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Our learning journey with the Innovation Unit

Our innovation lead presents the work her team has developed in the last two years to design tools and solutions to tackle inequalities in our sector.

21st December 2023

by Heather Wilson
Innovation lead, Sport England

How can we define the innovation we want to see in sport and physical activity? And what works to support, stimulate and spread innovation to address inequalities in sport and physical activity?

Two years ago, we set out to answer these questions by partnering with our first ever innovation learning partner - the brilliant Innovation Unit.

With phase one of the work concluded, we’re excited to share with you the approach we took and what made our partnership such a success, as well as some practical resources we’ve developed to help you apply innovation to your work.

Why we set out on this journey

Sport England has a strong track record of delivering and supporting innovative work (like This Girl Can, the Innovation open call and our local delivery pilots).

Indeed, “Being Innovative” is one of our four organisational values!

But we recognised that there was some valuable, untapped learning we could gather to help us refine the role innovation can play to address the big issues at the heart of our long-term strategy, Uniting the Movement.

We chose to work with Innovation Unit as they brought a wealth of experience both in innovation (the clue’s in the name!) and working as a learning partner.

How can we define the innovation we want to see in sport and physical activity? And what works to support, stimulate and spread innovation to address inequalities in sport and physical activity?

They also hold an impressive portfolio of current and former partners including Arts Council England, The Health Foundation and The National Lottery Community Fund.

What we did

It’s hard to summarise two years of work in a single blog, but thankfully we don’t have to!

We’ve created an overview of our Innovation Learning Journey, that you can find at the bottom of this page, which shares what we did, what we learned and where we’re going next.

An overview of the key phases we went through together can be seen in the visual below.

A model about our innovation learning partnership between 2021 and 2023. The model is an orange arrow and inside it showcases, from left to right, the different stages of the journey with each one leading to the next one with a blue arrow. It starts with 1. Forming our partnership; 2. Understanding innovation; 3. Starting conversations; 4.Prototyping an offer; 5. Exploring co-production; 6. Refining & Shaping our innovation role and offer and 7. Delivering Uniting the Movement.

There were three key facets of our approach which we believe helped to make this partnership such a success:

A flexible methodology

We adopted a fun and experimental approach to the work, guided by a set of overarching learning questions.

Our cross-directorate team ran topical monthly ‘sprints’ and reflective quarterly ‘marathons’ to enable us to adapt and respond to what we were learning, and the new opportunities that emerged along the way.

Back to basics

We started the work by unpacking what innovation is and isn’t.

We learnt about all the different ways innovation can appear and how important it is to identify it. This also led us to create a draft definition of innovation in sport and physical activity at Sport England:

Innovation is applying a creative mindset, generating ideas and experimenting to make positive changes that improve people’s experiences of physical activity. It is an approach that puts people’s needs at the heart, continually learning and adapting to remove the real-life barriers they are facing.

We also agreed that Sport England’s efforts are best focused on applying innovation to address inequalities.

Learning by doing

We identified that an important part of our role as a team is to help others become more innovative in their practice.

Innovation Unit then coached and challenged us to develop skills in delivering innovation support.

We tested practical ways to build others’ confidence in understanding and applying innovation, delivering interactive sessions and developing resources to help colleagues and partners embed innovation in their work.

Practical guides for you

All this resulted in some fantastic outputs which we are excited to share with you.

We hope these will help you, and your teams, to build your confidence and skills in applying innovation.

Innovation Playbook – a growing set of tried and tested tools and approaches to embed innovation in your everyday work.

Innovation and Digital Best Practices – a set of eight key practices to guide your approach to work, which we believe will enable great innovation to happen.

Where we go next

We wanted to extend a huge thank you to Innovation Unit for all their incredible support to date.

We’re delighted to have entered the second phase of our partnership.

Taking the learning and assets we’ve developed in phase one, we’ll use them to strengthen Sport England’s application of innovation within our Children and Young People (CYP) work.

Working collaboratively with the CYP team, we’ll test different approaches to exploring Sport England’s role in embedding youth voice, both across the sector and within our own work.

We’re excited to learn more from working with the CYP team about how best to build innovation skills and confidence in others.

We aim to generate learnings about how we’re working, not just what we’re doing, sharing openly as we go. So watch this space!

As we learnt from this work, innovation doesn’t exist in a vacuum and we’re keen to continue connecting and collaborating with others to help spread good innovation practice across the sector.

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