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The HUGE power of small – how social work can learn from business


Director of WillisPalmer Mark Willis on how small steps can make a huge impact on the children social workers work with daily

Last week I attended a two-day conference for business owners in Wales, at the Celtic Manor resort near Newport.  It was attended by 840 people from the UK and Europe and featured some incredible speakers such as Brad Sugars (Action Coach), Frank Dick, formerly head coach at UK Athletics and the inspiring Allan Pease who founded the theories of body language in the 1970’s, many of which we take for granted today.

However, the talk which truly inspired me was delivered by Master Presenter and entrepreneur Paul Dunn, an Australian philanthropist who espouses ‘the power of small’. In a business context his ideas are both simple and yet remarkably powerful.  Since returning from the conference I began thinking about how his concepts for business improvement might translate into improving social work with children and families.

Dunn believes that by making small or even tiny changes to the way things are done in a business huge results will follow.  For example, if someone phones to speak with a member of the team who is at lunch, don’t just take a message, offer to help them anyway.  There are numerous other examples of how businesses can be better by implementing small, simple changes that don’t cost any money.  In many respects the idea is allied with Team Sky's cycling head Dave Brailsford’s notion of ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ – that by making small changes in every area of the team’s practices they can gain multiple advantages that add up to faster times overall.

Surely a similar principle could be applied in a social work environment? Research from children in care, for example, has consistently shown us that it is often the really small things that make a big difference to the way they view their social worker.  These include showing up on time for appointments, remembering things they had been told in the past about their experiences, giving them a call occasionally to see how they are getting on and so forth.

With amazing advances in technology – especially smart phones and tablets -  there has never been a better time to make these kinds of small impacts when working with children and families.  Facetime and Skype allow social workers to connect with clients in ways that would have been unimaginable when I started out in social work in the 1980’s.  And it doesn’t need to be for long discussions or to discuss big issues, it could be tiny things and it need not cost any money.

I heard of a social worker recently who had sent a text to a child she was working with to tell him that one of his favourite footballers was signing copies of his new book at Waterstones in the town where he lived – it took her two minutes to send this text – not even that probably – but what an impact it had on her client! What an impact it must have had on how he viewed his social worker which could have a really positive effect on their relationship for the future.

If you think about it, this one small action by this social worker said so many things; that she was thinking of the child even though she wasn’t physically there (see David Howe’s theories of mind-mindedness); that she remembered who his favourite footballer was (she listens) and she was bothered enough to spend a few moments sending a text to him (she cares).

With social worker caseloads showing few signs of shrinking and demand for children’s services growing it might just be the small things that social workers do that can make a big difference to the people they work with.  As Dunn says: ‘It’s the HUGE power of small’.

Mark Willis




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