How can we make the most of the Test and Learn approach?

The Test and Learn approach is a key principle of the Childhood Obesity Trailblazer programme. It is intended to create a safe space in which councils and their partners are able to test innovative approaches in the knowledge that not all of them will succeed and that there is valuable learning from this. 

In practice it can be difficult to adopt this approach. There is massive pressure to focus on and measure success, yet the frameworks used to do so often do not work well in whole systems contexts which are multifaceted, complex and take time to embed. 
Learning from the Trailblazers and reflections at the Assembly point to a  number of ‘conditions’ that need to be in place to enable areas to embrace the test and learn approach and the principles within it. These are: permission to “fail”; viewing failure as a “ladder to success”; and being clear what “success” looks like.

‘Permission to fail’

It is important to create the conditions in which people feel they have been given ‘permission to fail’. This means reinforcing the value of learning from when things don’t work in the way they were expected to the first time. It is therefore acceptable, indeed inevitable, that some initiatives will “fail”. 

Embedded within this are two further factors:

  • There should be a ‘no blame’ culture. Indeed, honourable failures should be celebrated, providing a space for everyone involved to view the journey objectively and learn from it.
  • There is a need to accept when to change direction and adapt the project in a timely fashion. 

Viewing failure as a ladder to success

There is a need to re-think what is meant by ‘failure’. Failure should be seen as a valuable experience for learning about what doesn’t work and therefore what else could work in achieving a goal. It should therefore be more widely accepted that ‘failing’ is a step on the ladder to success. It is an important part of a journey, not the end of one.

Being clear on what is success

It is important to develop a shared understanding of what exactly the programme is aiming to achieve, and therefore what will be classed as success. Will success be based on the outcomes the programme achieves? Will success be the extent to which the system has embedded change? Or is success perhaps the way in which change is happening? 

This understanding of success should then inform the way in which it is measured. For interventions such as those at the heart of the five trailblazer projects, success cannot solely be measured quantitatively. Furthermore, system change takes time and therefore ‘success’ in this sense may not be revealed until years after the programmes has ended.