How to learn your way forward when you don’t know what the next step will bring

Blog | Words Perrie Ballantyne | 03 Feb 2021

The next in our series on place-based transformation focuses on the role of learning as you go when delivering large-scale community change

Insight 4. Focus on real-time learning more than on executing a plan; assume that possibilities will reveal themselves

Taking action towards realising a big, new vision for transforming the places in which we live is not an exact science. There is no set path to follow. Lots of things we try will not work. Others will reveal themselves along the way.

For this reason, we should embrace a learning mindset, and be purposeful and disciplined about learning. When the work is complex, messy and unpredictable; when it involves multiple partners with different strengths, motivations and priorities trying to move together; when the aim is to create a radically better future from a broken current reality; when the change horizon is lengthy and steps towards it emergent, a disciplined approach to learning can be transformative. It creates some of the conditions that make movement towards a new future possible. At Innovation Unit, learning is a core part of our practice, and it’s especially important in our place-based transformation work.

Take, for example, our work in Devon to stop sexual violence and abuse. This is an issue that affects a staggering number of us, and the impacts of sexual harm and trauma over a lifetime can be profound. But no single agency has responsibility for tackling prevention. And responding better to people’s needs requires lots of people working differently across the police, criminal justice, health, social care systems and more.

So we are working with an ambitious group of public sector commissioners from health, local authorities and police and crime commissioning who share the same goals as us to find better ways of tackling this important issue.

Of course, this is a problem that goes deeper than anything that commissioning and services alone could hope to address. Some of the things that stop us moving forward are hardwired into our culture: attitudes and assumptions we might not even know we hold, fear and awkwardness that stops us asking questions and starting conversations, behaviours we observe but don’t always call out, and so might tacitly tolerate.

Colleagues in Devon really understand the complexity of this challenge. They know they don’t have all the answers and so have made a commitment to learn their way to the future with an ever widening group of allies, partners and collaborators. Our role is to facilitate that journey, and to hold a space for all those people to learn, deliberate and take action together, and then reflect on that action and do more.

In this project and others, we create dedicated spaces for learning that have their own conventions and conditions. These are safe spaces to ask questions, have conversations and work in ways that might not be possible in our regular jobs. Here we step outside of our roles, our organisations and our hierarchies and into new dynamics that enable new creative possibilities to develop.

For example, in Better Endings, we created a loose network of 200 people to prototype new solutions for end of life care and support in Southwark and Lambeth. From care home managers to palliative care consultants, from death doulas to people who had experienced the recent loss of loved ones – everyone’s knowledge and perspective contributed to a shared understanding of the problems in the current system and the opportunities for change. New solutions emerged that looked well beyond the health system to new kinds of community-based support.

When well-designed and facilitated, these are the kinds of spaces that give rise to genuinely new ideas and actions, as well as new relationships and alliances, and a vision for the future that lots of people can see themselves in and will want to make happen.

Evaluating change in complex systems

Traditional approaches to evaluation don’t always serve us when we try to understand and evidence the impact of our work to transform places. Summative evaluation is useful when we can broadly anticipate what is likely to happen as a result of an intervention, but our work to transform places runs well beyond those parameters. We need approaches that fully respond to the complexity of the challenge and help us to navigate and track change in complex living systems.

We’ve been following an ambitious, place-based transformation in Logan, one of the fastest growing and most diverse cities in Australia. Logan Together is a 10-year community movement to radically improve the health and development outcomes of all children aged 0-8 and their families. Over 100 organisations big and small are part of the movement. How do you hold together so many moving parts? How do you understand the difference you are making when there are multiple sites of action, and when change is as much about shifting relationships, culture and power dynamics as it is about new activities, structures and processes? The movement has made a strong investment in learning design and facilitation. Dr Jess Dart and colleagues from Clear Horizon Consulting are pioneering new methodologies for evaluating place-based transformation and collective impact. You can learn about them and their work in Logan in this excellent webinar.

Meanwhile, Giulio Quaggiotto, Head of Strategic Innovation at United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is doing ground-breaking work to rethink funding models so that they can engage with (rather than simplify or reduce) complex problems and opportunities. At the Rockwool Foundation’s Step into System Innovation’s Festival of Ideas and Insights, he reminded us that you only really get to know a system when you start intervening. The right question for complex problems and opportunities is therefore not “Has the intervention worked or not?” but “What did this intervention expose and reveal?” And what does that tell us about the problem and the opportunity, and the things we need to do next? These are ideas that turn traditional funding models (and their neat evaluation and accountability frameworks) on their head. And they might get us closer to funding work in a way that genuinely helps us tackle complex problems.

“We need to bring serious adaptive capacity, rather than serious planning capacity
Giulio Quaggiotto
Head of Strategic Innovation, United Nations Development Programme

Steps along the road to place-based transformation should be seen in the same way: as a series of probes, exploring, testing and investigating what is required to achieve that bold vision – and to figure out what the next iteration of the bold vision should be.

How to get to where you want to be

At Innovation Unit, there are a number of tools and approaches that we may bring into a design for learning in a complex and ambitious place-based transformation.

A clear logic model is critical even – and perhaps especially – in contexts where we think things won’t necessarily pan out as first expected. We use Theories of Change frequently in our work. These enable groups of people to define the change they want to see, and to imagine the logical set of actions that might lead from now, to where they want to be. The process of creating a Theory of Change is often as important as the artefact itself, as assumptions are stress-tested and points of tension flushed out. Creating these almost always reveals new things about the nature of the work that needs to happen, the conditions that will be important for success, the people who need to be in the change, and more. A good logic model should keep people on track towards big ambition, but it should also evolve, helping you to capture critical new knowledge about the changing ecosystem and how we need to work to influence it.

Creating regular opportunities for reflection and learning (and for drawing out insights and evidence for wider sharing) is also important. In our most ambitious work, we may establish Communities of Practice, Communities of Engagement and Communities of Interest enabling different groups of stakeholders to engage in learning at different levels and in different ways. This is exactly what we are developing at the moment, in partnership with the Health Foundation and NHSEI (NHS England and NHS Improvement) to develop and share ideas and practice about how the NHS can act as a powerful anchor institution to help transform places. The more complex and ambitious the goal, the more important a strong and multi-stranded design for learning and evidence capture will be.

Learning is essential for innovation and transformational change. At Innovation Unit, we’re passionate about creating good conditions for learning in the work we do with communities and places. We know that when the challenges are complex and stakes are high, a disciplined approach to learning can help us to keep moving forward, even when we’re not quite certain what the next step will bring.

This blog is part of our series on place-based transformation. Find the rest of the series, as well as more information about how Innovation Unit can help you realise your vision for transforming a community, town or service, on our page about place-based transformation.