By Caitlin Bailey, Co-Director, National Leadership Consortium
Kristen Loomis, Co-Director, National Leadership Consortium
Mary Kay Rizzolo, President and CEO, CQL
As the common phrase goes, change is inevitable. Considering the certainty of change, how we anticipate and adapt to new circumstances is what actually makes the difference. Whether it’s our proactive approaches when something new is on the horizon or the steps we take to address them after they occur, we must be attentive to what’s going on around us. We must evolve. We must continuously improve.
This concept is especially important in the services sector. As support providers, self-advocacy groups, policy organizations, community members, etc., our actions (or failure to act) can actually impact people’s lives. In this Capstone – a companion piece to a recent webinar hosted by the National Leadership Consortium – we’re exploring transformation in the human services field. We’ll take a brief look at the evolution of the human services field and then dig into transformation, including why it’s important, what challenges to avoid, and how to embrace it at your agency.
Transformation Over Time
The human services field has undoubtedly transformed over the decades, not just in the specific services that are being utilized, but our conceptualization of the very definition of services. There was a shift from past decades where services were envisioned as solely ‘protecting’ the health and safety of people, whereas now supports are about helping people to live truly fulfilling and meaningful lives in their chosen community. Due to this, the entire concept of ‘best practice’ has completely evolved over time.
Regardless of the shifts in the services sector, an unwavering focus on transformation has been at the heart of any progress. And in spite of any progress made, transformation is inherently ongoing. We’ll really never be “there,” but instead always reimagining where the field should be headed next.
The Importance Of Transformation
So why is transformation so critical in our field? Patrick Maynard, President and CEO of I Am Boundless (Ohio), frames one reason well when he shares, “You need to constantly evolve and shift to meet the demands, needs, and dreams of people you support.” In order to be responsive to people receiving services, it’s an absolute necessity that providers change and adapt. In addition to better meeting the needs of people, you’re then also demonstrating to those supported, as well as staff members and other stakeholders, that you value their input, are ‘open to change.’
Transformation is essential not in just looking at the individual needs of people, but also the organization-wide needs for an agency to flourish. For starters, since transformation first requires deeper understanding and discovery, it allows for open, honest reflection by organizations. It is through that process that agencies can identify what’s going well, and where there are opportunities for improvement. That exercise can help spark change and promote a positive culture.
There are also significant, large-scale issues that organizations face. From staffing shortages, to shifts in funding, and an international pandemic (to list a few), numerous obstacles exist in the present and loom in the future. Being proactive when exploring transformation allows agencies to confront these evolving challenges in the services sector. And the success of that transformation can affect the very existence of an organization.
Regardless of the importance of transformation, there’s no question about it, it’s not easy or quick. There are many difficulties that organizations will face along the way and common hinderances to change.
Some Pitfalls That Often Occur
Both within our field and completely outside of human services, there are common obstacles that organizations may encounter when attempting to enact change. There are some of the general concepts from the ‘Seven Pitfalls to Avoid During Organizational Transformation,’ authored by Anupam Kundu and Tarang Baxi, which are applicable to human services.
One such pitfall involves ignoring the direct implications of transformation on those who would be affected, such as people supported, employees, families, community members, etc. It’s important to look beyond just the change itself, and ensure that the people impacted are top of mind at all times. This ties to how critical it is to build investment among all stakeholders, which we’ll get into later.
With any transformation effort, there will also inevitably be a period where it doesn’t go as planned. By setting realistic expectations, and making clear that there will be highs and lows throughout the process, your stakeholders will have a better understanding of how things might play out and mitigate the impact of any unpleasant surprises.
Another issue that can crop up is when organizations apply previous measures of success after they’ve put changes in place. The problem is that those measures likely just won’t be applicable anymore.
Finally, in an eagerness to ‘cross the finish line’ when trying to enact change, organizational leaders sometimes don’t take breaks throughout the process to celebrate milestones. In an attempt to keep things moving, there often isn’t time devoted to acknowledging the accomplishments that have been made along the way.
Strategies To Support Change
Of course there are so many strategies out there that can be used to initiate and strengthen transformation efforts. The listing below is by no means an exhaustive one, but more so some general guidance that can create a foundation for your transformation. These strategies are excerpts from our webinar with the National Leadership Consortium, summarizing some of the most important concepts for each strategy.
Open communication is critical for transformation, specifically transparency. As a transparent organization, you can increase trust, improve morale, lower stress, and support better employee performance. When you communicate with people supported, staff members, etc. about an organization’s transformation efforts, it’s important to also share the ‘why’ – that there’s a reason behind an initiative.
