1. How do you plan for change management in a fragile state?

One good solution is to use a structured planning framework. We call the framework for the 5Ds: It’s a practical framework focusing on the sequencing of complicated reforms across five stages. It’s a planning and design framework.

Note that agile and adaptive methods are also necessary to execute programs in a fragile state. This framework is to ensure the long-term view is maintained.

The 5Ds is an easy to remember approach for managing the change process. It is applicable for structuring most types of change processes, whether big or small, whether in enterprises or governments, in high performing markets or in post-conflict environments. The five stages are:

  1. Direction. Determine what future to plan for. Frame the vision, the aspiration and where you want to take the organization.
  2. Diagnose. Identify the issues, the opportunities, concepts, solutions and pathways to reach them.
  3. Design. Choose, decide and determine the strategy for change.
  4. Deliver. Implement and manage the change. Measure success, adapt and learn.
  5. Do. Run and review, incorporate, sustain and make continuous.

Exhibit A: Overview of Abyrint 5Ds design and planning framework

Framework for managing reform and transformation in fragile states by Abyrint

Abyrint 5D design and management framework

2. Are not post-conflict states are so chaotic that linear management frameworks will not work?

There are complications in the real world when attempting reform or change. More so in fragile and post-conflict states. Changing people and organizational behavior is subject to several well documented phenomenon’s that complicates the work. Managing a reform is therefore also about influencing certain irrational aspects of behavior. We are humans and we are complicated

  • There are often important informal structures
  • Decision points and windows exist outside of the formal route
  • Multiple actors that have different agendas
  • There are people who are promoters of solutions that are looking for problems on which to apply their solution more than the other way around
  • Information is imperfect and there is much asymmetry between actors

These effects are accentuated for governments in fragile and post-conflict states. The authorizing environment is oftentimes quite open, meaning that there are very many actors, issues and decision points that can come together in unpredictable ways.

In addition, there is considerable external influence mostly through foreign governments /donors and international organizations. There can be quite some information asymmetry between the parties, bordering on cognitive dissonance from time to time. Navigating problem solving in these environments can be extremely complex.

Are not agile and iterative processes better? Yes, probably, but for larger programs one also needs to have a long view. This framework helps in that.

In practice, executing reforms involves much back-and-forth between bottom-up and top-down approaches, pre-defined, tailored and adaptive techniques.

3. History of change management frameworks

The intellectual roots of our framework are found in the Carnegie Mellon IDEAL and the MIT ESAT frameworks. That is, those are published, and most practical articulation of this is proprietary for the strategy and consulting firms. Branded differently and with small variations, but the core ideas are the same across them all to the extent that they are hard to tell apart. And not to give them too much credit, people have probably thought along these lines for centuries.

In consulting firms these frameworks come complete with detailed pre-defined gannt chart and MS project templates with thousands of lines. Change the name, tailor a bit, and most things have been thought through already. We also have these and sometimes use them. Candy for the planning enthusiast.

In their modern iterations, these concepts were first articulated for massive engineering, software and enterprise transformation processes back in the 60´s and 70´s. The software industry, in particular, represents a sort of crossover between infrastructure and the soft organizational world.

These frameworks are useful in structuring a complicated process from a practitioner’s perspective. There is quite some practical track record. The elements draw on established behavioral and organizational sciences, but with a more practical flare.

The Abyrint 5Ds is an iteration of these legacy frameworks and tailored to be more practical for organizations across fragile and post-conflict environments. This framework may be helpful in mapping out the road ahead, step-by-step.

4. Design the technical roadmap to manage the reform

4.1 First issue: Find the right level of detail and granularity for the plan

To see the big picture, it is often helpful to build this up from its smaller parts.

If the reform involves multiple functions and capacities, i.e cuts across organizational entities, involves changing several different capacities such as organizations, roles responsibilities and technology, it may often be necessary to build up a granular picture.

