who act independently, rather than as an interdependent team, when creating your team it’s wise to consider individuals’ teamwork and collaboration abilities.
Change is often viewed differently at different levels of the organization. Executives and frontline staff will have unique concerns and hopes for the innovation being implemented. They may also anticipate and be able to help mitigate distinct types of challenges.
For this reason, several researchers have highlighted the importance of diverse organizational representation on the implementation team.  They suggest drawing team members from all levels of the organization hierarchy, as well as all pertinent functional areas. Doing so ensures a comprehensive set of perspectives — from executive management to frontline staff — inform design, planning, and execution.
Can team members change over time?
The literature on teams indicates that stability of members is necessary to attain high levels of team performance. The argument goes, if people are constantly cycling on and off of the team, it can be hard to develop a rhythm or even to know who’s on the team. This makes sense.
However, given that implementation efforts can be long-term affairs — often lasting anywhere from one to three years — the ideal of team member stability may be hard to attain. Some suggest that we should instead focus on functional or role stability, rather than the consistency of particular individuals. For example, you can aim to have project management and front-line staff functions represented, rather than making sure that Nigel from the PMO and Sondra from customer service are always on the team.
So, you’ve got a clear mandate. You’ve selected team members with a comprehensive set of skills and perspectives. How do you structure the team to ensure both inclusivity and manageability?
No single structure works well for all implementations. However, there are general considerations that I have found to be useful when structuring implementation teams, including:
- Ensure the structure helps to clarify accountabilities and distinguishes between governance, end users, and other stakeholders.
- Segment the implementation team into sub-teams or auxiliary teams, as necessary to ensure it remains both inclusive and manageable. I find that teams with more than about eight members often benefit from additional structure.
- Assign members to act as formal liaisons to particular end user groups or stakeholders.
Figure 10 provides an example of a general implementation team structure that reflects these considerations.
Clarify accountabilities and linkages with the larger context
The structure of the team should reflect its mandate. Relatedly, the boundaries and linkages between the implementation team, the governance body, and stakeholders should be clear. This can help to specify the accountability and responsibilities of the implementation team (versus others) and help team members remain aware of the larger context in which they are working.
Consider segmenting the team
Particularly on larger or longer-term efforts, it can be useful to create sub-teams or auxiliary teams. For instance, developing a core team of two to three individuals charged with project management and stakeholder engagement tasks can help streamline these efforts, and keep the rest of the team focused on other aspects of the implementation.
If you find yourself in a situation where a desire to be inclusive is likely to cause the implementation team to be so large it’s unmanageable, consider creating an advisory group. Doing so allows you to keep your implementation team small, while also benefiting from the unique experience of persons who might not have the time or interest in full-time membership on the team. This tactic also helps you to avoid having an implementation team with members who serve in “name only,” rarely doing any work or even attending meetings.
If you do create such an advisory group, be sure its mandate is distinguished from that of the implementation team and communicated upfront to all potential members. Generally speaking, you’d ask this body to review and respond to specific questions at defined points in the planning or execution phases of the effort.
Membership in the advisory group usually requires less time and work than full implementation team membership. However, advisory group members are usually more informed and involved in the implementation than general stakeholders. As a result, the implementation team should give more weight to input from the advisory group than that received through other forms of engagement (e.g., surveys, focus groups, town hall meetings).
Establish liaisons or key contacts
Consider assigning members of the implementation team to act as liaisons or key contacts with particular end user groups. Such liaisons can be useful to help end users adjust the innovation to meet their unique needs, challenges and opportunities, while also ensuring the integrity of the innovation. Key contacts can also put a personal face on the implementation and provide reassurance to adopters and end users. Knowing there is a person to go to with questions or concerns, rather than addressing them to a large group or anonymous email address, can make a difference.
Implementation Teams in Action
It can be difficult to understand structural considerations in the abstract. So, let’s look at how the generic structure discussed in the previous section comes to life in various real-world situations. Specifically, we’ll look at teams involved in the implementations of an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, a process improvement effort, and a system-wide strategy.
Although the context, scale, and content of each case are different, you’ll notice how the key structural elements of the implementation teams are largely the same. First, the implementation team, governance body, and end user groups are differentiated from one another. Second, the membership on the implementation team is evident; it is sometimes also segmented into sub-teams and augmented by additional groups. Finally, there are defined liaisons tasked with supporting key end user groups.
