Time to Step Up

In my last‎ blog, I said something about chilling for the rest of the summer before creating new posts. That sounded perfect at the time. Well my friends, I felt inspired. I recently spent a week with an amazing group of people at The Daring Way™ Facilitator Training. It’s based on Brené Brown’s work, who I finally got to meet and spend a day with.  For those of you who don’t know who Brené Brown is, you can check out her Ted Talks from 2010 and 2012 which have received tens of millions of views.  She is an impressive speaker and was every bit as gracious as I expected her to be.

The training was transformative. At the core of Brené’s work is the assumption that we are hardwired to connec‎t, something I believe in my bones. I spoke about it in a blog last year after I ran across a cool article on treating addictions. The Daring Way™ Facilitator training put some ‘meat on the bones’ of that core assumption by way of a comprehensive model and lots of exercises designed to support a ‘deep dive’ into concepts like vulnerability, courage, love, belonging and shame (yes, the ‘S’ word). While our subjects differed, her work aligns very closely with what I found in my dissertation research. All of this got me thinking about the need to step up and figure out where to go next.

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The Critical Importance of Human Connections

I recently read a Huffington Post article where the author argued that addiction is essentially an adaptation to a lack of human (social) connections. Although I’m not typically a fan of reducing complex social problems to simple explanations, my light bulb went on a BIG way. And here’s why.

For many years, I’ve been involved in developing models for social service programs. Those programs frequently identified “connection to community” or “connection to personal networks” as a stated outcome. It just became a kind of given; I mean, of course we should try to make sure people are connected with the resources and supports that could help them! It was an acknowledgement that no human service program could do it all or be there forever. It was the ‘after-care plan’. Perhaps we thought we could work ourselves out of a job. The Huffington Post article made me start to think that I’ve had it all backwards. Maybe connections – creating and maintaining meaningful relationships with people that we care about and that care about us – should be the first order of business in all human service work. Or in life, for that matter. Maybe instead of starting out by asking “what’s your diagnosis?” or “what medications are you currently taking?”, we should ask “who loves you?” or “who will be there for you when you get home tonight?”. [Read more…]

Why Valuing Our Mistakes Matters

I’m a fan of Ted Talks. And two of my favorites are Brené Brown’s talks in 2010 and 2012. In the 2012 talk, she spoke about the importance of valuing our failures. I couldn’t agree more.

Brené is among numerous authors and speakers that have talked about how, as we mature, we are socialized to become averse to taking risks that could result in failure. None of us would have learned to walk had we been as averse to failure in childhood as we become in adulthood. We would have hoisted ourselves up, fallen right back down, looked around self-consciously, and promptly decided that the prize wasn’t worth the potential damage to our self-esteem. We would have then rationalized our choice by saying that walking was really overrated anyways! A humorous example, but how often does it describe our own actions when it comes to taking a chance and putting ourselves out there?

While I think that the topic has importance for how we live our lives as individuals, I also think it has relevance in the context of how we manage human service programs. Do we allow staff to take some measured risks? Do we encourage thoughtful experimentation knowing that some experiments might fail? To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we intentionally put people’s lives at risk or that we set people up for failure. I just believe that always doing the same things means always getting the same results, and sometimes that isn’t good enough. The issues our clients and communities face are getting more complex and the resources to address them are becoming increasingly scarce.

So how do we go about encouraging mistakes or failures to address these complex issues and problems? Complex Systems Theory is a place to start. Dave Snowden, a well-known author and speaker on the subject of complex systems, talks about moving from a ‘fail-safe’ mindset to a ‘safe-to-fail’ mindset when addressing complex problems. Snowden and others suggest that successful solutions to complex problems are often novel and emerge out of the context in which they are occurring rather than being imposed from above or outside. By allowing people to experiment in a ‘safe-to-fail’ environment (i.e., no one is going to get hurt or be punished for failure), you encourage the kind of innovation that is needed. The experiments that don’t work are dampened and the ones that do are amplified.

So why aren’t we taking this approach to solving problems? Why aren’t we engaging in actively trying new things knowing that we will likely be met with at least some measure of failure? Although part of it is the potential to waste time and resources (which are scarce) on things that may not work, I think the real issue is that mistakes and failures expose us. It requires us to be vulnerable as managers and leaders. But as Brené says in her Ted Talk, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”.

