Ako - mā tini mā mano ka rapa te whai - learning by doing is one of our five mindsets for social innovation. 

A preference for learning by doing is a key mindset for social innovation. A mindset is a way of being and thinking, rather than a tool or method. Mindsets prompt us to think about who we are and how we are while doing the ‘work’, in contrast to the methods we’re using to get us there.

At its core, learning by doing is a preference for action. A preference for doing, making learning, and experimenting - over talking and having meetings. Effective solutions evolve through iterative cycles of trying and reflecting. To do that, we favour prototyping as way to try, evaluate, and discard potential solutions, building on the ideas that work.

Prototyping is a rapid and often inexpensive way of making an idea, or aspect of an idea, tangible. The intention of prototyping is to ‘test’ a solution to see if it has merit within its intended context. Based on that learning, we make changes - adding, adapting, or removing elements as we learn what works. It combats the tendency to spend significant time talking about whether something will work, and instead focuses on safely trying it out with the people who will use, deliver and manage the proposed solution.

Prototyping shouldn’t be confused with piloting. Pilots typically require significant investment, can be difficult to iterate (change) while in progress, and are often based on many untested and unidentified assumptions. After an idea has been prototyped and tested, and appears promising, we can move into piloting with more certainty and less risk.

Why is this mindset needed for social innovation?

Within the health and social care sectors it’s common to attempt to solve a problem and explore solutions through many meetings, and sessions with a number of advisory groups, working groups and committees. Much of the time, the people experiencing the problem, and who would likely be the users of the solution, are not a part of, or productively part of, those conversations.

It’s also common for project teams to take an idea from conception straight to implementation. When we skip prototyping, we miss testing the assumptions built into the idea (for example, who the audience is, what their needs are, how the solution will be delivered etc.) In essence, we’re just guessing about how and whether it will work. In guessing, comes risk. Risk that we’ve failed to explore the unintended consequences, risks that the idea will not meet its business or social objectives, risk of wasting time and money. Through the prototyping process we reduce our unknowns by testing assumptions, replacing them with knowns.

Prototypes helps show us the future, and talk about the future. The future is incredibly hard to experience in the present (funny that). It’s hard for us to think and talk about the future, or the future we want, in the abstract. Prototypes play a valuable role in bringing to life future-focussed scenarios, services, products, policies and environments - yet to exist. They allow us to provoke thinking, dialogue and design of new realities.

Pop-up youth space in Kaitaia - created over several days in an abandoned shop with re-purposed and donated materials. 

Pop-up youth space in Kaitaia - created over several days in an abandoned shop with re-purposed and donated materials. 

What does learning by doing offer us?

  • New evidence. When a new solution is proposed, we commonly hear the critique “there is no evidence to support that”. Generally speaking, innovations have no evidence (yet). Evidence is only generated when a significant research can be undertaken, reviewed and published. Requiring new ideas to be evidence based seldom privileges the feelings, views and experiences of people who a solution is intending to support. Rather, it often privileges the views of professionals within a system who have had the opportunity to participate in formal research studies. Through learning by doing, we begin generating evidence that privileges voices less often heard or considered in traditional planning or governance processes.
  • Less waste. There are many products, services, programmes and policies being explored today. While this is exciting, it often leads to significant waste when things don’t work as they were intended to, or at all. The waste doesn’t just happen through financial resources, but also through people’s time, energy, optimism, and our finite environmental resources. If we learn things don’t work early on, we can abandon them early. This creates far less waste than abandoning a full scale pilot, expensive campaign, and/or national roll-out.
  • An end to circular conversations. Many of us relate to feeling frustrated sitting through meetings where an aspect of implementation is argued backward and forward. These conversations can be radically shortened (or made extinct all together) when we commit to learning by doing by getting out of the meeting room and into the real world. This requires us to commit to making decisions like - “I’m not sure how that would work, let’s get out and try it, the results will speak for themselves.” In this way of working, we value results from real testing, over opinions and guesses. Talking and reflecting between colleagues is important, but cannot be the only way of making decisions.
  • Creating buy-in. Different to many traditional styles of consultation, through creating and testing prototypes, people who will benefit from a solution are engaged as critiquers and makers. Instead of involving people when we’ve decided what we’re going to do, we involve them along the way as key decision makers. Through the prototyping process, we aim to demonstrate back to people how their feedback has been used, creating deeper connections and ownership of the idea or ideas we’re exploring.
  • Better decisions. Through prototyping, we test our assumptions. We test assumptions because we want to make better decisions, most likely to have a positive impact on people’s lives. Relying on the ideas and speculation of individuals within an organisations simply doesn’t help us discover powerful ideas reliably or inclusively. If we’re learning by doing, having all the right answers isn’t the objective. We don’t need to assume what to do next as the results of learning by doing will always point us there.

What does it ask of us?

Learning by doing has a close relationship to our mindset being comfortable with failure, as well as our curiosity mindset. If we’ve made something tangible, and are ready to test it, learning by doing asks that we:

  1. Test without attachment, and with an awareness of confirmation bias

  2. Engage our of our senses to learn

  3. Take pause from doing, creating space for honest reflection    

  4. Be willing to adapt or discard ideas that don’t have merit in their intended context

  5. Repeat this recipe, until we’ve tested all our assumptions.   

Learning by doing asks that we have the courage to embrace possible failure, step-outside our offices, as well as encouraging others to break free from traditional decision making and governance styles. Ideas that work for people in their contexts, can only be developed, refined and successful if they’re tested with those very same people.

At its core, learning by doing is a preference for action. It is a preference for doing, making learning, and experimenting, over talking. Social innovation and design evolve best through iterative cycles of doing and reflecting.