Friday, 18 January 2013

Person Centred Thinking Tools

There's been some debate recently about whether we should use 'Person Centred Thinking Tools'.
It's been argued that the word 'tools' implies somebody doing something TO somebody. The person with the tool is the person with the power.

There are several ways of describing what facilitators and coaches help provide:

A set of tools; tools that champions can share with people, their staff and families.

A set of skills; ways of thinking that are coached and practiced so regularly they become internalised, so that almost naturally in each new situation a supporter might ask themselves "What's important to the person in this situation, and how can I help them stay safe in a way that makes sense to them?"

A set of approaches; values, attitudes, tools and skills all brought together in one bundle.

There are good arguments for each of them, and I think it's absolutely correct to raise the risk of planning for someone, doing something to them, leaving them out of the planning process, exercising 'power over' instead of 'power with' that increases the person's 'power to', it's a risk we need to be aware of whatever we call what we do.

I also remember the old one day Person Centred Planning 'Awareness' training that used to introduce people to person centred planning for the first time: It would tell you all about the values and outcomes of person centred planning. People would ask "That's really great, but what can I actually do to put this into practice?", the answer being: "go on the four day facilitators' course".

Back then we had 'big' planning styles: styles that required a highly charismatic skilled facilitator (or two) who would gather everyone together and at the end of the day produce an amazing graphic representing the person and their plans.

Problems with this 'big' approach are that in reality very few of us sit down and plan our whole lives over 1 day, we do plan our lives, but in a much more 'bitty' way, thinking about different parts of our lives at different times.

Other problems with the 'grand plan' approach are that people tend to believe that the plan belongs to the facilitator, give them all the credit for its content, even when all the facilitator has done is skilfully reflect what they have been told by the person and their allies.

People get frightened to change any detail without getting the facilitator back, they don't feel that they own the plan themselves, and often such plans ended up being folded away, and only got out for managers or on inspection visits.

The deep thinking mindful inspirational facilitators with the power to help us take an eagle eye look at our lives and potential are always going to be thin on the ground, to reproduce person centred work at scale would require a very different simplifying approach.

I remember the first plan I was asked to write. A wedge of paper too thick to fit into a lever-arch file was dropped on the desk in front of me. "Get that filled in, then send out questionnaires to staff and the family, collate all that information then hold a meeting". To accomplish this took the best part of six months, meanwhile the person was wondering when their life was going to change.

That really was the pursuit of 'good paper' rather than the 'good life' as Michael Smull puts it, the ratio of paper + time to action was far too top heavy.

The great advance was when brave thinkers smashed those early bigger tools into smaller pieces that many more people were able to use, and many more people were able to use much more quickly.

It is far simpler for a person and their team to start with a one page profile, then a week or so later do 'working not working' then another tool depending on what the priority was in that person's life. A little bit of planning quickly followed by a little bit of action, followed by more planning, more action and even some learning. This 'deconstructed' set of smaller tools would enable me to plan my staffing one day, my garden shed the next, where I'd go on holiday, my evening routine or how to sort out my finances in different 'bite size' chunks.

Then, even after a one day training people could go back to their homes or organisations with three or four things they could actually do under their belt: a staff matching tool, a doughnut, a decision making agreement, a communication chart. Things they could try out, for themselves and get a taste for what person centred thinking and planning is all about.

We think of tools as things that 'experts' and 'professionals' use, but these days we also have DIY stores, where we can get simple tools that we can use ourselves, lend to our neighbours and friends, and never get back. (Till we go round to their house and 'borrow it back' - only to find they've done something with the tool that we'd never even have dreamt of).

There's no reason why our tools cannot be used together in partnership with the focus person and their allies, to co-produce the floorboards of a better life. In fact they don't really work properly unless we do:


The person with the tool is the person with the power: so we need to share our tools far and wide.

If your tools are too precious to share, then they are too precious full stop.



  1. thanks, enjoyed those thoughts as a planner i have moved from the big production PATH, although we still to them to sharing ways of working that anyone can try anytime. Just needs people to gain confidence they can help others. love your blog
    Di - Melbourne Aus

  2. Thought provoking thank you Max

  3. Agree with what you have said Max. I think starting with a big plan was extremely daunting for people and could actually get in the way of making really significant changes for people that could happen very quickly.

    Starting with simple tools can bring small but significant change very quickly and encourage people to go further and dig deeper into the tool box: starting with a big plan can leave people feeling overwhelmed and discourage them.

    As person centred approaches become the "official method" of systems it becomes all the more important to be clear that these are not neutral tools to be "applied". Given the mastery of skills you can use a tool like a hammer to build a prison or a playground. A hammer is a neutral tool, whatver you use it for it's still a hammer.

    Person centred tools are not neutral, without the right values they cease to be person centred tools. As every ogranisation readily claims to use person centred tools the challenge is to ensure that they have people with the right values to use them.

    As we all know the tools don't and can't implant values if they are not already there. They provide people who do have these values with useful ways of thinking about putting those values into practice.

    Whatever we call the appraoches people will "do to" rather than "do with" if those values are not present. The big challenge is to make sure that the people there in someone's support network are people who have the right values.

    If they do not recruit people with the basic values organisations might ritualistcally use all the person centred tools in the box but still end up "doing to" rather than "doing with".