We need to embrace and learn from social work projects that fail

Success stories are rightly celebrated but it's a mistake to overlook the learning from ideas that didn't achieve their aims, says David Wilkins

By David Wilkins, senior research fellow, Tilda Goldberg Centre, University of Bedfordshire and former principal child and family social worker 

Learning from failure is a cliché. Everyone agrees we should be open about our own mistakes and tolerant of the mistakes of others. In practice, nobody wants to fail and we often have a stigmatising attitude towards so-called avoidable errors. But there can be no doubt – whether we call it learning from failure, learning from our mistakes or simply learning from experience, understanding what went wrong and why is one of the best ways of building success.

Success stories

The Innovation Programme provides significant funding for new approaches to social work in England. One of the key aims of the programme – and of the forthcoming ‘What Works Centre’ – is to share the learning from successful projects so that others too can improve their services.

Evaluation summaries from the first wave of projects have recently been published. It would be no surprise if other local authorities and social care organisations were now looking carefully at well-publicised success stories such as the Family Safeguarding project in Hertfordshire (where there are now half the number of children on child protection plans as in January 2015) and the Focus on Practice project in the Tri-Borough authorities (two of which were recently rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted) – and considering how best to emulate them.

However, while learning from success has its place, it would be a mistake to overlook the potential of learning from less successful projects too, those that did not achieve their aims, that did not appear to make a difference to children and families or that struggled to even get started – in other words, if we forgot to learn from failure. Because failing to learn from failure is one of the biggest impediments to progress, while an open and learning approach is often the cornerstone of great successes.

Evaluating too early or too quickly

The Innovation Programme as a whole looks set to be of great benefit. Yet one of its problems is the approach often being taken to evaluation. For some projects, the evaluation takes place too early or too quickly. This means that what is evaluated is the process of running (or setting up) the project, rather than whether it helps improve outcomes for children.

For example, the Achieving for Children ‘Better by Design’ project aims to improve foster placement stability and reduce the need for children to live in high-cost out-of-borough settings. In the early stages, some children were moved from residential placements to local foster care via a short-stay specialist residential setting, within which targeted support was given to improve the child’s behaviour and relationship skills. The formal evaluation found that low numbers of children were referred to the project and the costs exceeded the money saved by nearly £400,000.

As headline outcomes, these findings are not suggestive of success. However, Matthew Gibson, a social work lecturer and researcher involved with the project says it has recently been reconfigured, leading to increased referral numbers and increasingly positive looking outcomes. Given the complexity of what is often being attempted via the Innovation Programme, short-term evaluations will prove unhelpful in many cases and there is a real risk of genuine success being overlooked because of the time it takes for projects to mature. As an aside, the Better by Design project would seem a good example of how to learn from (early) experience (or ‘failure’) in order to make future improvements.

Equally problematic is the chance that early success dissipates over time. The Hawthorne Effect is a well-known phenomenon where individuals change their behaviour because they are the subject of research. In the Hawthorne factory in Illinois, worker productivity improved following changes to the physical layout of the factory, working hours and break times. It appeared that these changes caused the improved output. However, after a short time, productivity fell again and it became apparent that simply taking part in research and the increased attention had itself led workers to be more productive. Similarly, early – and real – improvements may be captured in some of the Innovation Programme evaluations, only to disappear over time as attention and the sense of novelty wears off.

Failure is not an aberration on the way to success

However, a more fundamental problem occurs if – or when – our desire to share learning from success comes at the expense of learning from failure. In Black Box Thinking, Matthew Syed explains how failure need not be seen as an aberration on the way to success or a reason to jettison your endeavors. Instead, we need to see failure as a key mechanism for achieving success – perhaps even as the key mechanism. This means sharing the learning from unsuccessful projects such as Torbay and understanding why they did not work. (Torbay aimed to create multi-disciplinary early help hubs and pool funding and commissioning into a new type of children’s services organisation but despite initial enthusiasm, it was stymied in large part because of an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted judgement.)

We also need to think carefully about the less successful elements of those projects that have succeeded – and not lose sight of these lessons amongst the atmosphere of celebration.

For example , the Tri-Borough’s Focus on Practice project introduced systemic practice across the child and family social work service via a major training programme and the employment of family therapists and clinical psychologists, alongside systems level changes. The evaluation found that the project led to lower levels of agency staff and staff sickness, that systemic clinicians made a difference to ‘stuck’ cases and placement costs were reduced. However, they were unable to cut the amount of time social workers spent recording and the introduction of a programme of practice observations (a programme that I had a large part in planning and trying to implement) failed entirely. And it is these features we need to know more about, not simply what worked well.

In fact, we need to know more about the less successful elements than anything else, particularly in the context of overall success. Less successful elements such as these will be apparent across all the innovation projects, even those that ‘worked’. Learning from failure enables us to avoid repeating previous mistakes. But it also helps us understand more about how innovative and lasting change may and not be achieved in the complex area of children’s social work.

When social workers practice with individual families, we do not expect everything to work perfectly from the outset.

We need time to build engagement and trust, to work with the family to identify and build on existing strengths and to get to know what life is like for the child. Sometimes, we may need to use trial-and-error to test our ideas about what the risks are and how best to provide support. And the same is true of the Innovation Programme. By all means, let’s celebrate the success of Hertfordshire, the Tri-borough and others – but let’s also embrace and learn from failure too. Failure is nothing to be afraid of. Failure is not the end of the story. Failure provides us with the means to success.

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One Response to We need to embrace and learn from social work projects that fail

  1. Ruth Cartwright February 14, 2017 at 6:45 pm #

    As well as learning from mistakes or things that did not go so well or where progress was not maintained, we need to beware of widescale initiatives being launched with no evidence at all from pilot projects simply because a politician thinks it ought to work or it fits with some sort of ideology. An example is the Troubled Families initiative which spent a lot of money and appears to have made no difference at all – far better to have spent the money on more Social Work time with these families.