In particular, as most reforms today involve building technology for case handling, registries or financial processing, defining the functionalities and logic of the IT system at this stage can be critically important to help avoid cost overruns later. The logic of the IT must match the logic of the non-technology parts. It may be important to get the time and costs correct to provide input to investment decisions in the next round.

There are alternatives to the granular bottom-up approaches. Top-down approaches, i.e basing costing and time estimates from experience and averages, often from commercially available datasets, i.e what is the average cost and time for implementing a Central Bank core banking system?

It helps to have an outline of the big picture. Zoom out and envision all the five stages across time. In parallel, it may also be helpful to break down the issues into smaller cycles. That helps facilitate learning and adaptation.

In terms of communications, the very detailed granular schedules look impressive, but are also nearly impossible to communicate sensibly to all but a hard core of reformers. The high-level schedules on the other hand, are helpful in establishing a shared understanding upfront among the many actors, internal and external that may be important for the reform.

4.2 Second issue: Balance linear planning with agile and iterative adaptation

It is popular to promote iterative, adaptive and agile techniques for solving problems also for fragile states. Don’t mistake the approaches described here for an alternative, they apply to different aspects of managing a reform.

The Abyrint 5Ds and similar frameworks are much about understanding the end-state-design and the steps to get there. “Adaptive and iterative” approaches are more about the problem-solving techniques for figuring out how to get there. There is no contradiction and the two logics have coincided, under different names, for decades.

Reforms of government functions involve big decisions, allocation of investments, design of programs and donor financing. Decision makers need certainty, need a basis for making decisions on allocation of financing, starting procurement processes and the like. The opportunities to get a reform moving are limited, attempts are expensive, and you may not get a second attempt for years.

There is much value in thinking through all the steps and actions. Thinking is certainly better than no-thinking. You better get started on the correct pathway set-out from the beginning. The situation is rarely conducive for pure iterative test and learning. For smaller initiatives possibly, but rarely for bigger issues. Small components, within the bigger picture yes, but it still has to connect with the bigger picture and machinery.

Unfortunately, the reality in many places is that building state capacity is defined by multiple contradictory, overlapping and inconsistent initiatives. Investment resources, often limited revenue or donor financing is essentially wasted as such reforms have little impact and will eventually need to be redone.  Spend time and resources up-front to get the design right and save big for the future.

There is obviously much tension in this. Reality will never be quite as pictured at the planning stage. All massive planning frameworks, elaborated in detail, break down as soon as implementation starts. When working with organizations and people, progress cannot be as linear as for hard construction projects. More so in complex open environments like fragile states.

Failure may stem from the grand-scale, unrealistic plan, but may also stem from multiple small failures of inconsistent and contradictory smaller initiatives.

Perhaps ideally, organizations would reform much by managing several small initiatives, piloting, learning and testing, but all within a larger and consistent plan. Ideally. But this is difficult. Someone needs to hold the pen on the overall direction to ensure it fits together in a meaningful whole. We have seen it happen, at times, but it frequently breaks down. Doing hard things is difficult. It requires extraordinary people.

In this context, we introduce the 5Ds as a sensible guidance tool. You need to set the direction, diagnose, design and deliver and in that order. In the real world this doesn’t happen by itself, whether it is a big bang or across several small initiatives. Too frequently are initiatives launched without proper direction or diagnosis.

In this framework there are distinct stages and for each and one of them there are methods, tools and guidance that can be useful. Much granularity is available and not presented here.

Managing the stages with rigor, quality and passion will pay off.

Lets look at the five stages one after another:

Exhibit B: Age distribution of armed forces personnel encountered in a post conflict environment 

5. Define the five stages

5.1 Stage 1: Direction

Determining what future to plan for.  Frame the vision, set the aspiration and provide the direction for where you want to take the organization. Start with the facts and organize this around two main areas:

(i) Your performance and external requirements: What are stakeholders, investors or customers expecting of your performance? What macro- and other contextual trends will impact your performance in the future? What is the impact on your workflows and procedures; and

(ii) Your capabilities: What type of organization is a suitable target model? i.e are you best fit for an execution oriented organization like a treasury operation or a logistics provider, are you one that needs clear lines of command and control, or one that needs to be based upon innovation, learning and much external orientation. Archetypes exists, but your target models may also differ across business units within the organization. For example, the treasury office may want to emphasize its ability to execute large number of transactions every day, while the strategy and policy advisory team may need to target models based upon learning, innovation and external orientation.

