“Organisational culture is the sum of values and rituals, which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organisation.” – Richard Perrin
I spent a wonderful day in Belfast this week with a group of Housing Organisations. It was refreshing as I got to talk not about tech and social media – but of leadership and culture.
We often bemoan the lack of adoption of innovative practices across the public sector and local government. But less often do we examine the reason why.
One of them is they just aren’t ready for the latest innovation.
The culture of some organisations is superbly designed to repel anything new. Even if you let it in the organisational antibodies would surround it – killing it in no time. Like the common cold – you may get away with being a bloody great irritant for a while – but against a strong body you’ve no chance long term.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit lots of organisations doing presentations on the Bromford culture - usually with my co-presenter Helena Moore (who recruited me long ago and did many of the slides above).
We date our cultural journey from about 2000 – although truth be told a lot of the way we do things were laid out well before then.
Here are four things I’ve picked up about culture and innovation along the way:
Leadership is critical
You simply cannot create a culture of innovation if your leadership is not on side. As I’ve said before , if you’ve tried to change executive attitudes and the CEO still doesn’t get it – you have only one option.
Leave the company.
It’s a noble task to continue the fight – but futile. Find somewhere where your energy and passions will be put to better use.
The private sector is not more innovative than the public sector.
There’s good and bad in both. However the private sector has got greater self belief and tends to source ideas better from customers and colleagues. The public sector , which can be prone to increased bureaucracy and risk aversion, is more likely to smother people’s natural creativity. When you’ve had an idea crushed for the 100th time it’s only human to stop telling people about them. Value all colleague and customer ideas – and have a disciplined approach to testing them out.
Being publicly funded is no excuse to be as boring as hell.
Mission and values set a tone for creativity.
If you’re doing it right they become more than words on paper. They become a call to action and set a behaviour for the organisation. We ditched our mission and values when we realised they were exactly the same as hundreds of others. We asked colleagues to come up with something that they could believe in and remember.
They came up with the DNA – Be Different, Be Brave , Be Commercial , Be Good. They’ve been made hashtag friendly so people use them in social conversations. Others have attached their own personal meaning to the words.
It defines us. At Bromford we don’t use the word department (it’s team) we don’t call people staff (they are colleagues) , we don’t say tenants (they’re customers). I’m frequently challenged on the latter when I use it on Twitter. But I have been for over 10 years! Let your organisational language evolve for you and ignore those who sneer or pick fault. Be different.
Never believe your hype.
No matter what awards you win. No matter how many customers say you are brilliant – never ever believe it. The right cultures blend respect for their tradition with a healthy paranoia about the future. Your history counts for nothing tomorrow.
Yesterday was our Bromford Bash – a gathering that we feel is culturally important enough to bring 1200 colleagues together.
CEOs come and go these days but Mick has headed up Bromford for 30 years. That’s longer than many of our customers and colleagues have been alive. He’s been an immense keeper of the culture.
He’s one of the few CEOs I could confidently pitch an Innovation Lab to with the words “Look , 75% of what we do will fail”. But I knew I wouldn’t be shown the door.
Innovation is most likely to take hold where strong leadership coexists with healthy financial viability and a well managed approach to risk.
As Mick said on Twitter recently “I never wanted us to be like everyone else …always proud to be different”.
What a journey.
I guess the next one has just begun.
“The only way to get mediocre is one step at a time. But you don’t have to settle. It’s a choice you get to make every day.” – Seth Godin
In my last post I named innovation as the most overused word of 2014.
It’s consistently misapplied to things that really aren’t innovative at all. Plus there’s now a surfeit of Labs , Accelerators and Hubs that have turned innovation into an industry all based around – umm – being innovative.
But as self serving as the innovation industry is becoming there’s a much bigger problem.
Ever since I made THAT comment about drones – I’ve been asked more about the return on investment of innovation than I have in the past 10 years.
So what makes us question its value? Why do we apply scrutiny to people working in innovation in a way we don’t to other functions like Operations, IT, Communications, HR or Finance?
Maybe it’s human nature to pay a lot more attention to new things whilst ignoring the waste we build up around us. When things have been around forever we stop noticing there are almost always better ways of doing things.
Here’s an example:
Bromford announce an Innovation Lab with a fairly modest investment (four full time colleagues at a cost of less than 1% of total surplus). But despite only being a few months old we’ve had calls to externally publish our business plan, targets, costs and outcomes. The leadership of Bromford has been called into question for allowing such apparent waste.
There are 1700 housing associations registered in the UK. So that’s 1700 CEOs. And probably about 5000 boards as each HA seems to have at least two or three. That simply cannot be efficient. But no one questions it.