ERP Implementation at a car manufacturer
To run the implementation of an ERP, a luxury car manufacturer created an implementation team, headed by its IT department. The implementation team was led by a core team comprised of managers from IT as well as technical specialists from the ERP vendor. Because the IT department was itself outsourced and managed by contractors, the team also included managers from other business units at the company who had knowledge of internal processes, systems, and organizational culture.
Finally, the implementation team included planning teams from each operational unit, who managed training and process changes within their unit.
Process improvement in a healthcare organization
A community healthcare organization in Britain created an implementation team to oversee a business process improvement program, which they executed as part of their contract with the National Health Service (NHS). The NHS provided goals and targets for the effort; however, the method of implementation was left largely to the organization.
The implementation team involved in the effort consisted of a project manager, a project support officer, and a research analyst, as well as three nurse coordinators. Two nurses were employees, and one was hired as a contractor. These coordinators interfaced with each of 38 specialty groups involved as end users in the implementation. The coordinators mainly worked with the managers of these specialty groups, but sometimes worked directly with staff using the innovation..
System-wide strategy implementation
South Africa recently put in place a national strategy to revamp how community healthcare workers support primary health throughout the country. The strategy included broad changes such as new goals, ways of engaging with community members, as well as updated roles and relationships between different actors in the primary healthcare system. This example reflects the implementation team in one province.
The implementation team oversaw implementation plans, communication, progress monitoring, and troubleshooting. The team included Directors from each district in the province, a representative from the National Health System Trust, and delegates from various district-level entities (hospitals, finance, monitoring and evaluation, HR, etc.) The group also included a full-time coordinator who worked across the province, as well as coordinators at the district and sub-district levels, who served as a link between the implementation team and managers and team leaders at the District level.
In addition to the implementation team, representatives from the National Health System Trust provided technical assistance to all levels of the effort. District management teams remained involved by consistently carving out time for discussion of the implementation during their meetings.
As these cases demonstrate, although the nature of implementations they led was quite different, the teams were structured in similar ways. When putting these ideas into practice on your next implementation, aim to start with the simplest structure possible. Then add on as necessary to clarify differences between governance, implementation team and end user roles, support the efficient functioning of the team, and provide explicit support to end users.
Developing a high-performing implementation team
Clarifying the team’s mandate, as well as staffing and structuring it appropriately will put your team in a great position to begin its work. Beyond that, implementation teams benefit from good practices that support high-performing teams in general, such as:
Support better cooperation on the team by encouraging team members to discuss past experiences. This can familiarize team members with the abilities of their colleagues and help to build trust. In addition, structure work to provide the opportunity for early wins to build the team’s confidence in their collective abilities.
Enhance coordination on your team by establishing clear routines and roles. Routines and clear roles help the team save time and energy — everyone already knows what to do and who is going to do it. However, when routines or roles are too strict, they can inhibit the team from adapting to changing circumstances or addressing flagging performance. It’s a good idea to allow some flexibility to allow the team to adapt, as well as to adopt a practice of regular team debriefs to identify required changes.
Promote effective communication, by using a consistent framework to structure conversations (e.g., purpose, discussion, conclusions, and next steps) and confirming receipt of communications. Co-located teams may benefit from encouragement to share their specialized skills and experiences. To help virtual teams develop a shared social context, (associated with cohesion and trust), create opportunities for team members to meet in person on occasion and use video-conferencing in addition to email.
Enhance team learning by cultivating a team culture where it feels safe to ask questions, share ideas, and learn from mistakes. Leaders can help set the tone by being open to questions and encouraging team members to learn from mistakes.
(For more on techniques that can help you to develop a high-performing team, I invite you to explore my blog posts on team leadership at wendyhirsch.com.)
Phases and the Implementation Team
During the Decide phase, you’ll negotiate with leadership to establish a high-level agreement on the resources that will be provided to support the implementation. This may include monetary resources for contracting with external specialists, as well as a commitment to reassign staff to the effort. During the Prepare phase, you’ll select team members, structure the team, and develop team processes and norms. During this phase, team members will be engaged in planning as well as preparing training, coaching, and measurement and monitoring efforts.
