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Building Support for Innovation Inside Child Welfare Agencies

What is "Building Support for Innovation Inside Child Welfare Agencies"?

The one constant in the child welfare field is change. One of the most critical challenges that managers face is to help their people manage continuous change and help them remove roadblocks that stand in the way of achieving desired results. Family to Family is a strategic approach to reforming the child welfare system that includes mechanisms for managing change, including ways to deal with repeated crises.

Managers need a shared vision of "success" for the organization; a shared understanding of how best to organize; enough data to undergird decisions; and the capacity to analyze and act on their interpretations of that data. If workers repeatedly ask for more guidance, or if too many decisions return to the top, or if employees feel overworked and yet do not provide much feedback, these are signs that management needs to pay attention. Organizational development tools, especially in times of turbulence and transition, can help build a new system while retaining the best features of the old one.

How was this tool applied in Family to Family?

Family to Family requires "systemic thinking" that views each part of the child welfare system in relation to the entire picture. Repeated crises in the system are not departmental breakdowns but signals, symptoms of something wrong at a systemic level. When a crisis occurs, attention goes to the breaking point, but treating the symptom alone will not suffice. Managers must build understanding at every level of how each part fits the whole system, and they must spread the "work of worry" about the whole system across every managerial level.

A system’s work flow is only as smooth and fast as the slowest, most turbulent bottleneck allows. But bottlenecks should be seen as systemic puzzles first, only later evaluated as attributed to individual personalities. Systemic thinking examines the repeating pattern of activity as a "vicious cycle" and seeks ways to turn it into a "virtuous cycle" instead. While it is difficult to find, only time spent in this manner can create space and more time to work on other urgent issues.

What did we learn from these applications?

Many constraints appear at the "boundaries" of departments, where activity is handed from one part to the next: investigation, intake, child abuse/neglect determination, training, foster care. They can exist between management levels as well, and they include the boundary between a system and its external environment – community groups, the judicial system, the media, and so on. Boundaries are places where people nego-tiate with one another on what each one will and won’t do. They can be permeable membranes or solid walls that block movement. The flow of work and information against boundaries is critical to the success of every child welfare agency.

Each unit should be viewed – and view itself – as a team working on a task. Defining that team’s members, its skills and tools, and its responsibilities are key to performance. Often an investigation of a misunderstanding, mistake, or information gap can reveal a systemic problem at a boundary that may be contributing to a vicious cycle; the challenge lies in turning it into a virtuous cycle.

It’s easy to say that mistakes offer rich opportunities for learning, but it is difficult in practice to create the necessary climate of respectful, direct talk without recrimination. Continuous feedback is of prime importance. Systemic thinking helps leaders distinguish among tasks they can delegate and those they must do themselves. Creating a shared vision to guide movement, for example, must involve everyone in the agency if it is to work. Systems thinking recognizes that teams need to use the different talents of all their members, and that role assignments should be flexible – it is smooth relationships among the parts that make the system work.

What you need to get started:

The complete manual that includes tools and strategies that can help identify and address organizational problems systemically in child welfare agencies.

What you need for full implementation:

By incorporating the tools from the complete manual, Building Support for Innovation Inside Child Welfare Agencies, you will be able to manage the process of change.

How to find out more:

If you would like further information, please contact Mal O’Connor at the Center for Applied Research, 617-576-1166.