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“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”(Robert Burns, 1785)
According to legend, the Scots poet Robert Burns (1759 – 1796) was plowing in his fields and accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest, which it needed to survive the winter. Moved to write a poem entitled “To a Mouse” (some say while his hand was still on the plow) the line above from one of the last stanzas is often used to mean that no matter how carefully a project is planned, something may still go wrong with it. This is not to suggest that something will go wrong but, rather, that implementing new ways of doing business in any organization can present a range of unique challenges and potential stumbling blocks – but they are challenges that can be anticipated and thus avoided and/or addressed.
Implementing a new child sexual abuse prevention framework, or even strengthening an existing one, requires significant time and effort in planning and execution. At some point – often after months of work – the policies and procedures, codes of conduct, screening and hiring protocols, reporting requirements and training programs are ready to be presented to the staff and volunteers in the organization. But sometimes, the presentation may not be met with the expected enthusiasm because new programs require a change in the way things are done – and, in this case, the ways people behave as well.
Organizations (like many people) don’t particularly like change. Fundamental change takes time, is uncomfortable, and often requires a lot of energy for what seem to be small, forward steps. When confronted with change – either personally or professionally – there is a natural tendency in many to focus on how to defend against it instead of how to use and succeed with it. Because of this, it is inevitable that not all elements of an organization undergoing change will move at the same pace. When a change is introduced to everyone in an organization, some will grasp the new way of doing business immediately, some will take a more considered approach and implement at a slower pace while trying to gauge effects as the change evolves, and some will avoid or resist change – even if mandated – for long periods of time.
This particular change also forces organizations and individuals to consider the uncomfortable issue of child sexual abuse and acknowledge the real possibility that the children they seek to support may also be exposed to risk through participation in the YSO’s programs. The idea that “one of us” could sexually abuse a child is hard for many to accept.
Implementing system change is a tall order in any organization. Industrial/Organizational psychologists 1 suggest by their research that true change in an organization requires strategies and actions that impact the entire structure in positive ways with outcomes that:
These elements, however, must exist within a process that brings the conversation between leadership and staff/volunteers to a very different level than that of a set of mandates about new policies, procedures, programs and timelines. Two important factors in this process are the strategy for change (the roadmap for defining and implementing the changes management considers necessary for the organization’s growth or development) and the culture (organizational mindset, history, decision making style, behaviors, accountability structures, etc.) within which the leadership desires the change to occur.
Natural conflicts exist between strategy and culture, and these conflicts – if left unaddressed – predict that significant change to any organization will not be a smooth, linear process or a one-time event, and that in times of crisis (or even when a crisis is past), organizations undergoing a change process that is not yet complete tend to “slide backward” and go back to traditional ways of behaving. Consequently, a sustained level of vigilance, encouragement and support by senior management is necessary for all levels of the organization undergoing change.
Consider, for example, a YSO attempting to implement a child sexual abuse prevention program for the first time. The administration appoints several staff members to create a new set of policies and procedures, new screening and hiring practices, and new training and awareness programs for staff. The boss also publishes a letter to all staff letting them know about the importance of protecting children, what’s coming, periodically attends the planning meetings for updates, and talks about the effort at the quarterly “all hands” staff meetings. The strategy makes sense, seems to be a logical, orderly way to approach the task, has a list of products, and enjoys the boss’ attention and support. After several months of work, the framework is ready, the boss announces that the changes are in effect immediately, and even attends the first training class to set the example and emphasize that the new requirements apply to everybody.
As time goes by, the training programs for all current staff are completed, training for new employees and volunteers happens in small groups as they are hired, the new organizational processes are in place, and there have even been a few anecdotal instances where the safety framework appears to have worked in terms of facilitating the children’s safety. There is a growing sense of accomplishment and confidence that the children are now safer and, as that sense increases over time, the staff members who drafted the strategy resume their regular job responsibilities, and management turns its attention to other pressing matters. A year later, a child is harmed under circumstances that the strategy should have prevented. How could this happen?
A safety program may be adopted but not retained or sustained. After the initial set of activities to create and implement the safety structure fades into the past, and communication about it becomes less frequent, organizations and people have a tendency over time to view the policies, programs and initiatives as having addressed the situation – thus allowing them to turn their attention to the many other tasks, activities and daily problems that normally demand their attention. It is when that happens that the “corporate memory” about why these programs exist begins to weaken and vigilance can suffer. If an organization lets that happen, it does so at great risk.
Turnover of staff and volunteers can also add to this effect, as each succeeding “generation” of managers, employees and volunteers is further removed from the energy and enthusiasm of the initial effort. Unless there is regular and widespread communication to the organization about the importance of the abuse prevention programs, policies, and procedures, why they are in place, what they are intended to do, and how they are working, the practice of maintaining safe environments can weaken. In other words, a YSO can invest significant time and effort to implement a new safety framework, but it must also pay attention to the longer processes of adapting, revising, evaluating, providing feedback and sustaining the implementation over time as it becomes a new part of the organizational culture.
1 Rogers, E. M. (1995) Diffusion of Innovations. 4th ed. The Free Press, NY.
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