how do i accomplish impactful partnership by working at the frontier?
The examples of positive change we studied all involved working at the frontier. Frontier work involves creativity, innovation, trailblazing, improvisation, being at the leading edge, and going beyond standard approaches.
Working at the frontier means working in a zone that can be unfamiliar or unknown. Such work involves creativity, innovation, trailblazing, improvisation, being at the leading edge, and going beyond standard approaches.
Frontier work allows partnership to be a leading-edge practice that can’t be found wholly in familiar, routine or procedural work. Each instance of crossing into frontier territory is another example of a ‘small’ thing with a big effect. The distance travelled across the frontier may be small, but the act of doing so has significant benefits for families.
Frontier work can be thought of as an expanding spiral
Actively opening up new ways of working as needed, and making the most of what context offers
Doing what is needed to meet families' needs and act in their best interests
A way of thinking about a dynamic and emergent relationship between policy, procedure and practice
Frontier work is crucial - it is one of the essential characteristics of impactful partnership
Being sensitive and responsive to differences between families, the unfamiliar, unusual and non-routine
Being ready to try new things and reflect on success
Our study found that successful outcomes relies on helpers working at the frontier of the partnership itself – always just ahead of the helper-parent relationship. This is what ensures the relationship kept developing, and new forms of help, challenge and possibility could be developed.
The idea of working at the frontier came from one participant’s descriptions of their work context (see quote below). However, we found the idea usefully captures many aspects of impactful partnership across all the services we studied.
“Our services are ground breaking in the sense that it’s frontier work. There’s so many policies, but not all of them fit this space”.(Helper)
The quote conveys how frontier work is part of what makes impactful partnership an evolving art.
Working at the frontier is also often crucial to the creation of new meanings and possibilities in action that are fundamental to partnership as a mind-expanding process (see here for a summary of these key framing ideas).
Key concept: the frontier
The idea of the frontier is used as a metaphor to understand key aspects of impactful partnership. The frontier is a realm of possibility, a space where new things open up in front of you. It is associated with looking forwards, but also with unfamiliar, unchartered territory. The suggestion is that impactful partnership involves work at or just beyond the frontier, where the boundary is marked by routine practice, what is already known or experienced, or existing policy and procedure. Stepping beyond has to be done consciously and skillfully, when it is judged to be safe and in a family’s best interests. Recognising the importance of frontier work means accepting that impactful partnership cannot be fully captured in a fixed formula or set of protocols.
Impactful partnership relies on helpers being sensitive to difference and ready to cope with the unfamiliar
If nothing unusual or different has been encountered in work between a helper and a family, it is unlikely that impactful partnership is in place. No two families are the same, and the work that needs to be done to secure the change they need will often involve something unfamiliar.
Impactful partnership can’t be found wholly in familiar, routine, procedural work.
Two issues arise here: being open to difference, and how we respond. Helpers have to work in ways that allow different and unusual aspects to come up. We found this happened when they didn’t follow a script, worked at a pace set by parents, and followed parents’ lead (even if down side tracks). Impressions matter a lot: if parents think help is being offered off-the-shelf they are more likely to try to fit into what they think the boundaries are. The frontier becomes a wall.
How helpers respond to the unfamiliar in their practice is also crucial. Such territory can feel insecure or risky and there can be a temptation to recover by quickly getting back on track. There is a fine balance between maintaining purpose and avoiding issues that might later prove relevant.
innovating and improvising
The art of impactful partnership involves helpers innovating and improvising as their work with particular families unfolds
By innovating we mean trying new things out, establishing things in new situations, trying new ways of doing something familiar, or finding new ways of working when established practices aren’t having the desired effect.
Innovations can be at service level, as with the early parenting group we studied in NSW, which was distinctive in its parent-led approach. They can also be in the way multi services interface, as with the Child and Family Centres (CFCs) in Tasmania and the Strong Start program in South Australia.
CFCs in Tasmania have a small core team, but a large and flexible working team. Professionals are seconded from other services, or work out of the centres. Rather than relying on formal team structures, co-location enables fluid collaboration.
Strong Start brings social workers, family support workers, allied health and CFH nurses together to flexibly support and link first-time families with complex needs to services. The professional team begin working with families antenatally, to engage families in services within a network of care. Family support workers with strong links to community transition families to secure, ongoing relationships beyond the program.
