I’ve talked in my last two columns about the need to define success and failure in our field. There are a few reasons why we have to do this in our programs. The first is that we really owe it to the young people and the families we serve to be organized enough in our thinking and actions to let them know that we have some sense of the impact our interventions should have with them. The second is for our own sake. We need to have some measure by which we can say that how our work is both effective and important. Without such measures we become much more vulnerable to burn out and cynicism. The third reason is that funders are increasingly demanding accountability. Many are tired of pouring money into programs without seeing results.
Anyhow let me give you a short overview of “success" in residential treatment as an example. In short, “success" is however you define it. Given that it is impossible to be 100% successful in most services and that there are no universal measurements, it is really up to the program to define how it determines success. I know I'm telling stuff that many of you already know but the success of the program should be tied to the successful completion of the intervention or treatment goals. In some of the programs I've worked in we, as a staff group, looked at how realistic and measurable our intervention or treatment goals were and then after much debate set arbitrary program goals based on what we thought we could achieve over a one year period.For example we might have had “improve appropriate expression of emotions" as a goal with most of the young people. A program goal therefore might have been that “80% of the young people in the program will have completed a feelings expression group within three months of entry to the program". We might also have used some tests that would measure improved ability in this area and had as a program goal that every young person whom can into the program would show a 2 point improvement (I'm making this up) on a scale of 1-10 on the test. We also might have used an observation chart where staff mark in observed improvement in the appropriate expression of affect. The point is that “success" was defined by the program. The real point is that however success was defined the main goal was for us to interact more purposefully with the young people.
Also, when looking at residential programs, one can also attempt to measure the instrumental tasks as part of the definition of success. For example, “success" can also be determined by whether the intake assessment and initial goal setting was completed on time. “Success" can also be defined by whether a set percentage of young people were discharged according to a predetermined time frame or whether they were still in their discharge placement six months after leaving your program. “Success" really should look at all of the components of the program.
However, at the end of the day, success is still subjective. You are dealing with people’s lives and lives don’t fit into neat little categories of success and failure. It is hard to know if you have had a significant positive impact on the life of a young person unless they visit you years later and tell you how well they are doing. Most don’t do this even if they are doing well. Still we do need to have some sense that the work we are doing is having some impact. It really is worth the investment of the time to get together as a staff group and talk about how you define success. It can be time consuming but the payoff is a more focused sense of purpose, a more directed sense of interaction with the young people and among yourselves and potentially an increased sense of accomplishment. All of these in themselves are worth your time and effort.