Now expand that thinking.
Across Local Government , care , support and the welfare to work sector.
Now include the funders , think tanks and all the industry bodies.
Virtually all of them will have their own network of offices with their own IT, Communications, HR and Finance functions. Most were built with pre-digital thinking and with little thought about collaboration.
And if we looked closely at those hundreds of thousands of organisations with their billions of pounds of funding we’d be able to deduce three things:
- One third would be excellent – and have a high capability and confidence when it comes to innovation.
- One third would be average – although they think about innovation they only occasionally transform thought into action.
- And one third would be absolute rubbish.
So I’ve a plan. Let’s continue to challenge the self proclaimed innovators.
They should publish their outcomes and their costs.
They need to lead the way when it comes to transparency.
But why let mediocrity off so lightly?
- Let’s start questioning the organisations that exhibit no commitment to innovation.
- Let’s challenge the publicly funded bodies where innovation is not addressed in their strategy or values.
- Let’s see what resources organisations are allocating to disruptive thinking.
And let’s ask them whose responsibility it is to act upon bright ideas from the public and their staff – and ensure they get explored.
Mediocrity isn’t an accident. Let’s declare war on it.
“Imagine a pair of horses in the early 1900s talking about technology. One worries that all these new mechanical muscles will make horses unnecessary.
The other reminds him that everything so far has made their lives easier.
Remember all that farm work?
Remember running coast-to-coast delivering mail?
Remember riding into battle?
These city jobs are pretty cushy — and with so many humans in the cities there are more jobs for horses than ever”
Sometimes the threat to your industry is not the one that is directly in your line of vision, but the one at the periphery. You might not even recognise it as a problem.
The social housing sector is a good example , believing as it does that planned welfare reforms are the single biggest threat.
10 years from now that sector will look back and see it for what it was – a minor external distraction.
The real disruptive influences will be a rapidly ageing society , a pace of technological change that it failed to embrace , and the disappearance of the jobs that employ their tenants.
People aren’t dying as much as they used to. And the robots have arrived to do all their work for them.
The rise of the robots is articulated brilliantly by CGP Grey in Humans Need Not Apply. In it we are reminded that those horses never did find new jobs. The equine population peaked in 1915 – and it was all downhill from there.
Worryingly it makes the point that us humans are now the horses – and the new jobs that are being created are not a significant part of the labour market. This has potentially dire consequences. Not least for social housing.
We already know that levels of unemployment are disproportionately high among social housing residents. Many housing associations do work around increasing employability and volunteering – usually as a sideline rather than as part of core business.
But getting people into work only solves half the problem. Many of those jobs – often low paying and part time – simply won’t be around for much longer. They will be the first to get automated by the bots.
From driverless cars to drone deliveries – the potential impact is enormous. But this is not a mainstream topic of conversation in health , housing and social care. Indeed – if you do talk about it you are likely to be dismissed as a bit of an oddball.
Who is doing the joined up thinking about what happens in communities where less people are working?
If there’s a criticism of this line of thought – it’s that it focuses on the negatives rather than the wonderful opportunities.
Take Baxter, who was created to take manufacturing duties from humans. But , the creator Rodney Brooks has contended that the robot won’t lead to lost jobs. On the contrary, he believes Baxter could be the salvation of workers, who would otherwise succumb to Chinese competition. Indeed , the International Federation of Robotics has reported that the one million industrial robots currently in operation have been directly responsible for the creation of close to three million jobs.
So what are the jobs in our communities that need protecting? And how could we deploy technology to retain vital local services?
And then there’s Paro , a therapeutic robot that is used widely in Japan but is now being tested by the NHS. Paro allows the benefits of animal therapy to be administered to patients in care facilities. Far from being a toy, Paro stimulates interaction between patients and caregivers and has been shown to improve relaxation and motivation.
How could this new breed of companionship robots help communities at risk of isolation and loneliness? How could we combine real world active networks with these sociable robots?
Instead of ignoring this , or dismissing as science fiction – it’s time we brought the conversation mainstream. We need to start racing with the machines rather than ignoring them.
Really we have three options:
- We start to reimagine communities and what meaningful work and play looks like in the future. We begin long term planning building from the skills already in the community. We embrace technology and develop local frameworks that enable people to do better things.
- We forget the idea of work in abundance and start an argument for a Universal Basic Income (in essence – we guarantee every citizen a flat basic allowance, which would be unaffected by any earnings they gained on top of it). Matt Leach has written an excellent post on this concept , which admittedly would take huge political will to achieve.
- We do nothing. And we stumble into a world of disappearing jobs and fail to imagine a better future. We are left with increasingly marginalised communities with reduced income, less active lifestyles and all the resulting health problems.
