Slowing Down To Make Your Team More Efficient: Dawna Ballard on Coordinating Child Advocacy

In a crisis, we wrongly think that talk is cheap and action matters most. By improving coordination, slowing down can speed us up.

Dr. Dawna Ballard, Associate Professor at the University of Texas Department of Communication Studies

How would you like to do work that is highly-traumatic, fast-paced, under-resourced, and never ending? That’s the everyday life of people who work at children’s advocacy centers. How does this work shape people’s experience of time, and can slowing down actually help teams work more efficiently?

Speaking today at the Cornell Communication department is Dr. Dawna Ballard(@dawnaballard), an associate professor of organizational communication and technology at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert in chronemics — the study of time as it is bound to human communication. She researches what drives our pace of life and its impact on the communication practices and long-term vitality of organizations, communities, and individuals. Dr. Ballard’s most recent book, Work Pressures, asks how work pressures can compromise the performance and validity of people and their organizations.

People who work in children’s advocacy work in what Dawna tells us are “extreme action teams” —where skilled members cooperate on urgent, unpredictable, consequential tasks in organizations with constantly-changing teams. Coordinating these teams is difficult because they work on different timelines. How can they be effectively coordinated? That’s the subject of the research project Dawna tells us about today, which she will be presenting at the National Communication Association annual convention this year.

Prosecution of child protection cases used to be difficult because agencies with different cultures considered themselves too busy on urgent cases to coordinate effectively

Understanding The Complex Network of Child Protection

Dr. Ballard tells us about the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas, a network of 70 centers that support children who experience child abuse across the state. Before the 180s, cases were handled in a poorly coordinated fashion. From the first moment a case is reported through an abuse hotline, advocacy centers coordinate agencies including Child Protective Services, Family Advocates, forensic interviewers, law enforcement, medical experts, mental health experts, and prosecutors.

Before the CAC and its multidisciplinary teams, children regularly died due to failures of agencies to coordinate, Dawna tells us. With children’s life and well-being on the line, the work of coordinating agencies is high stakes, complex activity — the work of an extreme action team. Scientists who study team coordination describe this work as a process of “continuous adaptation.”

How can over-worked teams on high stakes projects coordinate effectively? Dawna tells us that prosecution of child protection cases used to be difficult because agencies with different cultures considered themselves too busy on urgent cases to slow down and coordinate. To address this risk, the CAC holds “case briefings” that organize stakeholders to get to know each other, build relationships, check in on the status of a case, and develop the best path forward.

How to Study the Coordination of Extreme Action Teams

To study continuous adaptation by extreme action teams for child protection, Dr. Ballard and her collaborators visited five centers (urban, suburban, rural), followed 7 case briefings, observed 217 hours of activity, joined staff trainings, reviewed training documents, held focus groups, and surveyed over 1,400 people. They then used a multi-method approach to study the data they collected, including timelining, linguistic matching, and statistical models of surveys.

How do teams fit adaptation into their workflows and timelines? Dawna describes how teams carried out planned/fungible activity and how that relates to the epochal/event-driven activity to support specific cases.

Dawna asked different kinds of organizations what their “production timeline” of planned time for their involvement in a case (in fungible time). While medical professionals might be involved in a case for over a year, forensic interviewers had a half a day to a day. Law enforcement had no mention of fungible time — their job is entirely focused on responding to events. She shows us some of the timelines actually drawn by these different groups:

What Project Timelines Reveal About Coordination

These timelines give us a glimpse into the reason for different ideas about success and the difficulty of coordinating. A law enforcement professional might be successful if they get a warrant. A family advocate might only consider a case successful years later, after a child had a good outcome overall. To succeed at coordination, the Children’s Advocacy Centers used their “case briefings” to keep track of the whole case and synchronize everyone.

Dawna tells us participants in the study reported feeling starved for conversation with other people who valued their work to protect children. Many of them said that the people in their lives didn’t want to hear about child abuse. And many of them experienced secondary trauma from their work. Meetings within the Child Advocacy Centers provided people with peer support from others they could talk with.

The research team also surveyed participants about how well people worked together. Overall, they found that participation in the CAC meetings did predict performance. They also found that participation in the meetings also predicted people’s satisfaction with how well their teams worked. Dawna tells us that just being in the room and having cases to talk through- was related to their sense of collaboration, which predicted performance.

What can we take from this? In a crisis, we often wrongly think that talk is cheap and action matters most. Dawna’s research shows that in high urgency cases like child protection, one of the best things to do is to slow down and take the time to communicate. By slowing down, building communication, and building trust, teams can actually do work more efficiently.

Citizen social science to improve digital life & hold tech accountable. Assistant Prof, Cornell. citizensandtech.org Prev: Princeton, MIT. Guatemalan-American