“If you are going to take an innovation job, make sure to buy yourself some time, and then, use that time to make sure you make a difference.” Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg
It’s now over six months since we launched Bromford Lab. I’ve been asked about setting it up more than anything else I’ve done in my career, so that seems enough reason to warrant a post.
So what’s gone well?
The first challenge of any Lab is to get internal colleagues to accept it. On this we can report success, far from being defensive, our colleagues have used sessions to critically examine their service areas. They’ve been open about failings and honest in identifying areas where we are coming up short.
People are pitching ideas. We’ve had 37 concepts in the Lab so far and people are not slow in coming forward . Customers are pitching ideas too, most notably through a dedicated blog page set up independently.
Internal barriers and silos are being eroded. Any Lab session can contain people from 4 or 5 different parts of the organisation – as well as customers.
There are lots of improvements to make though – we’ve identified that some concepts are not progressing fast enough and we need to boost the organisational metabolism. We also feel we’ve been so tied up with getting the Lab working internally we’ve neglected our wider network, particularly those people who expressed interest through the Twitter only recruitment.
Here are our ten lessons so far:
Think big. Start small.
Some of our concepts have hit a wall because we let them get too complicated. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing anything. If people wait for perfection before they put an idea to work, it will stall before it gets off the ground.
Assemble small teams.
Smaller companies are usually faster and more innovative than their larger counterparts. The same is true for teams. We have a core team of four and we’ll never work with teams of more than seven. We built the Lab to a specific size so they simply wouldn’t fit in.
People misinterpret innovation.
Sometimes they just expect uncontrolled creativity. Being creative is great, but innovators need to turn creativity into output. That means we’ll need data. Evidence. We’ve had to develop a disciplined process for product or service development.
You have to stop thinking like the organisation.
The first job of the Lab manager is to protect the Lab from its host. Every Lab session starts with “This is not Bromford.” Colleagues often need to lose their emotional and cultural baggage before they can truly create something new.
Everyone thinks their idea needs attention. Often there’s a need for a more detailed problem definition before we go off creating things. Ultimately a Lab is a waste of time if it produces lots of things that don’t solve the right problems.
Put your network to work.
Many companies continue to assume that innovation comes from the lone genius. In fact , most innovations are created through connections, and that will include the ones outside your organisation. Having an active social network makes your job a lot easier.
Try to de-risk your ideas as much as possible.
The biggest barrier in most organisations is risk aversion – so anticipate this in advance before presenting anything. Show that you acknowledge risk and have put as much cotton wool around your idea as possible. Governance teams can be your greatest enemies or biggest friends. We went for the latter.
Challenge everything you currently do.
I’ve got it written into my job profile. It’s a contractual obligation of an Innovation Team to ask the really stupid questions. Would we honestly do it this way if we started again?
Know when to pull the plug
Not every idea or project is destined for success. Stopping a project is a difficult decision but in certain cases, it’s inevitable. Colleagues want to make things work but that’s not always in the best interests of the customer or the company. You need to know when to pull the plug early to avoid spending more money on well-intentioned projects.
You need to have broad shoulders.
Nobody really says it , but a minority of people are willing you to fail. It comes across occasionally in sarcastic social media messages or remarks that you should get a proper job (The latter , admittedly, was from my Mother). You’ll get scrutinised more than you ever have before. We laugh things off but have had to work on our self-confidence. A supportive network is critical.
And one final lesson is that it’s just the most brilliant fun.
In our organisations we probably get to see about 10% of the talents that people really have. A Lab approach can begin to unlock the potential that conventional talent management programmes often fail to.
Seeing what people come up with and where they will go next is endlessly rewarding.
Here’s to 2015.
“Guinness is lovely but it will always be the same, a (delicious) black and white drink – simple and unchanging. Subway do nice sandwiches.
Lego make little bricks.
The work of housing associations, councils, the NHS and other government departments is about our lives: it’s dramatic, it makes a difference to the way we live every day and the stories are changing and fascinating.
Being important doesn’t mean being tedious. Having serious intentions doesn’t stop you from being entertaining.” – Helen Reynolds
I used to dread people asking me what I do for a living.
If you work for a Housing Association you’ll know the feeling. Most people will simply look blank and confused at your explanation. They search around for a bit, visibly straining as they try to understand. There’s almost always an awkward silence before they suggest:
“Is it a a bit like council housing?”
“Well, yes. It’s a bit like council housing.”
The conversation quickly moves on to talk about anything – anything – other than housing associations.
I gave up describing myself as working in housing about three years ago. I started to say I worked for a charity.
Charity is a great word.
It says you must be a decent sort of person. And it travels well.
Charity works as well in Asia or Africa as it does down your local pub. It says you are interested in people. That’s always a good thing.
A couple of years ago I did a brief social experiment about how the housing sector talked about people online. The results were telling:
Less than 8% of the stories we told were directly about the people living in our homes and communities.
On November 12th it was #HousingDay – which aims to celebrate those very people and their achievements. The first event in 2013 reached thousands and trended on Twitter.
Ade Capon , the founder of the campaign says for 2014 he’d like to inspire and engage customers to create and send their own stories – capturing their aspirations and ambitions.
Ade is a very modest guy who has used the power of social media to create something that a whole sector was previously incapable of.
Cynics have accused #HousingDay , and similar campaigns that it has inspired, of being mere window dressing. A bit of digital fluff that gets sector people talking to each other but fails to make wider social impact.
I disagree. Anything that tries to shift the narrative away from sloganeering and messaging towards conversation and story telling has to be applauded.