The Role of ‘Best Practices’

Over the past decade, the human services sector has become more and more focused on identifying and utilizing ‘best’ or evidence-based practices to achieve better outcomes or improve the cost-benefit ratio.  At face value, this seems like common sense.  That’s part of the attraction of it.  But scratch below the surface a little and you soon realize that it isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

In order to use a ‘best’ or evidence-based practice, you first have to figure out what that is.  Although there are organizations that research and publish information on practices that they believe meet the criteria of ‘evidence-based’, practices haven’t been identified in all areas.  For example, the Campbell Collaboration (one of the organizations that researches evidence-based practices) was not able to affirm a best practice for developing independent living skills in youth.  In other areas, there are a number of practices that could be considered ‘best’ depending on who you talk to or what you read.  To complicate the matter further, not all practices that show promise get subjected to rigorous research that could validate them even though they may be just as effective as those that have been researched.  Research is driven in large part by the interests of those involved, which is why a significant portion of medical research is funded by drug companies and focuses on how well their drugs work.  If you are able to identify a practice that you think fits the need, there’s the practical reality of trying to implement it in a setting that may be very different than the one in which it was researched.  A drug designed to treat a specific condition under specific circumstances won’t work for other conditions or in other circumstances.  Why would we expect that human services practice would be different? All of this should lead us to question whether the starting place should be a search for a ‘best’ or evidence-based practice as a means to improve outcomes.

That leads me to back to a subject I discussed on another blog; Complexity Theory.  As Dave Snowden from Cognitive Edge states in his Harvard Business Review article, “Best practice is, by definition, past practice”.  As such, it works ‘best’ on relatively straightforward, simple problems.  The challenge is that most of what we face in human services is highly complex – complex families, complex personal problems and histories, and complex community circumstances.  These are the kinds of problems that require lots of heads to come together and allow for the appropriate solutions to emerge and be tested.  The solutions that work get amplified.  The ones that don’t are set aside.  That means having a certain tolerance for risk, something that was pointed in an article by Stevens and Cox (2008) that focused on how Complexity Theory could inform Child Welfare and Residential Child Care practice.  But the payoff is having highly customized solutions that are built from the ground up and have much greater buy-in from those involved.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should do away with researching and using ‘best’ or evidence-based practices.  The point is that we should understand them as tools in our toolkit that should be used when and where it makes sense.  As Dave Snowden points out, part of addressing complicated and complex problems can involve breaking them down into constituent parts.  These parts of a problem may be perfect candidates for applying a ‘best practice’, but only after we’ve endeavored to understand and grapple with the bigger picture and feel confident that the practice we have in mind is a good fit.  Using a best practice should never be cooker-cutter because our clients and their circumstances aren’t cookie-cutter.  That means developing solid assessment and critical analysis skills in our front line staff; supporting them to be okay with ambiguity and the unknown; trusting that solutions may already exist if we take the time to bring people together and allow them to emerge; and being willing to take some measured risks to get to real and lasting change.  In this context, I believe that ‘best’ or evidence-based practices play a supporting rather than central role.

The Velvet Fist

In his blog post, Warren referenced the “really interesting conversations” he has had in the past couple of years that have served to stimulate his thinking about topics he will write about in the future. I too have been in conversations recently which have offered opportunity to think again about some topics that keep resurfacing for me.

For almost my entire career, I have been privileged to work as part of human service organizations. It has never failed, when I meet someone new who isn’t part of “our world”, that they offer an interesting perspective on the work. Quite frequently the comments offered assume that we are eternally patient and that the work must be SO rewarding!! Often remarks include things like “I don’t know how you do it….I couldn’t.” I’ve wondered if what’s really being suggested is that we is keep doing what we’re doing so others don’t have to!

From an outsider’s perspective, our work can be perceived to be either “helping” vulnerable people or “fixing” social problems – often considered both difficult and largely distasteful tasks. While social service organizations certainly provide assistance to individuals and families, and respond to social issues affecting the health and well-being of our communities, the perceived functions of helping and fixing contain problematic assumptions about who comes through the doors and the roles of those that engage with them.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen has written that “helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole.” Her model offers a helpful analysis I have regularly pondered in thinking about the challenge human service organizations are facing in representing their value and purpose to others.

If the service and supports human service organizations provide are perceived to be delivered to those who are weak or those who are broken, it is difficult to imagine or believe in the potential and abilities of these individuals or to recognize our common humanity, that they are our brothers and sisters. Individuals we serve instead become burdens on society – marginalized objects of charity – whose welfare is someone else’s responsibility. Their sense of belonging is even more tenuous – their perceived brokenness terrifies and alienates. If instead, we can work to help build recognition that it our sons and daughter and our neighbours who come through our doors, then the work of human service organizations becomes about providing service to sustain the integrity of our communities, to build wholeness and welcome for our neighbours.

For those of us who work inside or in support of human service organizations, it is equally critical that we each examine our individual perceptions of the work and the service. We each bear responsibility for changing the view. Promoting helping suggests a helplessness on the part of the receiver, a relationship defined by inequality. Similarly, promoting any idea that we are fixing others asserts a righteous authority sanctioned by the act of repair. Helping and fixing are what Norman Kunc describes, as the “iron fist in the velvet glove” – acts capable of great wounding while seemingly appearing benign and beneficial. I hope to be in service to others, working to forge a relationship which honours the strengths and capacity each contributes to the outcome of the interaction.

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