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Commentary Article December 13th, 2022
Delivery • Innovation

What we’re learning about being a learning partner in Australia and New Zealand

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Throughout 2022, @CPI_foundation Australia & New Zealand set out to experiment with as many different types of learning partnerships as possible. Read what they have learned about being a learning partner.

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Learning partnerships w/ @CPI_foundation Australia & New Zealand are: different to consulting, embraces complexity, centres listening & relationships. Read reflections from @theasnow @keira_lowther @allinote @JessDFuller

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“Working with @CPI_foundation was a quantumly different experience to working with consultants. The time dedicated to discussing how we would work together & the inclusive process throughout resulted in a project which flowed effortlessly.” @teyaduss

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Partnering for Learning

We put our vision for government into practice through learning partner projects that align with our values and help reimagine government so that it works for everyone.

Partner with us

Almost two years ago, Adrian Brown, Executive Director at the Centre for Public Impact (CPI), published “What we’re learning about reimagining government.” In this blog, Adrian shared that:

“Reflecting on all our work, we realised that we are at our best when we are learning alongside others who share our vision, helping them to listen, learn and adapt as they seek to reimagine government. We’ve called this role being a learning partner…”

Working as a learning partner certainly felt like a good fit for CPI, but what did it look like in practice? The truth was, while we had identified two core practices - sensemaking and action learning - as central to our approach, we still had a lot to learn about applying these practices in the real world. And so, that’s what we set out to do.

Throughout 2022, CPI Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) set out to experiment with as many different types of learning partnerships as possible. We felt that by designing and facilitating different learning partnerships, we would learn what worked, what didn’t, what we wanted to be doing more of in 2023, and what we wanted to leave behind. We would, in this way, be doing our own action learning.

As we head towards the end of 2022 with a couple of learning partnerships under our belt - a few still underway and a few more brewing for next year - we thought we would take the opportunity to reflect and share what we’re learning about being a learning partner.

How learning partners are different to consultants

The first thing we’re learning about is how being a learning partner is different from being a consultant. 

So far, we have found that a learning partnership can require more curiosity and humility than a standard consultant/contractor arrangement, on both sides. Because the focus is on learning, which inevitably requires unlearning and change, this can be challenging for the organisation we work with and for us as a team.

Learning partnerships fit well in complex environments where consequences and outcomes are unpredictable, and the enablers and barriers are constantly changing. In these environments, it makes no sense to set out a plan containing indicators and metrics of success. We don’t yet know how the different options for activities might work, what contextual factors will change, nor how it might be possible to determine the extent to which we have been successful.

For example, one of our learning partnerships was initially designed to scaffold and support an organisation as it underwent a significant transformation process. We were tasked with holding the leadership true to their vision as a north star as they progressed. So, we began with a range of activities. This included individual coaching with the CEO, exposing those in executive leadership to relevant international expert guest speakers, and setting up feedback loops to hear from staff groups and key stakeholders.

Over time, as our mutual understanding and trusting relationship with the organisation grew, one thing became clear – in order to support our partners to transform organisational processes, we needed to be supporting them to transform the culture of the workforce in parallel. Our activities and focus have therefore had to change, and we’ve been actively working with our partners to recalibrate the partnership to ensure it’s meeting their evolving needs.

Perhaps the core difference between a learning partner and a consultancy is that consultants seek to make things legible (for themselves and clients). In contrast, learning partners seek to create an environment where it’s possible to embrace the uncertain, emergent, and responsive nature of the challenges that many of our partners are grappling with. We aim to hold our partners’ hands and dance with the system together.

Supporting our partners to embrace complexity

While it’s easy to talk about “dancing with the system”, the reality of doing this in practice can feel much harder. In complex environments, people often (understandably!) feel a sense of overwhelm or a profound lack of agency. Therefore, we’re learning that part of what we need to do as a learning partner is to support those we work with to explore what embracing and working with complexity looks like for them in their particular context.

An example of this was how we approached our learning partnership with the Transformation Strategy and Project Management Office in the Victorian Department of Health, which was navigating an extremely complex landscape. Early in the partnership, we introduced the concept of Trojan Mice - small changes they could make, which could result in meaningful shifts. We also used the Water of Systems Change framework to support the team in identifying barriers and opportunities at different levels of the system.

We support our partners to see different parts of the system, identify intervention or leverage points, and instil them with a sense of agency to engage with complex, knotty challenges. These are things we have heard are greatly valued by those we work with.

Listening is central

It is important to invest significant time and energy in setting up our learning partnerships and creating something tailored and unique for each partner. No two learning partnerships can be the same. And so, while a standardised approach would certainly be much easier to roll out, we continue to resist this because we believe that learning partnerships need to be bespoke and co-created with our partners to succeed.

When CPI is first engaged in a learning partnership, we spend considerable time with our partner(s), listening deeply and working with them to design and tailor a program that works for their specific context and needs. The details of the work plan continue to emerge over time, guided by the vision of the organisation, and the scope, purpose, and remit for the learning partnership set out at the start.

For instance, when we worked with the Australian Public Service Academy to design a leadership program for public servants, we spent time engaging widely with public servants to understand the challenges they face and collaboratively shape the program content. We heard that people wanted time to invest in relationships. We heard that people did not want an overly academic program.

