Topic 3: Exploration Stage

The Exploration Stage is a critical starting place when States, communities, local organizations, and others are considering change.  Taking the time to explore what to do, how to do it, and who will do it saves time and money (Fixsen et al., 2001; Romney, 2014) and improves the chances for success (Saldana, Chamberlain, Wang, & Brown, 2011; Slavin, Madden, Chamberlain, & Cheung, 2010).  During Exploration, readiness is assessed by an Implementation Team.  To the extent an organization is not ready, the Implementation Team is accountable for helping to create readiness.  Data indicate that about 20% of people and organizations are ready for change at any given time (Prochaska, Prochaska, & Levesque, 2001).  Thus, creating readiness is an important function when the goal is to reach all individuals being served.

The Exploration stage takes place well before a new program or practice is put in place. The overall goal of this stage is to consider the extent to which a potential innovation or approach meets the needs of the community, and whether implementation is feasible. During Exploration, an Implementation Team assesses the potential match between community needs, the new practice or innovation requirements, and community resources.  This involves communication with practitioners, administrators, and other staff members, families and community stakeholders, purveyors and “experts” and with other implementing sites and local entities.  Only after this exploration process does the Team make a decision or recommendation to proceed or not to proceed. 

This stage also is the time to assess potential barriers to implementation related to funding, staffing, referrals, and system changes.  The result of the Exploration Stage is a clear implementation plan with tasks and time lines to facilitate the installation and initial implementation of the program.  The plan creates the “readiness” for the change as the Team performs this stage’s related functions. 

Implementation Teams

An Implementation Team is an organized and active group that supports the implementation, sustainability, and scale-up of usable innovations by integrating the use of implementation stages, drivers and improvement cycles.  When a single individual is assigned the whole task of bringing new ways of working to an organization, what happens when that person leaves?  Creating a team to lead the implementation process is a critical early part of the sustainability process.  If an Implementation Team is not available, the Exploration Stage is the time to form a team and have it begin to function. The Implementation Team needs to be comprised of individuals who, collectively, have the expertise necessary to implement the new program or practice, and to develop and maintain the system and infrastructures to support effective implementation. 

For more information about Implementation Teams, see Module 3: Implementation Teams.

Usable Innovation

Once an Implementation Team is formed, it works to accomplish the overall goal of the Exploration Stage, which is to investigate and select a Usable Innovation to meet the needs of the community served. Before implementing an innovation (e.g., an evidence-based program or practice), it’s vital to have a clear understanding of the program and its suitability for your State, community or organization.  It’s necessary to have sufficient detail about the innovation that you can train staff and administrators to implement it with fidelity, that the innovation can be replicated across all of your sites, programs, and communities, and that there is an assessment that allows you to measure the use of the innovation. In other words, the innovation needs to be teachable, learnable, doable, and readily assessed in practice.  The following criteria need to be in place to ensure that your innovation is usable:

  • Clear description of the program
  • Clear essential functions that define the program
  • Operational definitions of essential functions
  • Practical performance assessment

For more information about Usable Innovations, see Lesson 2: Usable Innovations and/or Module 6: Usable Innovations.

Implementation Drivers

Developing general capacity to support the new program or practice begins in this Exploration Stage. Supports needed for staff include creating readiness, providing staff training, developing coaching service delivery plans, and identifying performance or fidelity assessments. Organization capacity supports for the innovation include such things as revising or developing administrative policies and procedures to ensure system alignment, identifying technology and data needs to support implementation, and obtaining necessary resources and community connections to move forward.

Create Readiness

Practice Tip

While creating readiness is a key feature of the Exploration Stage, it really  is one of those activities that never ends and is embedded in each stage.  New leaders, new community members, and new family and youth advocates are always entering the scene and the need to provide them with information, actively solicit their input, and discuss their concerns remains an ongoing task. 

Creating “readiness for change” is an active component of the Exploration Stage.  During the Exploration Stage, individuals typically need more information and time to process what the needs are, and what the innovation or change might mean for them.  Encouragement, incentives, or demands to “just do it” typically do not lead to the “action” hoped for by the leaders or management team.  Data show about 5-15% of these efforts lead to intended outcomes (Vernez et al., 2006).  What is needed is relevant and detailed information so individuals and organizations that are being asked to change go into the process well informed and “ready” for change.

Readiness is an under-emphasized part of the implementation process.  Proceeding with implementation prematurely can lead to both ineffective and expensive implementation efforts.  In some cases, leadership or management teams within an organization or system have fully explored a “change initiative” and have decided on a course of action.  The same leaders and managers then are surprised when collaborators, staff, or colleagues (hearing about the intended change for the first time) display what some call “resistance to change.” “Resistance” occurs when people are asked prematurely to move to action.  They are “resistant to change” because they are not “ready for change.”  It is the responsibility of managers and Implementation Teams to minimize “resistance” that is the result of poor planning and lack of useful communication.

Creating readiness for implementing evidence-based practices in human services is not a simple matter.  Given the breadth, depth, intensity, and duration of the efforts involved in implementing innovations to reach individuals in communities statewide, States and local organizations need to engage in Exploration Stage activities at each level of system functioning. 

For more information about creating readiness see SISEP Brief #3: Readiness for Change.

Improvement Cycles

As noted previously, Implementation Teams use data to drive decision-making about selecting a usable innovation in this stage. Data are collected through needs assessments, innovation assessments, and staff and organizational readiness assessments. The information gathered is used to reach a decision about the best practice or program to adopt to meet the needs of the community being served.

Dissemination Plan

While actual implementation work may be vested in a few individuals who comprise the Implementation Team, to promote sustainability it is critical to involve a wider range of stakeholders in the process.  During this stage, implementation teams identify who their stakeholders are and consider how to include them in a meaningful way in their work.  A carefully crafted plan allows for sharing of information with staff, families, and relevant community entities as well as seeking their input and using their expertise.  Other system participants such as advisory boards, regional and state agencies should be engaged as well so they can become an active part of the improvement cycles that will be used to remove potential roadblocks and establish procedures and protocols to facilitate the work.