Truthfully we need more than a robot revolution.
We need a revolution in the way housing , health and social care approach their work.
A shift away from siloed approaches where we might be ignoring the real threats – as well as the many opportunities. We need a radical vision for connected communities and a network of innovators and entrepreneurs to help drive us forward.
This will be painful as it means challenging a lot of vested interests, breaking through the ‘sector think’ which has existed for decades.
None of our organisations are special. None are irreplaceable.
We have to think and act very differently if we are to avoid a future where humans need not apply.
It’s two months since we announced our Twitter only recruitment so I thought it was time for an update. We’ve been pretty much overwhelmed by the number of people who registered an interest in the Lab.
We had over 14,000 views of the material and are still getting enquiries. The follow up conversations took a lot longer than we thought!
People have questioned me on whether this is actually a more complex way of recruiting than the conventional model.
The answer , undoubtably, is yes.
Just like comms and marketing , recruitment used to be pretty simple. You broadcast your message and waited for the bite. Then you reeled it in.
Social media – and social recruitment – are not about broadcast. They are about the conversation , the slow burn of relationship building. People challenge you. People suggest ideas.
You question whether what you are building is right.
In a conventional recruitment no-one would dare challenge your ideas. They know that expressing dissent is the first sign of a troublemaker.
But in a social recruitment, where chats are conducted away from the shackles of forms and questions and personality tests , the relationship gets democratised.
Welcome to recruiting through the network.
I want to publicly thank everyone who took time to speak to us. Your input has been invaluable in shaping the pipeline of the Lab and the way we go about making the network operate. Thanks to everyone who has shared the material about the recruitment too – your support is incredible.
So what have we learned?
- A lot of people want to work with us in some capacity but not in a full time role based in the Midlands. Only a few people expressed an interest in full time work for one employer and this has led us to reshape the idea of three roles.
- There was a lot of interest in doing some work at mutually agreed times and the development of a retainer based – or time limited – relationship.
- Peoples skills and experience are a lot wider than the rather narrow confines I put around Data, Design and Digital
So the challenge for me over the past few weeks has been to redesign something that makes use of the great talent that is out there in the network.
So what are we doing?
Firstly – we’ve decided we really need a full-time design role – and it’s the one that lends itself least to remote working. So we’re going to advertise this role for two weeks only with interested applicants going through the existing Bromford recruitment approach. You can find details of this role here. People who previously expressed an interest were given an exclusive preview but new applicants are welcomed. Give me a shout if you want to chat about it.
Secondly – we are developing opportunities for people that have a specific expertise that we need coaching in. These are likely to be commitments of a few days of time spread over a period between 3 months and a year. These will be available to people regardless of geography. The bulk of the people who expressed an interest first time around fall into this category and will work with me to shape it.
Finally we are developing a way that we can commission the services of people on a one-off basis. So for instance – a problem enters the Lab that we don’t have the skills to host and we need to bring in the network to do it for us. Many people suggested this might be done on a more creative basis than simply employing someone . For instance , we could develop an incentivised challenge to solve a specific problem.
This is an incredibly exciting time for everyone involved in the Lab.
Thanks for your support!
(A version of this post originally appeared on 24Dash – go visit them as they’re great!)
2pm 11th June: London grinds to a halt.
Cab drivers have downed tools for an hour.
Uber, a smartphone app that offers an easy and cheap taxi booking service, has rolled into the UK. Our taxi drivers, required to do training of between 4-7 years, are understandably outraged at this tech startup rocking up and suggesting services can be delivered in affordable ways that are more tailored to the customer.
The howls of anguish from the striking drivers were heard all across Europe. But far from highlighting the cause of taxi drivers it served only to promote Uber itself- which saw an 850% increase in subscriptions.
The hackney carriage – a tradition dating back to 1654 – faces potential disruption.
Plenty of howls of anguish in Manchester too this week as the annual housing conference rolled into town. This year though the conference had an Uber-like startup to contend with.
HouseParty - an unofficial fringe – had parked its (mini)bus just over the road.
Much like Comms Hero, it would be easy to dismiss HouseParty as a bit of inconsequential fluff. A bunch of malcontents fiddling around with social media and shiny tech whilst Rome burns.
But both formats deserve closer scrutiny. Both have super smart business brains behind them in Asif Choudry and Matt Leach. Both have got the sheer balls to deliver something different in a market starved of original thought. And both show an implicit understanding of their customers.
Comms Hero was developed after speaking to Comms people and asking them what they would design if they could create their ideal event.
