You can't learn to swim on land

6 months! 6 whole months of learning through struggle, learning through others, learning through laughter. The 2019 cohort have graduated and are out, and into the world (of government). Where, in reality, they have always been.

Nicole reflects on the importance of graduation and why rehearsing ideas and patterns of behaviour in ‘the classroom’ is a warm-up to the hard work of putting this into day-to-day practice.


Picture this: you’re learning to swim. You’re in the pool watching someone on the edge, on land, standing, demonstrating breast-stroke. You master the arms and the one leg kick.

The instructor was only using one leg to show the kick. It’s a one-legged stroke, right?

This is a story one of our States of Change participants shared (who, to this day can’t do a double leg kick) during a discussion on what makes a meaningful learning environment. It highlights exactly what not to do.

Learning in-practice beats learning in theory

You can rehearse certain moves for the water on land, you can strengthen muscles, but you don’t know if you can swim until you get into the water.

Being in the water and being on land are different fields, you need different approaches, your legs can do different things, what you pay attention to is different, it just feels different.

To effectively learn something you need to be in the context in which the learning will apply. Not abstracted or removed from real-life consequences.

The face-to-face learning on our program is the environment to rehearse, to ‘force’ new structures and processes that challenge the norm. That can be interviewing people, a space to reflect, or where we learn from and connect with others.

The real learning happened in their departments far away from the ‘classroom’. It happens when you’re in a meeting and you say “are we sure we’ve approached this from all angles”; “are we sure we’re solving the right problem”; “why don’t we test that idea outside of this room”. For this cohort, the real learning was happening on farms, on remote islands, in community halls, on public transport, at fire stations as they each conducted interviews and ethnographic research.

Building craft knowledge comes with repetition, with failed attempts, scar tissue and multiple loops of iteration. It’s foundational to learning by doing. And last week we celebrated the States of Change teams graduating - complete with their new muscles ready to swim.

Graduation is an end to the beginning

The graduation day is designed to focus on the future - how to use and share what our teams have learned - and propel this forward while continuing to create space for on-going learning (a 6-month program is never going to make you an expert).

During the morning we shared some final pieces of content - one on facilitation and how in any productive designed space (a meeting or workshop) you need to open, navigate & close (drawing from Gamestorming).

The graduation itself marks the close.

It closes the teams’ formal participation in the program and the support and structure that has provided and opens opportunities for the teams’ confidence and skills to take center stage. It closes their identity as ‘cohort’ and opens one as ‘alumni’. There was certainly sadness at knowing this group wasn’t going to be thrown together again in a months time - yet importantly that sadness was directed into ensuring as an alumni network there are regular opportunities for continual learning and catch-ups.

Change is starting to happen, in small ways and larger

We repeated the exercise from the Competency Framework as a reflective tool, as we had at the beginning of the program. We posed the question: did people feel their skills had changed? Many reflected that their strengths hadn’t, but what they understood them to be had. “In both instances, I put down brokering, but now I really understand what it takes to do brokering”.

We’re running an evaluation of the program in partnership with PaperGiant and already sifting interesting reflections (we’ll make these public of course!). What we’re hearing so far:

  • Executive sponsors recounted their own anxiety at teams changing their project’s focus as they sought to better understand the problem more accurately. The forced a steep learning curve on the organisation to respond to the iterative learning.
  • Teams renewed enthusiasm at joining up new opportunities in their departments across divisions and silos. Joined up government.
  • Many teams have adopted new routines such as EQ check-ins to create and sustain psychological safety.
  • Teams who have been moved onto new projects are altering the original project trajectories by starting with the user needs and holding open the problem space.
  • Thanks from across the cohort who’ve learned as much from each other as they have from their projects and the program.

Thank you

Thanks to our guest faculty Cassie Robinson, Penny Hagen, Andrea Siodmok and Sanjan Sabherwal and countless others from our collective we drew inspiration from. Time and time again we hear the gratitude and ‘ah-ha’ moments from participants during and after our training that comes from the rich practical experience this faculty brought.

Bringing together a diverse group of people enabled a broader innovation literacy rather than “this is the way you do it” - it becomes “this is the way we did it”.

And most of all thanks to our participating teams and their departments.

The past 6 months they’ve struggled, learned, reflected, done their homework and edged closer to sustained impact - all the while staying the course of change.