The operationalization of concepts: success factors and proceeding
How often do strategies or concepts devised by top management for the further development of companies fail to be implemented sustainably due to a lack of participation and acceptance at employee level? Employees are left behind with questioning faces after the communication of the concepts through glossy slides. They do neither understand how they can personally contribute to the formulated goals nor what is expected of them. This gap between conception and implementation can be bridged: by involving all key stakeholders at an early stage, by detailing the concept according to the specific situation in the units and by developing tools for implementation. We call this process the operationalization of concepts. But what do we mean by this? What are the success factors and what is a possible approach? It is described below.
Integration operationalization into the project process
Usually, the design of projects, which are often carried out by project teams set up separately with the participation of staff units and consulting firms, is followed by implementation in and by the line units involved (see figure 1, left). The gap between the concept and its implementation is already present in the people involved. By a suitable operationalization we mean not only the insertion of a time-limited operationalization phase between conception and implementation with the contents described above. Rather, the three phases overlay each other (see figure 1 on the right). At the beginning of the project, operationalization and implementation are considered, even if the focus is on analysis and conception. Also, during operationalization and implementation within the framework of a learning rollout, adjustments and fine-tuning of the concept are possible. Such a project enables the participation of all key stakeholders, promotes acceptance and thus ensures sustainable implementation.
Classic project design with implementation of a project according to concept (left) and consideration of an operationalization phase (right)
In order to successfully design the transition between conception and implementation with the help of a suitable operationalization phase, the following success factors ought to be considered from our point of view.
Appropriate definition of goals and guard rails by management
During the conception phase, the management needs to find a suitable level of detail. It is important not to prescribe an overly rigid concept, which would then have to be rolled out like a blueprint to all units of an organization. In this case, a lack of adaptability to the various operational conditions as well as missing of acceptance by the employees due to a lack of involvement prevent sustainable implementation. The concept must therefore still offer enough room for maneuvers so that it can be operationalized at the working level. At the same time, the concept should be sufficiently precise so that measures with a common direction are developed, and the discussion does not roam aimlessly. Both must be considered when defining the guardrails within which the process may move.
The same applies to the definition of objectives. If the objectives are defined "top-down", but too much clearance is left for "bottom-up" measures, this can lead to conflicts. The project's sucess is at risk. It is important to consider this balance when setting up the project and careful management control during the implementation process is required.
Facilitation by mixed teams of moderators and corresponding workshop design
In workshops with the employees involved, the mission statement and specific measures to embellish it are developed. In addition to a precise concept and corresponding goals, a suitable workshop design and a competent moderator ensure that the workshops also deliver the necessary results. Mixed moderation teams of customer and consultant can strengthen the acceptance of the workshop participants by means of the customer employee. At the same time, they maintain the necessary neutrality through the consultant in difficult situations. Also, general project work can benefit from mixed teams.
Consideration of all important stakeholders
For a successful operationalization, the complete involvement of all important stakeholders is essential, especially the participation of the employees affected by the change measures. They should be involved from the very beginning of the development of the mission statement and during its detailing. By involving the participating employees at an early stage, acceptance is generated in good time and the specialized knowledge of individual experts is effectively used to detail measures at work level. Both contributes significantly to a successful implementation of measures so that they can be implemented sustainably.
Once the guardrails and objectives have been set by the management, a two-step process follows: the elaboration of an overall valid mission statement and its detailing through the definition of specific measures. A regularly scheduled review process allows the implementation to be monitored and the measures to be further developed until the mission statement has also been implemented at the working level (see figure 2).
Illustration of the proposed proceeding for operationalizing projects
Developing a mission statement considering important stakeholders
In large organizations, not all important stakeholders can be physically involved in the development of organization-wide mission statements. Using a pilot group has proven its worth in practice. It represents a representative cross-section of all essential roles, and at the same time a team capable of working. The team should be set up across functions and hierarchies. The developed mission statement should provide both methods and working processes that are accepted by the employees at the site across the organization. By involving a pilot group, conflicts can be identified at an early stage during the development of the mission statement and major problems can be anticipated before details are defined.
Detailing the mission statement through specific measures
The mission statement provides the topic memory for the development of specific measures at the level of the individual sites or units. At this level, all relevant roles need to be found and integrated in workshops. Taking the following questions into account, they develop specific measures at the working level for the practical design of the mission statement:
- What does the mission statement mean for our unit?
- How do we want to work together to achieve the mission objective?
- How can we break down the mission statement into specific work processes?
The results of these workshops are then specific measures which, within the framework of the guard rails set by management, remove obstacles to the implementation of the mission statement, and present pragmatic solutions and target values. These measures should be a first step, whose further development and improvement is expressly desired within the framework of regular review processes. To evaluate the measures in review processes, appropriate indicators need to be defined and their development needs to be monitored. This makes it possible to react to bad measures and to develop suggestions for improvement. Figure 2 shows how each unit can find different trajectories towards the mission objective in the due course of the process and implement the organization-wide mission statement successfully and sustainably through its specific measures.
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As a result of the procedure described above, concepts can be operationalized at the working level and gaps that frequently occur between conception and implementation can be closed. This paper describes the basic procedure. The concrete design and adaptation to the specific circumstances should be the subject of an in-depth discussion, for which we will gladly remain available.