Innovation in Action

Transition to Scalability

Preparing interventions in the early childhood sector to reach impact at scale

The early childhood field has many practitioners, researchers, and social entrepreneurs with innovative ideas for how to help children and families, particularly those facing adversity. But even the best idea with the most promising results won’t affect population-level outcomes without a solid plan for its impact and for taking it to scale.

The Center on the Developing Child worked with teams who were developing, implementing, and testing interventions from 2011-2022 through Frontiers of Innovation (FOI). These included intervention and social entrepreneur teams at every stage of the innovation process. When teams are rapidly growing in the early childhood space and want to increase their impact, we feel they are ready to “transition to scalability.”

What’s involved in this transition? How did the Center work with teams in this stage? Read below to learn more.

The Challenge: Achieving Impact at Scale in Early Childhood

graphic showing Impact at ScaleFor teams with a background in impact, we noticed that only a few had a strategy for how they were going to grow and develop the business operations needed to sustain that scale. For teams with a background in entrepreneurship, we observed that they had robust plans for growth, but only a few had strategies for how to measure and improve their impact. So, we asked:

How might we support interventions that are starting to see evidence of significant impact on the lives of children and families or ventures that are poised to grow rapidly in the early childhood sector to reach impact at scale?

To answer this question, we looked at other innovative industries with proven R&D platforms, such as the medical and technology fields, and soon realized two important things.

Lesson #1 The early childhood sector faces a unique, complex set of constraints.

multiple pathwaysNo single system to reach young children. The pathways to scale in the early childhood field are abundant, complex, and challenging for intervention teams trying to figure out the “right” one to follow. Most other fields can focus on a specific delivery channel as they scale new products and services—for example, educational software can focus on the K-12 system. During early childhood, many systems and actors might connect with families, so interventions serving this field might address many delivery channels simultaneously—early care and education, pediatrics, child welfare, TANF, and others.

A lack of financial incentives for scaling. In other industries, pursuing a new venture holds the promise of large financial rewards. In the early childhood sector, the biggest returns will be in the form of changed lives and societal savings. For many, this is motivation enough, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Many intervention developers must continue to hold other jobs while working on their venture. This affects the amount of time they have available to work on the venture, the amount of risk they are willing to take, and the pace at which the venture can grow.

A missing common measure of success. Indicators of success in other fields are very clear, commonly agreed upon, and regularly collected—for example, increasing the cure rate of a disease, improving third-grade reading scores, etc. In the early childhood field, there are many measures, but no consensus about which are the most important to be collected. Not knowing what to measure or compare results to can be discouraging for teams who are new to the sector. person looking lost

The immaturity of the innovation ecosystem. In other fields, there are accelerators, incubators, and funds to support teams trying to innovate. There are examples of others who have reached impact at scale. This helps teams see various ways to make the journey, and generates roadmaps of key milestones. In the sector of early childhood, the roadmap doesn’t exist, the infrastructure is minimal, and there are very few examples of interventions that have reached impact at scale. This makes it an exciting time for building the ecosystem, but early teams must be intrepid pioneers.

Lesson #2 – To move successfully from early stage development to scale, teams must go through a transition phase.

Products, solutions, organizations, and interventions cannot be taken from pilot testing and early stage development straight to scale. They must enter a transition phase, during which they make significant changes to things like infrastructure, staffing, partnerships, and more in preparation for dramatically increasing their reach and impact. Other industries refer to this phase as the stagnation chasm or the valley of death, unpleasant names that indicate the challenges experienced during this period. For early childhood program and intervention specialists, this phase may involve learning to think more like a business, something unfamiliar to many working in the sector. For social entrepreneurs, this may involve seeing how increasing their impact will drive growth. chart of stages of scaling

The Solution: Transition to Scalability

With these lessons in mind, the Center created a solution that would support teams who were ready to enter their transition phase. Working on Transition to Scalability (TTS) with the Center, teams focused on putting in place the key elements they will need to reach impact at scale. They were expected to:

  • Develop plans for the operational side of the business;
  • Build the leadership and team to carry the intervention through the next phase of work;
  • Identify and understand the constraints and needs of their primary delivery channel for scale;
  • Further develop rigorous evidence of the intervention’s impact;
  • Develop a growth strategy that considers for whom the venture has the greatest impact;
  • Increase alignment with the science of child development; and
  • Raise the funds necessary for early scaling.

The Center provided TTS teams with:

  • Deep understanding of the early childhood field and the developmental needs of young children
  • A science-based definition of impact
  • Virtual and in-person workshops focused on growth and scaling strategies, impact, science, and communications
  • On-demand technical assistance from early childhood and business mentors
  • Business templates and tools tailored to the early childhood sector
  • Networking opportunities across the cohort and larger Frontiers of Innovation network
  • Small seed grants

Learn more about Transition to Scalability