Move into mobilization of the hearts and minds at this stage. Aligning the management across the organization is quite possibly a necessity for being successful. There will be resistance, but develop the narrative and keep communicating. “When you get tired of talking about it, they are just starting to get it”.

Practically, there are tools and methodologies available for this. Approach it in a structured way and it becomes manageable. At the end, you should be able to answer with confidence questions like:

  • Is there a clear understanding of the vision and scope of the program?
  • Does the program demonstrate a clear link with the wider business objectives?
  • Is there a clear understanding of the outcomes and benefits to be delivered by the program and are they soundly based?
  • What will constitute success?
  • Is the proposed program affordable?

5.2 Stage 2. Diagnose

Identify the issues, the opportunities, concepts, solutions and pathways to reach them. There are two sides to this:

(i) The analytics, which often times may come out of strategy work that came before the change program, if not, there is a need to apply robust and creative analytics to understand the issues and how to resolve them. This would involve breaking down the problems into component parts, prioritizing issues based on value to the organization, perform data gathering, analytics, interpret and communicate with impact.

(ii) Understand the change requirements. What will it take to mobilize the change? Use interviews, focus groups, and structured analytics. At the end, you should be able to answer with confidence questions like:

  • Is there a continuing need and support for the program in its current form?
  • Will this help the organization to realize value. Is the proposed solution truly going to add value or will it be significantly diminished by the time and effort taken to implement?
  • Are the required skills and capabilities for this program available, taking account of the organization’s current commitments and capacity to deliver?
  • Do we understand what has been attempted in the past. Most organisations have a history of change and many failures in the archives. Avoid “We’ve tried that and it didn’t work”;
  • Are we sufficiently aware of associated impacts. Consider flow on effects elsewhere in the organisation – as sometimes these effects may outweigh the value of the proposed solution

5.3 Stage 3. Design

Develop the specific activities and initiatives that will influence practices and behaviors. Now you get down to specifics. We commonly advice a portfolio approach in uncertain environments. This by identifying a set of initiatives that can be managed independently.

Many entities today also apply a review processes to their portfolio of initiatives; originally concepts that are adapted from venture financing. This reduces the risk by focusing on learning and adapting. One carefully manages, review and decides to scale-up or discard initiatives at stage gate reviews. While this may appear more management intensive than agreeing upon a static plan, in highly uncertain environments, there may not be much other choice.

Identify initiatives, prioritize according to risk/cost and impact, and identify time horizons, short- medium, and long term. While focus is often on those issues that can materialize shortly, don’t forget those initiatives which can only mature in several years, but that need action already in the beginning.

On the timeframe, aim for a time-horizon where it is possible to have meaningful foresight. In unstable environments that can be quite short, perhaps not more than a year, but certain initiatives may be plan for maturity within a 2-3 year horizon.

Also, establish the framework for managing the initiatives. Whether or not it is embedded entirely in the line, there may be a need for some dedicated capacity; commonly a PMO or a delivery unit; to follow-up, solve bottlenecks and monitor progress. At the end of this stage, you should be able to answer questions like:

  • Is there a portfolio of initiatives identified, prioritized and sequenced?
  • Have all of the requirements been captured and agreed?
  • Are the required internal/external individuals and organizations suitably skilled, available and committed to carrying out the work?
  • Are the risks and issues identified being managed and mitigated appropriately?
  • Are the funds to support the initiatives to reach the next stage available?

