In a workshop hosted by PBLQ in The Hague, Sarah Schulman (our visiting scholar) reflected on ‘Family by Family’. ‘Family by Family’ is a network of families helping each other to bring about change. Sarah and her multidisciplinary team spend time with more than 100 families to learn about their family life, if and what sort of stress they experienced and what changes they wanted to achieve. Eventually, the project resulted in a practical method prototyped by 35 families and praised by many. What are the lessons learned analysing ‘Family by Family’ as a method for behavioural change?
Theory of change
Families are ‘Family by Family’s’ biggest resource. Two sorts of families are identified: seeking families are the ones who would like something to change in their family life, and sharing families who had gone through tough times but have come out the other side with more ups than downs. The general thought is: link-ups between the two can make change! To get involved with a family who has “been there, done that”, families experience other ways of ‘doing family’, learn new strategies and skills and gain a sense of hope. The link-ups facilitate ‘learning-by-doing’: they build new relationships together and challenge families to meet new people, go to new places and try new things. The goal is thriving instead of surviving. Thriving families are families still moving towards the lives they wanted, even though they are not immune to stress and challenge. These families are constantly looking for what they can add to their day-to-day routine. They are having new family experiences and interactions that improve their way of life.
How do we achieve this kind of behavioural change? First, it is about finding families, particularly the unusual suspects. Gathered in front of the local supermarket, in the park or at fast food restaurants the ‘Family by Family’-team approached families willing to give ‘Family by Family’ a go. They faced angry people telling them to mind their own business, shutting doors, but also crying moms and hospitable families inviting them into their homes. The (sharing) families go along to a family camp to receive training, and participate in group-coaching sessions during their link-ups with a seeking family. They learn how to share their story and ways of encouraging & supporting change. Although ‘Family by Family’ is established for and by families, support from professional coaches is available. The coaches keep the focus on change, help to match families, manage risks and provide ideas, support and professional know-how.
7 steps = 7 questions
The methodology used to develop the ‘Family by Family’ model is called the Radical Redesign methodology. It is an approach to solve tough social challenges through seven phases of work. Remarkable: every step starts with a question. First, was the get ready phase, with the question: What team fits the problem? ‘Family by Family’ builds a team that consists of creative people from different problem-solving disciplines. Around those teams a sounding board for critical feedback was built. Second, the team looked and listened. They used ethnographic methods to understand families in their contexts and in their words. They observed family life from the perspective of different family members: when they woke-up, had lunch, went to school and, had dinner. Meanwhile, they observed the main stressors for families, the language they used, what’s important to them, where they see themselves in five years and how they imagine getting there. The focus was on the outcomes families deemed desirable. Hence, the ‘Family by Family’-team spent lots of time with families to understand the ups and downs of their lives, and learn what they wanted to change. They also tried to spend time with service providers to learn their point of view. At the end of this phase of work, the problem was reframed in terms of achieving outcomes people and systems prefer.
The next phase is the creation of ideas: What ideas could improve outcomes? The creation phase happens with families. The team worked with people to develop and visualize ideas for interactions that could improve outcomes. What interactions shift outcomes? By trying out the ideas (prototyping), the ‘Family by Family’-team rapidly found out what worked and what did not. During the process, five different kind of promotional materials were used until they found messages that appealed to families, they prototyped the role of the coach several times and 15 different versions of measurement tools were used. They designed, tested and rejected until they found something that worked.
They also prototype the backend systems: What needs to be in place to enable new interactions to happen? When the interactions and systems are identified they wonder: What value does the solution create? They project the value a new solution will create based on what they learnt from the prototype and develop a business model and investment case. In the seventh phase – which is continous and ongoing – the team looks towards growth. How can this solution be spread? Currently, Family by Family is in 2 communities and is preparing to spread to several more.
Principles and practices: lessons learned
The method ‘Family by Family’ offers us several transferrable principles and practices. One of the principles explored by ‘Family by Family’ is: families know family best. Spending time with the families, being where the families are, and making ethnographies of the families’ stories is the result of this principle. So, first lesson learned: get immersed in the setting where you want to make change. The actors involved, whether these are families, teachers or officials, have the expertise and know-how. Besides, they, and only them, know the goal they want to reach. What is their perfect situation? What change do they want to achieve? It is not possible to decide for anybody else whether he or she wants to go left or right.
Another lesson learned was that people who are equals can help each other. ‘Equals helping each other’ works because it is not preachy. People listen to each other and help pushing the boundaries in order to experience new things instead of being told what to do. Although Kennisland does not have a top-down approach, we do convey a particular view, and pretend to have the expertise.
Sarah and her team put lots of focus on creating a theory of change, or behavioural change to be more specific. They continuously asked their selves what interactions would encourage the families to change their behaviour in order to achieve the previously set outcomes? They tried to evaluate every time whether or not the kind of behaviour, the settings, the language or the materials led to relevant changes. This indicates two valuable practices: continuously evaluate during the process and seeing the social world as a set of interactions.
Finally, continuously asking yourself: ‘Are we doing good?’ is a valuable question. On the other hand it is a very tough one. Indeed, how do you measure change? Sarah is still tackling this question, writing it down in blog posts, and working on a book. Although there is no straightforward answer yet, considering evaluation and wondering ‘Did we do good?’ is a good starting point. Second, seeing the social world as a set of interactions is a totally different way of observing. What obviously makes you jump to different conclusions and different interventions for change. Indeed, if the social world is a set of interactions many variations on attitude, approach, people, language and setting are possible in order to get the preferred outcome. The question is: which one, in which setting and which combination would we use to bring about the behavioural changes we seek?
The awesomeness of families
‘Family-by-Family’ is an immense project resulting in a complete research method for change, through changing the interactions and a particular focus on thriving instead of surviving. The method is unravelled in detail and clearly penned. In my opinion that is the strength of this method: the entire process is covered, they divided it into workable steps and it seems very doable. Question is: Can a method that is so narrowed down be applied in other areas? Sarah and her team have applied the method to aged care and youth services too. But, can we use this method in our projects?
We need to test whether or not this method can be used in other areas of expertise besides youth care. Indeed, do families interact the same as teachers or officials? Probably not. However, I expect it is possible to use the method because of the strictly indicated steps and questions the method provides. Following the steps indicated force you to think in a certain way what makes the method applicable in different cases. The ‘Family by Family’-team is still working to spread the approach across Australia. The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (Tacsi), has invested about $1 million of its own $6 million in seed funding to develop the model. Last week, the government of South Australia agreed to invest another $2.8 million in its growth.
An on-going challenge for ‘Family-by-Family’ is understanding for whom the model works, and for whom it does not. The ‘Family-by-Family’ team has used realist evaluation methods to try and get at these questions. In my opinion research on effective evaluation questions is important. Although the change families experienced seemed rather positive, did they reach what the wanted? Which families are gaining the most? Did they develop a new method? One that can be used in social science research? Although some questions remain unanswered, the method they developed is explicit and we can at least learn about how it is developed. Most valuable in my opinion is the way they communicate what they have done. Indeed, you can wonder whether or not this is new and useful, at least we can ascertain how, why and with whom they did it regardless the actual effects they achieved. From that perspective, I think, the process is more important than the content.