As a result, we created an experiential learning program, anchored around a 5-day residential, with coaching and peer learning in the following months. We decided to pull a lot of guest speakers out of the program, instead making time and space for more group conversation and relationship building. We also designed a program that was less theoretical and academic, and more embodied and immersive - a program which enabled participants to experience and feel what it means to engage with complexity, and work as a cohort to embrace collective stewardship as a leadership approach. Investing time and effort in listening helps us feel confident that we’ve created a program that responds to what people want and need.

Relationships are key

At CPI, we believe that change happens not just when people do things differently; but rather, when they shift their beliefs, values, and mindsets. For this reason, we emphasise promoting trust, empathy, and collaboration in our learning partnerships, as these are the key ingredients needed to create ongoing conditions for learning.

A good example of this approach is our work in the Latrobe Valley Health Innovation Zone with several different agencies on the Social Determinants of Health (SDH). While this work is about supporting our partners to create a place-based understanding of SDH in the Latrobe Valley, it is also about supporting and enabling everyone to collaborate and build relationships. For this reason, we identified five specific roles we play to support the partnership:

  • Project stewarding to ensure the partnership work proceeds according to plan. 

  • Relationship stewarding to support collaboration, understanding, and appreciation amongst partners.

  • Storytelling and communication to draw out a clear narrative for internal communication to progress learning. 

  • Desktop research on existing SDH models and case studies to provide inspiration and insight from what’s happening across the world.

  • Cultivating the conditions for learning to hold space within the project to reflect, develop new practices, and support a learning mindset.

The importance of embedding learning into our team processes

One final thing we’ve come to realise over this year is that being a good learning partner also means building learning and reflection into our internal team processes and rhythms - how can we ask our partners to reflect and learn if we’re not carving out time and space for it ourselves?

Several rituals and practices support our reflective practice as a team. These continue to evolve and change but, for now, seem to be serving us well:

  • Objectives & Key Results: We have adapted the OKR process to support us to collectively shape and then regularly reflect upon our objectives and areas of focus. Three times a year, we come together to reflect on our objectives and previous key results, and set new ones. We use KRs to create time and space for work that feels really important, but isn’t necessarily project-related. For example, one of our current KRs is around writing this blog!

  • Team Rhythms: All team rhythms we’ve created are designed to deepen relationships and make space for sharing and collective sensemaking. We begin each week with a check-in. Here, people are share how they’re feeling, what they’re excited about for the week ahead, and any questions they have or input they’d like from the team. We close the week with a check-out, where people share their Barrys (things that went badly) and Bonzas (things that went well). None of our meetings centre on running through our to-do lists - we use Trello to share our work and priorities, meaning we can instead use our time together to focus on relationship building and sharing (things that even the best tool can’t do!). Being intentional about what our team meetings and check-ins look like, and how we prevent the project work, deadlines, and discussion items from overpowering the space for connecting and catching up (or as our collaborator Jason Tampake refers to it, “nesting”), requires a process of trust and vulnerability. But, it also builds our comfortability as a group and our capacity to talk about things as they arise.

  • Frameworks: We have also developed tools and frameworks to support our reflective practice. For example, for each project we undertake, we apply our ethics framework to ensure our work reaches the highest ethical standard. We also have a checklist which we use when new opportunities arise, to help us assess whether or not we should pursue the work. We consider factors such as alignment with our vision and mission, organisational fit, and readiness of our potential partners.

  • Other fun things: We also make time and space to learn and grow together in fun ways. We have “watch parties'' where we meet as a team, together with our collaborators, to watch a film or documentary. We also have regular lunches (also with our collaborators). And finally, being part of a global organisation means making time and space to connect with our teams in other parts of the world. We’ve just established a regular rhythm with CPI Europe, where we’ll be coming together once a month using open space technology to shape what we’ll be talking about together.

Combined, these rhythms, frameworks, and gatherings create different opportunities to learn, reflect, and grow together as a team. This trust in each other to be candid but kind, and the knowledge that as a team we are committed to tricky conversations, has informed our approach to helping our partners create spaces that feel right for them.

Looking forward to 2023

We’ve learned a lot this year. Not all of it has been easy. We’ve made mistakes and we’ve had to pivot (a lot!). We’ve had periods where we’ve been stretched to points that haven’t always felt comfortable.

But we’ve also felt really proud of our work. We’ve heard from our partners that our learning partnerships have “created a safe space for sharing and growing.” We’ve also heard that we’ve helped teams and leadership groups to develop stronger bonds - “it’s been a huge win having this space to get to know each other and connect on shared challenges.” And we’ve heard that our partnerships are supporting people to embrace new ways of working, leading, and navigating challenges.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we’re proud that we are working in a way that feels different. Teya Dusseldorp - one of our partners in the Storytelling for Systems Change work said:

“Working with CPI was a quantumly different experience to working with other consultants. The time dedicated to discussing how we would work together as partners and the inclusive process throughout resulted in a project which flowed effortlessly, and where we all felt a sense of ownership over and connection to the final product.”

We’re looking forward to continuing to refine our practice next year - learning as a team, and with our partners, about how we can support those we work with to reimagine government so that it works for everyone.

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Let’s have a conversation

If you are interested in exploring what it might look like to engage us as a learning partner, we’d love for you to get in touch.

Contact us

Written by:

Thea Snow Director, ANZ
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Keira Lowther Senior Program Manager, ANZ
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Alli Edwards Programme Manager, ANZ
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Jessica Fuller Program Manager, ANZ
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