5.4 Stage 4. Deliver

Implement and manage the change. Measure success, adapt and scale-up. Getting to this stage is an achievement in itself, but of course, this is when the work becomes truly meaningful and rewarding. By now the list of initiatives should be highly focused having passed initial stage reviews. Yet, the goal is not yet reached and critical steps remain. Commonly there are three themes around which delivery can be managed:

(i) Run and review pilots

Few things are right at the first attempt. Run pilots and adjust as lessons emerge. Importantly however, this is about more than just adjusting the initiative and its technicalities. Perhaps even more important at this stage is to:

  • Be aware of the representative characteristics of the entities you pilot. While randomized trials are rarely practical in the real world of organizations, there are important lessons from those principles that one could try to emulate. The entities in which you pilot may not be representative if the objective is an across-the-board scale-up
  • Start where success is most likely. This is a contrarian approach to “randomized trial” thinking, but is more aimed at influencing rather than learning through scientific experimentation. This can be more effective in mobilizing the minds and creating motivation.
  • Use the pilots to build capability for change. Through these processes one can identify talented individuals who can take on functions with regards to the broader roll-outs.
  • Watch carefully for Hawthorne effects, not something consultants enjoy speaking of, but an unfortunate reality. Change may actually happen in organizations, but only as long as the spotlight is shining and much management attention is directed towards the problem. Thereafter matters quickly revert to their old ways. Often times the Hawthorne phenomenon may be related to the lack of appropriate focus on the underlying real issues, i.e the root causes are not addressed and thus the old equilibrium will soon reestablish itself.

(ii) Identify successes and scale-up the effort

Having learned and made adjustments the time has come to scale-up. The strategy for this should be placed somewhere along a continuum between:

  • Step-by-step roll out to the next sequential entity or functional area. Moving on only when success has been achieved. This is useful when there is much resistance and little dedicated capacity to manage change; and
  • Big bang, all-at-once, perhaps only successful when the change is seen as largely popular, irreversible and that less effort is needed to manage and nudge implementation.

(iii) Mobilize the minds and manage them

Beyond managing the technicalities, its really all about mobilizing the minds. This is emotional and tips can be drawn from student of rhetoric and marketing. Your aim is to gradually win over the skeptics and make the change concrete and tangible for those involved.

Develop a narrative that encompasses both emotional and logical elements. Have one-liners and headings, crisp sentences that encapsulate the core messages. Also, have a few core themes that stick and are relevant to all in the organization. Third, have specific narratives for the major initiatives.

Larger programs need dedicated capacity. Consider establishing a PMO, but aim to keep it out of the administration of the program, and use it effectively to help support the change as well as reporting on progress.

In many developing country governments PMOs are largely administrative arrangements aimed at serving donor procurement and administrative requirements. Don’t fall into this trap. While this capacity is needed to mobilize financing, do try to make these offices into something more meaningful, and if necessary, establish a separate initiative outside the constraints of a particular donor program.

You should be able to answer questions like:

  • Is the business case is still valid and unaffected by internal and external events or changes.
  • Can the process handle identification of defects, incomplete or successful works and take decisions on scale-up
  • Are all ongoing risks and issues are being managed effectively in a coordinated manner and do not threaten implementation.
  • Are the stakeholders to the program are ready and support the implementation
  • Does the business and have the necessary resources to implement the change and is the financial health of the program is on track

5.5 Stage 5. Do

Run and review, incorporate, sustain and make continuous. Ideally, you aim to build a system that continuously learn and adjust. Incrementally. One-off transformations are unlikely to stick.

Much has been accomplished by this stage and there is a good basis for the continuation; there are broader change management skills in the organization, there are experiences in sharing knowledge, and most importantly, there is confidence that change is possible.

While the “heroes” from the hectic transformation period are possibly retasked elsewhere, skills have been transferred and others are inspired.

As the leader, tap into these capabilities, you have the basics for a system for continuous change, and most importantly, you have the inspired minds mobilized.

Ivar Strand, Managing Partner @abyrint