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  • Writer's pictureDr. Vanessa Keadle

5 Barriers to Effective Implementation and How to Combat Them

As postsecondary professionals, we are often charged with implementing something new - or updating a standing practice - at our institutions. While we may be hopeful about what this might mean for our students and how it might address known inequities, we still can feel a sense of what is commonly called, “initiative fatigue.” We are wearing so many hats and serving on so many committees - how can we take on more? That feeling can be especially pronounced when progress is slow, or ultimately stalls out altogether.


The Student-Ready Strategies team has experienced countless such implementation efforts, and we have seen some succeed spectacularly and others completely flop - leading to feelings of frustration and, yes, fatigue. But from our experience, when implementation flops, the reasons it did were both common and avoidable.


So, we’ve created a list of the five most common barriers to effective implementation. And, as a former #SApro, I offer some of my own on-campus experiences to provide practical context for these barriers. Read on to learn about why implementation often fails and how campus professionals can prepare for success.


Barrier 1: Ignoring the implementers - including students

The first crucial decision in implementation is to get the right people at the committee table, or at the very least, collect data that reflect their experiences.


So many times, we see institutional committees or teams made up of upper-level administration, leaving out the voices of those who are going to be managing and executing the new initiative or strategy. Without their important input into decision-making and planning, critical issues may be missed. In my time in student affairs, I would get frustrated when something was assigned to me with all the decisions locked in, only to find it impossible to implement it that way. Many times, I could have offered perspective while the decisions were being considered that would make it smoother to execute.


And almost always, these committees don’t include students, particularly those from the populations meant to be served by the strategic reform being planned (e.g., adult learners, first-generation students, Black male students). Without student perspectives and their ownership of the initiative, committees will again miss key issues. If you cannot secure students for committees, ensure their experiences are represented by deploying short surveys, reviewing outcomes data, and conducting focus groups.


Tip: Start building the committee membership with a few students who will be affected by the new strategy, then add those who will be directly responsible for implementing, and round it out with those with the authority to act on major decisions.


Barrier 2: Skipping the “why”

When leaders decide to embark on a new initiative, they have internalized their reason for doing so - their “why.” It may be tied to a strategic priority, a grant opportunity, or it may be highly personal for them. While the decision-maker understands their “why” deeply, if they don’t articulate it to the implementers, it may simply be heard as “because I said so.” Anyone who has spent time with small children knows that doesn’t motivate people. And when implementers aren’t motivated or personally connected to the work, implementation is in danger.


I’ve been a member of countless institutional committees and almost never had a clear understanding of the purpose of the work, my specific role in it, or how the other members of the committee saw their own roles. I was never prompted to think about how my own personal and professional motivations aligned with the initiative. And never once did a committee I sat on determine a collective “why” for the work.


Without this shared north star, multiple issues can emerge. Committees may design implementation around a misunderstanding of the goals, and unintentionally undermine the intended outcomes. We have seen this lack of shared purpose result in apathy, causing the project to be deprioritized, or active resistance, which can stop implementation in its tracks. By contrast, when groups begin by establishing purpose (even if initially it seems like a “feel-good” exercise), they are able to plan, collaborate and problem-solve with much greater ease.


Tip: Begin your first meeting with an activity that allows the committee members to reflect on their individual purpose. Then, work together towards a collective statement of purpose for the initiative.


Barrier #3: Avoiding the nay-sayers

After planning begins, committees are often laser-focused on getting the initiative across the finish line. However, building the right committee is not the only stakeholder engagement needed, especially if there are others at your institution who are well-versed in the matter and have relational or de facto power. Excluding or avoiding these naysayers is a common mistake for two reasons: first, if they are influential enough, the committee may not be able to overcome that person’s resistance. Second, they likely have legitimate concerns that are presenting as resistance. Creating the space to air and address those concerns most often makes implementation stronger, and has the potential to change a detractor to a supporter.


I know firsthand that it can be awkward, uncomfortable, or downright intimidating to actively enter into a conversation with a respected colleague that is expected to criticize your efforts. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t crucially important.


Tip: Take the pulse of the department(s) most directly impacted by the reform efforts with a meeting, survey, or focus group to gauge how to approach implementation. If you hear that a particular person is an outspoken critic, ask for a one-on-one conversation and listen with an open mind about their concerns.


Barrier #4: Forgetting to communicate

If I had to name the most notorious implementation killer, this would be it: inadequate communication. How many emails do you receive in a day? How many are from the institution? How many messages do you get on your department's Slack channel? So many red dots, not enough time to filter through them all for the most relevant information.


When big decisions are being made, communication planning is often an afterthought. I remember reading a lot of project wrap-up emails or congratulatory internal messages that didn’t feel relevant. These messages were often too general, offering congratulations to the leadership for launching the new initiative or completing the project, but do not offer anything actionable to me, in my role.


There are so many people on campus who will need to do something different once this change is in place - advisors, administrative offices, faculty, and students. They DON’T need to know the full narrative of what’s been done and the process to get there, but they DO need to know a few key things:


  • What is the “why” behind the change? (See #2)

  • How do I need to do my job differently?

  • How do I talk to students about this?


The answers to these questions will be different for different types of professionals. That is why audience differentiation is key. Creating different messages for different audiences allows communications to have brevity and specificity at the same time - which everyone with an overflowing inbox appreciates. When they don’t have that, the best-laid implementation plans fall apart in practice, because your extended implementation team does not have the information it needs to make it succeed.


Tip: Plan and execute a communications plan from the start of the process. Craft messaging that makes sense for each stakeholder group, including students, and provides a clear call to action.


Barrier #5: Thinking short-term

Evaluation, continuous improvement, and sustainability are not always top-of-mind for a committee focused on initial impact. It is easy to get caught up in the launch of something new and dive into all of the details of implementation. However, without thoughtful planning at the beginning of the process, opportunities to measure impact and improve the strategy can be limited. This leaves people wondering at the end of a lot of hard work, “did we make a difference?” Enter yet another source of initiative fatigue - lack of affirmation for efforts.


Upfront planning is necessary to avoid this risk. For example, in my former role, I helped make significant changes to an orientation program for parents and families. I wanted to understand how this new orientation structure was working, so we created a short assessment and delivered it at every program, not just at the end of the summer orientation schedule. Our team was able to make tweaks throughout the summer to ensure the experience was improving with each session. However, this had to be planned before orientation launched, so the team could implement the assessments, analyze the results, and implement immediate improvements.


Another critical misstep is ignoring the financial sustainability of new initiatives. At SRS, we often see successful initiatives fail due to fiscal issues. When institutions receive funding from grants or from the state to implement new programs, it is a short-term solution. Financial sustainability of new initiatives must be one of the first things the team considers to ensure the initiative doesn’t “die on the vine” after so much hard work.


Finally, a new initiative can go off without a hitch and be smashingly successful…until leadership changes, and suddenly, the initiative no longer exists. When first planning for implementation, opportunities to institutionalize the strategy must be considered. Most critically, the committee should explore the possibility of adopting policy related to the new strategy. Without policy, initiatives may be eliminated without any warning or opportunity for input.


Tip: Create sub-committees focused on evaluation and continuous improvement, financial sustainability, and institutional policy for all new initiatives. These subcommittees should include IR professionals, staff from the finance office, and policy experts. These groups can supercharge the work of the larger committee.


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Implementation is hard, tiring, and critically important work. Considering these five common missteps and being intentional about avoiding them will help you implement with fidelity, increase the pace of change, and clearly see the fruits of your efforts. Your students will reap the benefits.


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