Part of open communication involves ensuring that the right people are ‘at the table,’ whether you’re including people supported in meaningful roles on committees or implementing programs that empower direct support professionals. When the right people are ‘at the table,’ it’s essential that you not only solicit and encourage supportive feedback, but then also be responsive and enact change based on what you’re hearing and learning.
Positive Culture Change
As author Peter Drucker has said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This is not to suggest that strategy is not important, but a positive organizational culture needs to be at the forefront of any transformation effort. As you put together new strategies at your agency, here are three key points related to positive culture change:
- Culture is not static – It continually evolves and needs nurturing
- Leadership is key – Leaders shape the organizational and employee experiences
- Culture impacts success – Organizational outcomes are directly affected by culture
There are also a number of specific steps to help promote positive culture change. It all begins with gaining a better understanding of your current culture through conversations, focus groups, surveys, etc., so you can better assess where it is that you want to go. From leadership, to people supported, families, and employees, it’s important to have the various stakeholders involved so there is input and investment across the organization. In developing your objectives for your agency culture, you can also use your existing mission, vision, values, and goals as a guide. Finally, when you start putting it all into action, you will need to create benchmarks so that you can track the progress of your culture change.
Building off the ‘positive’ aspect of culture change, your transformation efforts can be amplified by having a strengths-based approach, especially through the use of Appreciative Inquiry. It is a transformational process that applies lessons learned from areas of success within an organization, to areas where there are opportunities for improvement. This process is certainly relevant to the human services field since – at least traditionally – a disproportionate amount of attention is often placed on what’s not working or what’s wrong.
Instead of a deficiency-driven approach, appreciative inquiry is centered on exploring and expanding assets to promote positive change. By reframing your outlook from “what did we do wrong?” to “what did we learn from this?” you’ll be able view your organization, its services, and the impact on people, through a new lens.
According to 2018 survey of top leaders by the Harvard Business Review, 97% of respondents stated that being strategic is the most important leadership skill. However, 96% shared that they didn’t have enough time for strategic planning. This demonstrates just how important it is to devote time and resources to this area.
Strategic planning provides organizations with a roadmap throughout the transformation process. The process offers us insight into both where we’re going, as well as how we’ll get there. Through strategic planning, you’ll also have measurable outcomes to ensure that you’re making progress on that plan.
One point of caution with strategic planning involves the ‘secret sauce’ approach – the desire for a one-size-fits-all guide or toolkit that can be used in developing a plan. While organizations aim to speed up the process through the ‘secret sauce’ approach, it likely won’t address what makes an organization unique or develop strategic objectives that actually fit that particular agency.
While there should not be a ‘secret sauce’ for strategic planning, there are some elements that are often included in a plan:
- Knowing where your organization is now
Key Components: assessments, evaluation, root cause analyses
- Knowing where your organization is going
Key Components: mission, vision, goals, outcomes
- Determining the steps needed to get there
Key Components: operational, structural, personnel, timeline, phases, tasks, benchmarking
- Learning, evaluating, and revising your approach, plan, and process
Key Components: evaluation of outcomes, progress reviews, environmental scans
There are so many reasons why data is important and it all has a very direct application to both your strategic planning and general transformation efforts. Throughout this article, we’ve highlighted the importance of tracking your progress and measuring how effective your initiatives are across your organization. Data is your tool for making that a reality.
For example, CQL recently released new research connecting the dots between organizational quality and individual quality of life. As described by Carli Friedman, CQL’s Director of Research, “we found that the better the quality of their human service provider, the better quality of life people with IDD had.”
The Impact of Provider Quality on Personal Outcomes
When agencies are able to assess if their efforts involving transformation are having the desired outcomes at both the organizational and individual level, they can confidently move forward with their plans. Conversely, if organizations are finding in their data that efforts are not producing the intended results, they can reassess and explore changes that might need to be made.
Transforming Your Organization
While the guidance provided here only shares an overview of the importance and general application of transformation in the human services sector, hopefully it offered some ideas for enacting change at your agency. Through concepts like open communication, positive culture change, a strength-based approach (including being a strengths spotter), strategic planning, and the utilization of data, you can start to lay the groundwork for transforming your organization.
We understand of course that true, meaningful, long-lasting transformation is easier said than done. It can of course take an extensive amount of time and commitment. Transformation is a process, an evolution, and it aligns with the ideal held by many of our partners that “quality is a continuous journey, not a destination.”