Implementation Champions as a Strategy to Build Capacity

September 29, 2021


The reality is around 70 percent of organizational change efforts do not achieve their intended outcomes.1 Failing to achieve outcomes can often be chalked up to one of two reasons. Implementation failure involves a lack of buy-in, adequate implementation supports, or ability to implement the program as intended. On the other hand, Intervention failure refers to the fact the program might not fit the environment in which it is being implemented (wrong program for need or misfit with culture, values). It does not help that in education, an estimated 15 percent of superintendents2 and 18 percent of principals3 leave their role at a district or school each year. As many have experienced, programs, practices, and initiatives intended to improve student learning and achievement often come and go with leadership, no matter their effectiveness or efficacy.

Even with steady leadership, executive leaders often wield much of the authority and decision-making power in the implementation process. While implementation efforts require buy-in and visible support from executive leaders within the district office and school administration, implementation work is often done and sustained by departmental leadership, content knowledge experts, and those with experience implementing the program or practice.

If you’re reading this, it’s likely you have even been involved in implementation efforts where everyone was not on board or where practitioners weren’t adequately supported to use a program or practice in the way it was intended to be used. Often, we select and implement promising programs or practices without building readiness and buy-in or the necessary implementation infrastructure to support those on the ground using it to improve outcomes for families, children, students, and communities. One strategy to keep the work tailored and moving forward, especially when times get tough, is by building and supporting implementation champions as part of active implementation efforts.

Implementation Champions Improve Implementation and Create Sustainability

A “champion” is an implementation-related role occupied by people who (1) are internal to an organization; (2) generally have an intrinsic interest and commitment to implementing a change; (3) work diligently and relentlessly to drive implementation forward, even if those efforts receive no formal recognition or compensation; (4) are enthusiastic, dynamic, energetic, personable, and persistent; and (5) have the strength of conviction.” 4

Identifying, supporting, and engaging implementation champions has been shown to increase the likelihood that programs and practices are implemented as intended and achieve their intended outcomes. 1, 4, 5  Anyone who engages in implementation work, regardless of their position, can serve as a champion. Think about your work supporting the implementation of programs or practices or directly implementing programs or practices. Who did you hear the most from and were they credible? Even in the absence of formal authority, did those on the ground listen to them? Were they engaged in the implementation planning work and someone that could represent what practitioners needed? Champions with informal and formal authority are critical to implementation because they support readiness, buy-in, and efforts to build aligned selection, training, professional learning, fidelity assessment, and data systems. Like work building the organizational infrastructure needed to implement programs and practices, work cultivating champions should be intentional and focused.

Steps to Cultivating Champion Activities

  1. Identify potential champions who may already be operating formally or informally. Name them as a champion and call attention to their work!
  2. Reflect on champion activities to determine where strengths and opportunities for growth are. Champion activities include advocacy, building positive relationships, engaging in the implementation planning process, and motivating staff and keeping them positive.
  3. Develop a plan for what you can start, stop, and continue doing to support the work of implementation champions or engage in champion activities yourself.


Just as training and coaching are essential to building knowledge and skills related to implementing a program or practice, leadership is critical to creating readiness and buy-in, problem-solving and barrier-busting, creating an environment that supports the implementation of the way of work, and sustaining change. Identifying and engaging ground-level staff as champions to support communication, planning, and capacity-building is a game-changer in implementation.

Given champions’ importance to successful implementation and achieving outcomes for families, children, students, and communities, it is critical to set time aside to identify champions, plan for supporting champion activities, and celebrate successes. Explore more about how to identify and engage champions in your implementation work by reviewing the State Implementation and Scaling-up of Evidence-based Practices (SISEP) Center’s lesson on cultivating high-quality champions.

5 Bunce, A. E., Gruß, I., Davis, J. V., Cowburn, S., Cohen, D., Oakley, J., & Gold, R. (2020). Lessons learned about the effective operationalization of champions as an implementation strategy: results from a qualitative process evaluation of a pragmatic trial. Implementation Science, 15(1), 1-12.

4 Miech, E. J., Rattray, N. A., Flanagan, M. E., Damschroder, L., Schmid, A. A., & Damush, T. M. (2018). Inside help: an integrative review of champions in healthcare-related implementation. SAGE open medicine, 6, 2050312118773261.

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1 Warrick, D. D. (2009). Developing organization change champions. OD practitioner, 41(1), 14-19.