Having purpose, an eye for detail and a sense of curiosity are the Fulfilling Lives workforce attributes I have flagged as desirable in previous blogs. Time is often at a premium for staff. Smaller caseloads and flexibility are ways of extending the time available to beneficiaries. Which brings me round to another attribute for the practitioner which, is pragmatism.

As I said in the item on curiosity, practitioners engaged with the evaluation of theory not only contribute to better practice but ensure theory is grounded in pragmatism. Thereby theory becomes better as well. People become less inclined to say: ‘that is alright in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice’. A pragmatic practitioner doesn’t just know the theory, but they act on it because it works.

The pragmatic practitioner is engaged in a continuous process of testing, reflecting and refining their practice. With this ‘test and learn’ method the shared practical experience of the worker and beneficiary meet both individual and programme aims by building a knowledge bank of ‘what works’.

In this style the Fulfilling Lives workers both use and make time. The programme is all about trying out different approaches and this involves practitioners having scope for experiment and flexibility. Projects recognise that because they are modelling positive practice in working with people with multiple and complex needs, they can secure good responses from other agencies because they can see it works.  Thereby, understanding of what works is spread wider.

Helen Gavaghan explored the excitement and dilemmas in changing, stretching and testing the operational environment (the system) in her blog last year. The topic is unpacked further in Fulfilling Lives Newcastle and Gateshead’s insight report What makes an effective multiple and complex needs worker? in a section called Unorthodox Practice. At the heart of this ‘eyebrow raising’ section is a message that i) investment in relationship building is an effective use of time, ii) naming and describing these practices builds a more realistic picture of what it means to be a multiple and complex needs worker and iii) supervision, training and self-care assist make it safer to turn pragmatic practice into system changing practice.

Safer because the methodology of the pragmatic practitioner is not only about learning from what works but, critically, learning from mistakes, when an approach doesn’t work asking why and finding out the reasons alongside the beneficiary. Co-production, whereby worker and client learn from each other and progress together, means that potentially harmful risks of ‘unorthodox practice’ are shared, managed and converted to benefit.

Of course it can become habitual to keep on doing things a certain way because it works and lose sight of the underpinning theory. It can be a disappointment when an approach comes up short on expectations. A curious and pragmatic practitioner with an eye for detail will explore the scenario to both test their practice and develop their theory. They reflect and adapt and by this means they again make more time through stopping doing things that don’t work.

The Fulfilling Lives initiative is about tackling complexity. This takes time and effort as cause and effect are often only discovered in hindsight. Even then, one scenario, once understood, does not always hold good for another similar occurrence. A person is a complex adaptive system that is surrounded by a range of other such systems – family and community networks, for example. Understanding and controlling one part of the system does not necessarily lead to a similar grasp of the behaviour of other parts. The time taken by the worker goes on assisting the beneficiary to know what is predictable and repeatable, what they can and cannot control and to build the skills to unravel the complexity and make sense of things to enable them to positively adapt. The pragmatist might describe this as time well spent on supporting people to develop ‘coping skills’ that will work in most eventualities but not all.

Finally the pragmatic response to people in chaos is likely to be one of quickly determining whether crisis management approaches and imposed stability interventions are acceptable or make matters worse. If the former then, step by step, it should be possible for the worker and client to agree and make life changes. It will take time and persistence to bring order, identify complexity and make useful patterns of knowable behaviour. If the latter, then the pragmatic practitioner recognises with the client that they don’t have all the answers. They take time to understand the engagement issues and may seek expertise from elsewhere in the team or externally. Timing, responsiveness and spontaneity are crucial. The Fulfilling Lives worker may have to ‘battle’ to get access to the right support for their client. Provision may not exist or, if it does, may be reluctant to engage with people who use drugs and alcohol or just lack understanding of people with complex needs. This is where the practitioner becomes a system changer – a subject for another blog.

So pragmatism involves making sensible and flexible, sometimes unorthodox, use of time and expertise of self and others including the client. The pragmatic practitioner is purposeful and always curious to know why things work and sometimes don’t. The Newcastle Gateshead survey reveals this to be a down-to-earth and co-produced approach latent with system changing capacity.

I’d be delighted to hear your responses, so please write to me with your (pragmatic and system changing) thoughts.

Vic Citarella

Company Director CPEA Ltd. 07947 680 588| vic.citarella@cpea.co.uk