The Implementation Problem

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

You can’t step into the same river twice.

Gareth Morgan wrote in Images of Organization our interpretations of organizations is always based on some sort of theory to explain reality. Most people’s ideas about organizations and management are based on a small number of taken for granted beliefs and assumptions, of which the idea organizations are and work like machines or organisms dominate.

Fact is, organizations are complex, and like all complex phenomena what you see depends on your viewpoint or perspective, of which there are many. Morgan identifies nine perspectives; a machine view which dominates modern management thinking and is typical of bureaucracies, an organismic view emphasizing growth, adapting and environmental relations, an information processing perspective based on learning, a cultural perspective based on shared values, norms, beliefs, rituals and so on, a perspective of organizations as political emphasizing power issues and conflict, as psychic prisons in which people’s mindsets trap them, as instruments of domination with the emphasis on exploitation and imposing your will on others, or as complex phenomena that constantly adapt and change.

At business school they taught us the main job of senior management is to plan and bring about change. Pressman and Wildavsky wrote about the US Economic Development Administration’s effort to reduce unemployment in Oakland, California many years ago. Enough funding was provided, there was agreement on the outcome, and it was not politically important, yet it failed. It got snarled up in the social complexity of implementation.

Based on that, like Morgan, Pressman and Wildavsky wrote there are multiple perspectives of planning and implementation, pointing to the complexity of organizations, planning, change and implementation, but from a mechanistic perspective.

The planning model, or mechanistic perspective of planning and implementation identifies two well circumscribed sequential activities geared toward change; planning, followed by implementation. You identify a problem and a desired outcome, and find or design a mechanism or method that will bring about the outcome if you follow the required steps. One can see the influence of the scientific method here: identify a problem, choose a methodology, implement it, and the problem is solved.

This metaphor and perspective dominate current management and leadership thinking. If implementation fails, it is because the formula wasn’t followed correctly. It doesn’t take account the fact implementation in practice surfaces problems with the plan and itself continuously changes existing conditions associated with the plan.

Flyvbjerg’s database shows 5% of projects were implemented on time and on budget, and 2% on time, on budget, and brought about beneficial change. This is what I call the implementation problem; managers and leaders spend most of their time planning for outcomes that will never happen, and never stop to ask why, and what they can do differently. Like Groundhog Day or hamsters running in a wheel, they are doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, ad infinitum and ad nauseam.

There is a story of a guy hitting his head against a wall. A bystander asked him, doesn’t it hurt, and he replied yes, but it feels fantastic when I stop. Business schools, management courses, leaders, managers, planners, etc. don’t feel enough pain yet to stop and ask themselves why they are doing what they are doing, or, in other terms, face the implementation problem.

In terms of the interactive model, or cybernetic perspective, plans are ideals, not goals, and implementation is the process of finding ways to bring about the plan. The process matters more than whether the policy or plan succeeds, with, likely, a different outcome than the one intended.

A third, what I shall call a complexity perspective, is based on the observation polices and plans often have many conflicting objectives, and are vague, so in practice we don’t quite know what we should do, and how to go about it, which is Rittel and Webber’s wicked problems. Our mental limitations and the dynamic nature of our physical and social environments means we can’t identify problems and determine how to implement solutions ahead of time, and only discover what to do as we interact with the problem. Implementation doesn’t begin with a plan, but with the intent to act, and implementation methods are generalizations which you must be prepared to modify on the fly as conditions are changed by our actions and we uncover limits to it we didn’t appreciate before. Plans are based on ideas, of which there are many, and we often only understand the problem we tried to solve by looking back with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight vision.

In other words, implementation changes plans and policies as it runs into unanticipated constraints and, as all complex phenomena do, change the problem context. Most of the time success or failure does not depend on whether we met the outcomes of the original plan, but on what happened in between instead, which is why we retrofit justifications why we wanted this unplanned outcome all along after everything is said and done.

Associated with concepts of planning, policy making, and implementation, is change. In a mechanistic world, things are static and you change them into something else, like an alchemist changing lead into gold. Implementation, in Newtonian physics terms, provides the energy to change it from one to another state. In a complex world, on the other hand, change is the default. As Heraclitus said, you can’t step into the same river twice, it is changing all the time. My body is constantly changing, and so is my relationships, which constantly change me, and so do organizations and their environments.

Plans and polices are conscious steps trying to intervene in this process. Because everything in a complex world is interconnected, one cannot predict the outcome of intervention with certainty, and small interactions can have major consequences, either good or bad. It also means implementation is not about following a method, as in the mechanistic model, but acting in the changing world, as we must, observing the outcome, and adapting to and learning from it. There is not just one tool to use, you need a toolbox from which to pick what works best at a particular moment. Implementation doesn’t fail because we didn’t meet a defined measurable outcome, it fails when we don’t act, or learn from our actions.

That is the fundamental problem with the mechanistic model of change; there is only one outcome allowed and one way to get there, and no-one is allowed to deviate from it. With such a model, one shouldn’t expect success, one should expect failure in a complex world, and reality and evidence bears that out.

There is no beginning or end to implementation, what happened before determines what we do now, which will determine what we do in the future, and because what we do now changes interconnections and interactions unpredictably, we can’t accurately know or prepare for that future.

I struggled for many years with the implementation problem, and for most of that swam in the muddy waters of the mechanistic thinking I share with everyone around me, which clouded my perspective. It is only now I can see implementation doesn’t fail because we don’t do things right, but because of how we think about the world we live in. To say there is an implementation problem is mechanistic, the real problem is how we think about our world and change. To change that thinking, to paraphrase Neil Armstrong’s words when he stepped on the moon for the first time, we need one small step before it can become one giant leap for mankind.