HouseParty has evolved through social media connections and captured the imagination of people who would never have thought of attending a housing conference. Additionally it’s been co-designed by Esther Foreman a social entrepreneur who also happens to be – guess what? – a real life housing association tenant.
And they are new and achingly cool. Whereas the annual CIH conference has roots in a tradition starting back in 1931. On that basis it’s unfair to compare and contrast the three. But anyone who has attended them, or followed their social media feeds, will do so.
Let me be clear. This isn’t an attack on the CIH, an organisation I have huge respect for and who employ some inspirational people. Neither is it a ringing endorsement of Comms Hero or HouseParty – concepts that are taking their first awkward baby steps into the world.
But the fact is the annual conference , and public sector conferences like it , have to change.
You can’t blame the CIH. The public gets what the public wants. And, if we’re honest, the UK housing public wants an annual sideshow to the real business of getting together and having a chinwag and a few beers.
The conference this year certainly had a unified message: We need more social housing and we need more money. We need more of the same. Impassioned stuff and I, optimistically, hope it’s heard.
But at £525 for a one day non-member ticket you’d expect passion at the very least.
How attractive would this be to people in the top 5 of the digital Power Players list. People like Anne McCrossan, John Popham or Helen Reynolds? Sole traders who could help the sector be much better than it currently is.
How attractive would this be to a tenant?
Comms Hero has undercut its rivals by a good £100. HouseParty offered an innovative ‘pay what you can afford’ option.
Much like ‘affordable’ rents, our conferences need to consider their purpose, pricing and accessibility.
Thom Bartley has made the brilliant point that it’s now cheaper to fly to Amsterdam to see a 3D printed house than to pay to go to a housing conference and hear someone talk about it. We all know that housing has to revisit its purpose but that also involves a restatement of its values.
This is less an issue for the CIH than it is for the sector itself.
In reality neither Comms Hero nor House Party are competitors to traditional conferences – they offer something different. But just like Uber, Spotify and Netflix they are bringing the question of customer value into the spotlight.
The annual conference, just like black cabs, will be around for a good while yet. But if nothing else the new kids on the block have made us consider “would we do it this way if we started again?”
And that’s always a pretty good question to ask.
Social Media Campaign: Winner: Adrian Capon for #HousingDay. Runners up: Council Home Chat , Real Life Reform
Best Blogger: Winner: Colin Wiles. Runners up: Thom Bartley, Jules Birch
Rising Star: Winner: Michala Rudman. Runners up: Cheryl Tracy, Thom Bartley
Social Superstar England: Winner: Nick Atkin. Runners up: Asif Choudry, Lara Oyedele
Social Superstar Wales: Winner: Brett Sadler. Runners up: Keith Edwards, Michala Rudman
Digital Innovation of the Year: Winner: Jayne Hilditch for MyTVH. Runners up: Muir Group for digital sign up , Halton Housing for digital deal.
Super Connector of the Year: Winner: Anne McCrossan. Runners up: Nick Atkin, James Caspell
Comms Innovator of Year: Asif Choudry
Digital Innovator of Year: Matt Leach
POST UPDATED 25TH JUNE
After the excitement generated by #PowerPlayers14 we’ve decided to reflect on peoples contribution to digital housing one final time this year at House Party in Manchester on 24th June.
This is a time of huge change in the public sector and the importance of social and digital technology has never been so important.
Despite the success of #powerplayers14 – the housing sector still has a mountain to climb in embracing new ways of working and thinking. Once you open the door to social media you have begun to change the nature of your organisation. There’s no going back.
We are now turning the spotlight away from the list itself and towards the difference that has been made. These are awards for the people and organisations who are doing something new and making a difference.
The categories for this year are:
Social Media Campaign: Which campaign has most effectively used digital to promote social housing for social good?
Best Blogger: Which are the posts you just HAVE to read?
Rising Star: Which newcomer (or nearly newcomer…) has made a powerful mark in #ukhousing for their use of digital?
National Social Superstar: We’ll have winners for Wales, England , Scotland and Northern Ireland. Who are they and why?
Digital Innovation of the Year: Which person or organisation has used digital to really make a difference for their customers? What have they done differently?
Super Connector of the Year: Who’s the person who has most effectively used digital to break down barriers between sectors?
Anybody can make a nomination. All you have to do is to state who you are nominating, the category & the reason. You can post your nomination with a comment in the blog or use Twitter with the hashtag #powerplayers14.
This is completely crowdsourced – nominations can be made up to 5.00pm on the 24th June.
This being a socially savvy event all awards will be virtual and tweeted out to winners live!
You can follow events via the hashtag #hseparty14.
We look forward to hearing the nominations!
Paul, Shirley and Boris