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Innovation and learning about learning

Our learning partner, The Innovation Unit, blog about how the early stages or our partnership are going and what the future may hold for innovation at Sport England.

14th October 2021

by Ayshah Aziz and Nifemi Oni
Ayshah is service designer and Nifemi is project co-ordinator/researcher for The Innovation Unit.

As Sport England’s learning partner, we at The Innovation Unit will be working closely with them over the next two years as they shape the role innovation can play as they embark on implementing their new 10-year strategy – and we’re really excited about it.

We are excited by the potential impact of this work and the opportunity to learn.

We’re interested in what impactful innovation in the physical activity sector looks like. How can you build the capabilities of a sector to innovate? And what does the sector need from Sport England to make this happen?

How can we best support the organisation to explore this? And how do we do this really well?

As their learning partner, we’ll be working closely as they start to shape their innovation role, ensuring active learning and growth.

We’ll work through a process that’s designed to be opportunistic and collaborative, to feel varied and reflective and to lead to clarity and action.

We’ll be acting as a curious and nosy friend, one that helps hold a mirror up to themselves and gather the messier human learnings that an evaluation might miss.

Early impressions

While we’ve only recently started this journey, we wanted to share some of what we’re beginning to learn about these questions and what we’re learning about the process of learning.

Innovation is many things and acknowledging and naming how it can vary, gives us confidence.

So far, we’ve completed three sprints – week-long focused learning activities – but we’ve already learnt so much about innovation at Sport England.

The first sprint explored what innovation looks like here.

By supporting them to identify and articulate innovation, we’ve seen that innovation isn’t this scary or obscure thing, it's something many people working across the organisation do every day through small, but significant, changes in the way they think and work.

It can also vary immensely, from innovative ideas and partnerships to changes in organisational processes.

We’ll be acting as a curious and nosy friend, one that helps them hold the mirror up to themselves and gather the messier human learnings that an evaluation might miss.

There are lots of great examples of innovative work, both past and present at the organisation. Through gathering these examples and starting to talk about them we’ve noticed the team talking more confidently about innovation.

Covid-19 has accelerated innovation in general, and Sport England is no different, but there were already some great foundations to build on.

When lockdown began, there was a desire to do something that felt responsive to the moment, so the Open Call was created.

It was designed to attract and be accessible to non-traditional partners, to provide more personalised support and to create a sense of collaboration and community amongst the ‘cohort’ of partners.

Not everything the team created for the Open Call was new, some existing policies and processes were used in a different way to design an innovative means of rapidly funding and supporting these non-traditional partners to tackle inequalities – this is exciting and inspiring innovation.

Creating space to learn and creating the right space

Creating the right space for learning has not just been about finding the most engaging ways to do our reflective work.

It has also been about thinking about how we intentionally create space for reflection in a more virtual world.

We know how busy the team are, so finding the time and space to reflect and learn has been critical for helping to maximise our support.

We’ve tried to recreate the natural ‘watercooler moments’, by intentionally carving out time in our workshops to sit in silence, embracing pauses and stillness, despite how unnatural the virtual world can make it feel.

This has been critical to both reflecting on experiences and embracing the learning at the end of each sprint.

It's not all been sitting in silence though; we’ve tried using different approaches to learning in our sessions to stimulate thinking and promote curiosity.

We have had to really think about how we create the right space and tools to stimulate reflective thinking and collaboration.

In doing this we have been able to experiment with use of music, different visual tools such as Miro and Jam boards, gifs and reflective tools to energise sessions and take them into a different virtual space.

This has encouraged the team to explore different ways of thinking about their work and we are capturing these as we go along and creating a playbook so these tools and approaches can be used to support innovation across the organisation.

What’s next?

We’ll continue to explore Sport England’s role in innovation and are really looking forward to embarking on the rest of this learning journey, supporting the team to share learnings widely with both colleagues and partners. 

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