10 Essential Principles of Implementation Leadership
December 28, 2021 – This article is one in a series of articles about ACJI’s 10 Essential Principles of Implementation Leadership. To read the first article in the Implementation Leadership series, click here.
Principle 2: Murphy Hates Us
Things go wrong. When you are rolling out an implementation plan for any change initiative in your organization, what can go wrong, likely will. There’s staff turnover, new leadership, legislative mandates. Partner agencies change policies, stakeholders change priorities, funding sources shift. A global pandemic strikes. It’s Murphy’s Law.
“Murphy Hates Us” is the second principle of Implementation Leadership and offers a framework to accept that problems are a natural part of implementing any new plan. When leaders mentally prepare themselves and their teams for implementation challenges, their team’s see more action, flexibility and learning. This is because implementation in complex environments has emotional side effects. Unintended obstacles, ambiguity and the unknown can evoke anxiety, uncertainty, fear, stress and exhaustion. Many of these struggles are universally consistent among leaders and can pose real obstacles to effective action. Murphy can create a practice to increase tolerance to complexity and ambiguity rather than being paralyzed by uncertainty.
Implementation is Complex
Our first plan is rarely the correct one. Murphy recognizes the experimental nature of implementation and creates the space to build in detours. The first step is accepting that despite our best plans, at some point we will find ourselves having to shift gears, abandon things entirely, or throw things against the wall to see what sticks. Murphy allows the space and gives permission to prepare for the uncertainty ahead. The very act of airing out everything that could go wrong or that keeps us up at night can help ease stress and create the psychological safety necessary for teams to try new things, source solutions from one another, and pivot when necessary. Murphy exposes that the monster in our head is often scarier than the one under the bed.
The next step is to create a mental habit and team practice to invite Murphy into the room. Murphy compels leaders and Implementation Team’s to pause and ask, “What might we be missing?” “Who might see this differently?” “What could go wrong?” “What can we try?” “What’s in our control?” “Where do we focus our energy?” How do we clearly communicate?” “What other problems might
we be unintentionally creating?” And “How will we know?” Murphy encourages us to leverage broader thinking, even that guy on the team who always finds the problems in our plans and gives us a moment to see through his eyes, and then beyond.
Murphy does have its limits. At some point you have to put plans into action, and trying to control for everything that could go wrong can create analysis paralysis in leaders and teams (there’s another Implementation Leadership Principle for that). However, Murphy is useful as a mental model to move forward in complex environments without having all of the answers to every possible scenario. Murphy allows teams to anticipate and talk honestly about fears, barriers, resistance, and implementation dynamics. Murphy also creates a wider range of possible responses as teams share a responsibility to problem solving and support one another through the challenges sure to be encountered ahead.
The Upside to Anticipating Murphy's Law
Planning for what may go wrong allows leadership and implementation teams to develop contingency plans for challenges that arise over the course of weeks, months, years, or however long a project might take. The value of this exercise is not so much in creating those plans, but in creating an environment where problems are both expected and welcomed.
An Implementation Leader’s focus is on creating an environment where new ideas can emerge rather than being rigidly confined to a decision or the original plan. When you proactively exhibit a willingness to change course, you and your team will experience less stress when inevitable challenges occur. Other benefits can arise too:
- People and teams learn to be more agile
- You learn to marginalize the gravity of failure
- You create opportunities to try new ways of solving old problems
- An organizational culture forms to approach mistakes with grace
- New ideas emerge as psychological safety increases
The idea here is that we need to try things to better understand that may work, and then be able to adapt and pivot with the new learning as the context shifts.
Turns out, Murphy doesn’t hate you. Murphy may be bringing you a gift.
You can learn more about Murphy Hates Us and the 10 Essential Principles of Implementation Leadership in our upcoming Implementation Leadership Academy, which dives deep into the 10 principles in much more depth.