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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

When things don’t go as planned

In this month's Field Notes, we hear from parenting and family support charity, Family Lives, about the surprises they experienced when testing a new innovation and how they took the lessons and successfully pivoted when things didn't go quite to plan.

In February 2018, Family Lives introduced ParentChild+ (formally the Parent Child Home Programme) to the UK. ParentChild+ is an intensive home visiting programme, supporting families whose children are at risk of entering school behind their peers. Over the course of 92 home visits, Early Learning Specialists build meaningful relationships with families and support parents in realising their role as their children’s first and most important teacher. Using engaging books and stimulating toys, the home visitors model positive parent-child interaction, leading to improvements in communication and literacy skills and social-emotional development.

In bringing the programme to the UK as part of the Nesta Early Years Social Action Fund, there were a number of innovations that we wanted to introduce and test:

  1. Using volunteer home visitors rather than paid staff: does the reliance on volunteers as home visitors have an impact on quality/outcomes?
  2. Delivering the programme over 15 months rather than 2 years with a long summer break as is usual practice in America: does a 15 month Implementation cycle have the same impact as a two year cycle?
  3. Utilising Skype-based team meetings rather than face to face: does the introduction of Skype team meetings and less frequent face to face meetings affect the quality of delivery?

"Family Lives has a long history of delivering a range of services via trained volunteers, so we embarked on the innovations with enthusiasm and confidence that the new model would work in the UK"

We had a busy first few months of the programme: adapting all the materials from American language to UK; selecting appropriate toys and books for our cultural context; bringing the American developers over to train our staff; and recruiting our volunteers and families. By June, we began seeing our first families as part of the formal programme.

By the autumn, our innovation journey had taken us on a rollercoaster ride. We were very pleased that the adaption of the programme to the UK was working well; we’d been successful in securing funding to deliver the programme in two further areas; and most importantly, we were starting to see substantial changes in the families that we were visiting. It was clear that the programme works in the UK and could meet a gap in the market providing intensive support to those families in need of support who are not accessing support based in nursery settings. However, we were also faced with the challenge that our core innovation that we were testing, using a volunteer model to deliver ParentChild+, was not really working…

"Although it was hard to admit, we had to accept that our core innovation was not viable."

Although the use of volunteers to deliver the programme was working on an individual level, it became clear that it was not possible to deliver the programme at scale using a volunteer model. Due to the intensity, length and administrative requirements associated with maintaining fidelity to the model, it was proving difficult to recruit and sustain involvement of volunteers who are willing to visit families twice a week for 15 months. Harder still is the necessity to attend a weekly team meeting, even when done via Skype, and monthly face to face meetings where the books and toys are distributed. Staff were spending an unsustainable amount of time supporting and liaising with the volunteers, and it simply would not be possible to maintain delivery if there were a larger number of volunteers in the mix.

"We all know that pilots are designed to test if things work - we just hope that the answer is yes, rather than no!"

We were faced with a challenge, only half way through our innovation pilot. Although it was hard to admit that our proposed model didn’t work, we had to accept that our core innovation was not viable. We all know that pilots are designed to test if things work - we just hope that the answer is yes, rather than no!

Supported by Nesta, we took some time to reflect and review our learnings and developed a blended model which we will take forward as we work to deliver ParentChild+ at scale across the UK. The model will have paid home visitors at the heart of delivery but will include use of volunteers at a smaller scale as the pilot demonstrated that properly trained and supported volunteers can deliver the programme effectively – we just need to make sure the surrounding infrastructure is appropriate. The other two innovation areas have been successful, we will continue delivering the programme over 15 months and will utilise Skype meetings when appropriate.

"When testing new models, be willing to learn and adapt if things don’t work as you hoped – even if you have to admit you were wrong"

Although we would not have asked for quite such a rollercoaster ride when we set out on this journey, especially our staff who have gone above and beyond to make sure the piloted model works for the volunteers and families involved, we have reached a point where we have a stronger model to take forward as we scale up. The key lesson for us is to remember when testing new models, be willing to learn and adapt if things don’t work as you had hoped they would – even if you have to admit you were wrong with your initial assumptions.


Will Bibby

Will Bibby

Will Bibby

Senior Programme Manager, Government Innovation

Will was a Senior Programme Manager working on Nesta's people-powered public services and education programmes.

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Pamela Park

Pamela is Deputy Chief Executive of Family Lives and oversees the work of the Fundraising, Training and Engagement Teams.