A Key to Full-Scale Organizational Transformation: Implementation Teams

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Reviewed by Nick Spragg


Higgins, Weiner, and Young define a specific organizational body they refer to as an “implementation team.” This team is charged with designing and leading an organization-wide change strategy. Implementation teams are critical for all organizations aiming to achieve full-scale strategic changes. They are most beneficial in organizational contexts where change is frequently stymied, decisions are highly bureaucratized, and agents are resistant to move. Using the U.S. public school system as their model, Higgins et al. examine the composition of these teams and contend that they can champion organizational change in the right context. 

This study focuses on a particular subset of the public school system where systematic changes are carried out most directly by the school district, noting the “leader” is the school district CEO or superintendent. In these scenarios, the authors note that the “organization” is the school district (defined by geographic proximity), and the “implementation teams” are the individuals  charged by leadership with designing and deploying an instructional improvement strategy. The authors define two metrics they will observe in the study: positional diversity and tenure diversity. Positional diversity is indicated by the variety of current individual positions that constitute the implementation team. Tenure diversity is indicated by the variety of tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure positions on the implementation team, and the authors suggest that tenure differences might be salient because school systems tend to be quite hierarchical. Individuals with different tenures may bring varying insights about a) the barriers to implementation and b) identifying other stakeholders who may help implement the strategy. 

Setting forth these two metrics, the authors hypothesize that there will exist no relationship between individual team member learning and Hackman’s definition of a “real team.” This is because of the unique composition and task assignment of an implementation team: to facilitate organizational change. They expect that the collective enterprise and interdependence of implementation team members will hold regardless of the circumscribed boundaries suggested by “real teams.” Four discrete hypotheses are identified subsequently: 

  • H1: The better the implementation team’s direction, structure, support, and expert coaching, the greater will be team member learning.
  • H2: The greater the positional diversity of the implementation team, the greater the team member learning. 
  • H3: The greater the tenure diversity of the implementation team, the greater the team member learning. 
  • H4: The effect of the team’s enabling conditions on team member learning will vary by the team’s positional diversity such that when enabling conditions are low, positional diversity will enhance team member learning. (370-373)

Monica Higgins is a Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education whose research focuses on teams, leadership development, and organizational change. She co-authored the piece with two doctoral candidates at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Jennie Weiner and Lisa Young, whose research focuses on school leadership and intellectual history, respectively. 

Methods and Findings

In this study, superintendents across multiple Connecticut school districts were  asked to identify individuals whom they regarded as their “senior administrative team for the purposes of developing and implementing their instructional improvement strategy” (373). Each selected member then assessed their perceptions of the teams’ structural features (composition and  task design), process indicators, and effectiveness. 226 responses were recorded at a 95% response rate in 2008, and 262 responses were recorded at an 89% response rate again in 2009. 

The authors outline two aspects of: “the implementation team” model. The first analysis evaluated if “stability” is better linked to roles than to individuals. They observed role turnover across various administrations to determine if the role was eliminated, replaced, or occupied by a different individual between the two periods of data collection. Their analysis showed that 32 people (16%) left their team between the first and second evaluations. 

The second factor evaluated was if individuals on teams with low or high levels of positional diversity did (or did not) employ their roles. Data was collected during recorded team meetings. Team A (high positional diversity) used nearly double the number of positioning statements (e.g., “as an administrator, I am feeling …”) than did Team B (low positional diversity). The percentage of positioning statements (relative to total statements) utilized by Team A was much higher (41%) than Team B ( 13%).  Additionally, positioning statements from Team A members tended to focus on the potential impact of their work from the viewpoint of its external stakeholders, whereas positioning statements from Team B members tended to focus internally on the nature of the team’s work. 

Finding 1: Team stability may be an important dimension of an implementation team, but role membership may contribute to this stability more than individual membership. 

Finding 2: Based on the extent to which positions held by team members represent different roles within the organization, the diversity of roles held by implementation team members was particularly important in successful teams. 

Finding 3: Positional diversity in implementation teams may not help in certain situations, like a case in which enabling conditions are favorable.  

In the first year, each hypothesis test yielded the following: 

H1: Mostly supported. Most socio-structural conditions (compelling direction, enabling structure, and supportive context) are positively correlated with team member learning; yet none of the “real team” measures had a statistically significant relationship with team member learning.  

H2 and H3: Not supported. The analysis did not support either of the following predictions: greater positional and greater tenure diversity would yield greater team member learning

H4: Supported. Two interactions exist: one between positional diversity and compelling direction and the other between positional diversity and supportive context. When individuals rate their teams poorly on enabling conditions (compelling direction and supportive context, in this case), greater positional diversity mitigates negative effects on team member learning. Conversely, on teams that already feel supported (individuals rate their teams highly on enabling conditions), positional diversity is unhelpful. This surprise may suggest that enabling conditions like compelling direction may not be important in team compositions.  

In the second year of data collection, the authors found that the same three enabling conditions (supportive context, enabling structure, and compelling direction) demonstrated a positive relationship with team member learning (H1). However, no relationship was found between the “real team” indicators and learning. Second, neither positional nor tenure diversity had a significant relationship with team member learning (H2 and H3). Third, there were two significant and negative interactions between positional diversity and enabling conditions (H4): when individuals felt less supported on their teams, greater positional diversity mitigated the negative effects on team member learning; conversely, when individuals felt more supported on their teams, positional diversity was unhelpful in mitigating negative effects on team member learning, which again suggests that enabling conditions may not be important in team compositions. 


System-wide changes have a greater potential to be effectively achieved when teams are specifically designed to accommodate a great degree of flexibility and adaptability within them. In organizational contexts today, where the urgency for change is acute, collaborative forms of leadership like those achieved on implementation teams are evermore necessary.  Future research to engage in multi-level analyses is needed to consider how team-level factors like diversity influence individual outcomes (e.g., team member learning). 


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