“It was a pilot project – the idea came up that we should really be intervening for families at risk in the antenatal period, and try and help parents to really get themselves a bit sorted for when the babies came.” (Helper)
Innovations can also arise in-the-moment in the intimacy of interactions with parents. These might be ephemeral, but they can have big effects for the family and eventually reshape wider practices. This happened with the ‘bad day plan’ that was developed by parents in one NSW service, and is now being used in day stays and various outreach and home visiting contexts.
Improvising means responding to the contingencies and constraints in a particular situation, being inventive and making do with what is available. This was often talked about as ‘going with the flow’. Practitioners in the toddler clinic often had to improvise when parents brought more than one child along, and those in home visiting services often had to change plans because babies were asleep, awake, feeding, unsettled or several of these!
Creating and responding to opportunities
Impactful partnership isn't about following a script, but actively creating ways to support families that respond to their specific context and needs
The most impactful helpers were able not only to respond to opportunities in an agile way, but also to create them. This capacity proved especially important in situations where it seemed that momentum was being lost. Looking for opportunities to take the partnership into frontier territory helps to enhance outcomes.
Opportunities can be in-the-moment with one family, as when toddler aggression creates a chance to work on behaviour management skills. They can also arise at a service level. One CFC in particular was notable for seizing on opportunities that foster parent wellbeing and children’s nutrition arising through a ‘love on a plate’ initiative with the nearby neighbourhood centre.
being just ahead of policy or procedure
Sometimes acting in families' best interests requires careful judgement and stepping just ahead of policy and procedure
Many of the services we studied were designed as cutting-edge in some way. However, a frontier design was rarely enough to give helpers the scope they needed to act in families’ best interests.
Achieving maximum positive impact often means working in ways that aren’t quite those specified in policies or procedures. All the examples we found when this arose involved helpers making careful, context-specific judgements about what they deemed to be the best interests of the family involved. What is important is that helpers have space to do this without punitive consequences and they feel comfortable talking about this with supervisors and managers. Services as a whole can then evolve and procedures and policies can catch up with the realities and contingencies of practice where appropriate.
Working at the frontier of policy means making careful context-specific judgements in the best interests of the family.
Frontier work does not mean blatant disregard for clear rules, such as mandatory reporting. However, it might mean that things are done in a different order, as when a nurse decided not to ask a mother to complete a depression scale in the first visit, because it seemed inappropriate given the mother’s state and the child's suddenly needing attention.
Flexible logistics and offering scope to work at adaptive pace and frequency, and in alternative places, often made crucial differences to outcomes.
It might also involve breaking protocols as when a normally clinic-based nurse visited a mother who was stranded in her home. All the examples we found were deviations that fulfilled a specific and/or urgent need.
That these kinds of frontier work were found to be prevalent is a sign that an environment was created in which people could explore ways to work that were in ways that were ahead of policy. In fact, if policy-makers are open to and tolerant of these practices, this kind of frontier work presents a bottom-up way for policies to evolve.
Frontier work that goes just ahead of policy and procedure can be supported and made safer, or the opposite, depending on the culture of compliance in a particular service or organisation. Given that frontier work is so crucial to impactful partnership as an expansive, evolving art, a rigid and overly strict compliance regime may cause helpers to stop before the frontier (and thus jeopardise impacts for families), or render these practices invisible to managers and supervisors, and thus lose the benefits and safeguards of shared reflection and practice wisdom.
An approached based on ‘comply, explain, learn’ could foster openness around this kind of frontier work. The norm is that practice fits within policies and procedures. Helpers’ judgements in going beyond this would therefore need to be explained and justified in relation to the interests of the family, and with clear assessment of any risks to helpers or others involved. Both the service and the helper stand to learn from open discussions, which may conclude that the stepping into the frontier was indeed appropriate, or if not, help to establish clearer understandings. This would work only if the culture is explicitly open to explanations for going one step ahead of policy in certain circumstances.
This idea adapts the ‘comply or explain’ approach described by Keay (2014). The Creating Better Futures Study did not investigate or gather evidence on policy and procedure, nor wider cultures of compliance. ‘Comply, explain, learn’ is suggested as a possible way to support and foster the kinds of frontier work that were found to be crucial, while recognising the importance of policy and procedure in governing practices.
Keay, A. (2014). Comply or explain in corporate governance codes: In need of greater regulatory oversight? Legal Studies, 34(2), 279-304. doi:10.1111/lest.12014
Using the frontier spiral to enhance your practice
The main worksheet (ready to print on A4 or A3 paper) is designed for practitioners to reflect on their practice. There is also a version that you may find helpful to use in your actual work with families - this contains the main figure and some key prompts.