During the Execute phase, the team will essentially work the plan — train, coach, collect and analyze data, engage with stakeholders, and troubleshoot issues. During the Improve phase, the team will identify improvements that should be made to the innovation or approach for future execution cycles. (Depending on the governance structure for the effort, the team may decide which improvements to undertake or need to seek approval from leadership.) Once improvements are identified, the team will need to act on them, e.g., updating the innovation and related documentation and team processes. Finally, before their departure from the team, in anticipation or support of the Maintain phase, team members should be involved in identifying lessons, updating and archiving materials, and transitioning their primary areas of responsibility to new owners.
Starter Steps: Implementation Team
Although the requirements for each implementation team will be unique, there are common elements you should keep in mind as you develop your team, including:
1. Clarify the implementation team’s mandate. Doing so often involves answering questions such as: What are the team’s specific accountabilities? How are these different from that of other groups? Where does the team have autonomy? What are the limits to its autonomy? What is the anticipated lifespan of the team?
2. Identify required skills and perspectives. Beyond standard skills often represented on implementation teams, such a project management, identify unique needs you may have. What technical skills are required to ensure the effective design of the innovation and to support training? Which interest groups should be represented on the team?
3. Develop a structure. Start with a basic structure that supports the team’s mandate and distinguishes it from other groups. Augment it as necessary with sub-teams or auxiliary groups that have clear, complementary remits.
Create a formal team. Resist the temptation to think you can lead the effort alone, or by calling on others in an ad hoc way.
Get explicit commitment from individuals and their managers when selecting implementation team members. Provide an estimate of the time required from team members and ensure it is realistic. Avoid having members “in name only.”
Focus on the stability of functions and roles, not individuals. Rather than trying to retain specific individuals on the team throughout the lifespan of the implementation, aim to ensure key roles and functions are consistently filled.
Get knowledgeable about good team practice. Brush up on your team development and management skills to help you provide the guidance, structure, and support your team needs to succeed.
- This case was adapted from Gefen, D. & Ridings, C. (2002). Implementation team responsiveness and user evaluation of customer relationship management: A quasi-experimental design study of social exchange theory. Journal of Management Information Systems,19(1),47-69. ↵
- See Meyers, D. C., Durlak, J. A., & Wandersman, A. (2012). The quality implementation framework: A synthesis of critical steps in the implementation process. American Journal of Community Psychology, 50(3-4), 462-480. ↵
- See Hackman, J. R., & Edmondson, A. C. (2008). Groups as agents of change. Handbook of Organization Development, 167-186. ↵
- See, for example, Higgins, M. C., Weiner, J., & Young, L. (2012). Implementation teams: A new lever for organizational change. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33(3), 366-388, and Hackman, J. R., & Edmondson, A. C. (2008). Groups as agents of change. Handbook of Organization Development, 167-186. ↵
- See, for example, Hackman, J. Richard, and Ruth Wageman. "When And How Team Leaders Matter." Research in Organizational Behavior 26 (2004): 37-74. Web. ↵
- See Higgins, M. C., Weiner, J., & Young, L. (2012). Implementation teams: A new lever for organizational change. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33(3), 366-388. ↵
- This example was adapted from Yusuf, Y., Gunasekaran, A., & Abthorpe, M. S. (2004). Enterprise information systems project implementation: A case study of ERP in Rolls-Royce. International Journal of Production Economics,87(3), 251-266. ↵
- This example was adapted from Bradley, D. K. F., & Griffin, M. (2016). The Well Organised Working Environment: A mixed methods study. International Journal of Nursing Studies,55, 26-38. ↵
- This example was adapted from Schneider, H., English, R., Tabana, H., Padayachee, T., & Orgill, M. (2014). Whole-system change: Case study of factors facilitating early implementation of a primary health care reform in a South African province. BMC Health Services Research,14(1), 609. ↵
- For a helpful overview, see Salas, E., Shuffler, M. L., Thayer, A. L., Bedwell, W. L., & Lazzara, E. H. (2015). Understanding and improving teamwork in organizations: A scientifically based practical guide. Human Resource Management, 54(4), 599-622. ↵