As I posted recently- there are nearly 4 million people living in social housing but we hear little from them. That’s why the narrative for social housing gets so little traction. It’s largely a campaign run by social housing professionals for social housing professionals.
However things are changing – the past 12 months has seen a range of customers starting blogs , campaigns and websites. Their voice is beginning to take centre stage.
The organised customer involvement movement which consists of formalised committees and bodies has failed to adapt to the digital age. I predicted three years ago that they would be replaced by a self organised movement of individuals who use social technology to seek wider change.
This is scary to many but we should find it tremendously exciting. Our organisations are not important in themselves and we should welcome the digital freedoms being explored by customers.
People will listen to any story if it is engaging enough.
My own blog started out talking to a housing audience. Today over 80% of subscribers are not from a housing background. I’ve learned that if you talk about the difference you make rather than what you do – people will engage.
And if you listen to them too – and build a conversation rather than a broadcast – people will share ideas with you.
Housing , much like health , care and support has a journey to go on.
- We have to engage hearts and minds not through obsessively pushing a “message” – but by developing a lifelong relationship with people. Relationships built upon hectoring or shouting are not sustainable.
- We need to identify shared passions and interests and continue having social conversations – on and offline.
- We have to stop the seemingly endless rounds of awards ceremonies too. Apple , Google and Microsoft are some of the most valuable brands in the world but I never hear them going on about the awards they have won. Assuming they even enter awards in the first place. They let the people who have bought into their story do the talking.
It’s interesting that Helen Reynolds used Lego as a comparison.
Lego make interlocking plastic bricks.
- What they are known for is their innovation and the creativity they inspire in people.
- They have kept themselves endlessly relevant to different generations by keeping the story alive through video games , clothing, even theme parks.
- They have founded a lifelong relationship with people through exceptional design and a focus on , guess what , the customer.
I work for an organisation that exists to do more that put bricks together. It tries to unlock potential in people.
Let’s put that centre stage.
Apple has a clearly defined mission of creating products that are “insanely great.”
Simply stating that ambition achieves little. It is Apple’s commitment to its values, such as integrated architecture and clean design (even on the inside of the device where no one will see it), that defines its products in the marketplace.
That’s what makes Apple the most valuable company in the world – Greg Satell
In 2012 I publicly deserted Apple – announcing I was fed up with their arrogance. I crossed the divide to Android. People had quite a laugh about it on Twitter – many predicting I’d be back in 12 months. They were wrong though.
I was back in six.
I’m not an Apple fanboy. Far from it. Organisations are just a bunch of people. And they carry with them the same unique strengths and flaws that exist in all of us.
But something was different during my six months away. It just didn’t feel the same.
The best brands and organisations draw an emotional response from us – we become attached to how they make us feel. And we’ll almost always choose how something feels over any other factor , including cost.
Yesterday I visited Apple in London as a guest of Housemark.
Apple have a notoriously secretive culture so we were asked not to photograph our visit and not to use social media. (That’s some ask for me – I was told off within five minutes for trying to post to Instagram…)
For that reason and out of respect to our hosts I’m not revealing anything here that isn’t already in the public domain. I’ve included a couple of quotes but paraphrased them.
Every great organisation I have visited has a distinct culture and Apple are no different.
As I explained in my last post – this is one of the reasons people may dislike you. Many people , whatever they say , actually like the bland and the mediocre . They are suspicious of those pushing forward.
And you certainly don’t get to be the biggest brand on the planet without pushing forward and upsetting a few people.
What can we learn?
Keep it simple , simple, simple:
Apple are obsessive over keeping things simple – the very thing some of their detractors despise.
Unlike many parts of the public sector, which revels in its own complexity, Apple have recognised that people fundamentally love simplicity and great design. So they shape their business around that purpose.
They focus on doing a small number of things exceptionally well. Their entire product range can fit on one slide. They got to be the biggest by doing the least.
By comparison, most of us focus on doing lots of things in very average ways.
Relentlessly focus on your customer experience:
I’ve visited so many organisations over the past fifteen years and everyone talks about the importance of customer experience.
Few actively demonstrate it. Fewer still make it their single focus. Apple show end to end design around the customer.
- The first experience of walking into a store.
- The lack of signage which encourages you to talk to a member of staff.
- Even obsessing down to the quality of the packaging (how can it be improved and made more beautiful?)
The belief is – focus on the end user at all times rather than what everyone else is doing. Profit will follow if you stick to that purpose.
Steve Jobs was notorious for his disdain of focus groups. Apple claim though to listen very carefully to what customers want. What they don’t do is let customers design the products for them.
It’s through this extensive study of customer needs that they know how to make the experience easy for new users, while also meeting the needs of those who are more sophisticated. As my Mum said to me at the weekend “I can’t use the internet but I can use the iPad.”
Innovate as fast as you can. Then innovate again:
Through having control of their supply chain Apple can introduce changes more quickly than others. The ethos is to develop initial product within 1- 3 months and then refine it.
This seems a world away from most of our delivery where service change can take not just months but years.
As Cris Beswick has said – only 3% of UK companies are able to get ideas to market in less than six months. It’s not what they are doing that’s any different, it’s how they are doing it.
Many in the public sector focus on big organisational change which they then become too frightened to ever implement. Apple talk of the “relentless pursuit of incremental innovation” which many often ignore.
If you’ve got a year long project it probably won’t ever happen or it’ll be out of date before delivery.
It’s the mantra we are trying to install at Bromford: Start small , test quickly and ditch it if it doesn’t work.
A final question to Apple as we left the building: “What are you then? A tech company?”
“No – a customer experience company.”
I wonder how many of us would describe ourselves that way?
“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.
On 24th October is 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.