The average colleague has seven ideas per day about how they could improve where they work. For our company that’s 9000 ideas per day. Or 3 million every year. But most of those ideas never catch fire. - Bromford Lab
Tokyo, Japan 1936 – Kiyoshi Ichimura , the son of a poor farming family , has an idea. Kiyoshi didn’t have any great privileges to speak of, but was ambitious and enterprising.
Kiyoshi was fascinated with the early emergence of what was set to dominate the world of work – the modern office. He founded a company called Riken Kankoshi – specialising in the production of optical devices and equipment for this new generation of white collar office workers.
Nurturing a unique pool of thinkers Kiyoshi led the company that became Ricoh. Today it operates in nearly 180 countries with annual sales of over $20 billion.
Telford, England, 2015 – I turn up to visit and learn about how they’ve managed to keep a culture of innovation alive for 79 years.
You can tell a lot about a company’s culture in your first five minutes through the door. The things I always look for and I saw at Ricoh:
- People look you in the eye and say hello – they can tell you’re a visitor and they want you to feel welcome. That seems obvious but it certainly doesn’t happen everywhere.
- There’s a sense of history and achievement , a company that respects the past but isn’t stifled by it.
- There’s evidence of thinking differently or just being different.
Your company values also say a lot about how you view your culture.
The Spirit of Three Loves – the founding principles laid down by Kiyoshi:
- Love your neighbour
- Love your country
- Love your work
Principles that are as much about community , pride and friendship as work itself.
Perhaps that community culture is one of the reasons why Ricoh have been so successful in the deployment of the continuous improvement practice – Kaizen.
Ricoh has practiced Kaizen (in Japanese – “Good for Change”) since the Second World War.
Kaizen was all the rage in management circles in the early 2000’s. You couldn’t go on a leadership course without hearing about it. What those courses often failed to teach is that tools and systems are useless without the culture to bring them alive. You simply can’t port best practice in from one place to the next and expect it to work.
Rather than looking for transformative innovation, one of the most notable features of kaizen is that big results come from many small changes accumulated over time.
Here’s are the top tips I picked up from Ricoh on creating a culture where innovation is part of everyone’s job:
No idea is too small:
Most people don’t think of themselves as innovators but they can spot small improvements. So encourage them to pitch small achievable ideas. As our host told us “We’d rather have a million ideas that save £1 than one idea that saves £1,000,000.”
At Ricoh, people are given very small incentives to provide suggestions (£1 vouchers cashable in the canteen or that can be saved up for team events). The message here was “do what works for your people”. Ricoh had ditched a more complex reward and recognition scheme after people told them they preferred the simple voucher system.
See the status quo as a negative:
Offering your ideas is seen a positive trait and built into performance and goal setting. Settling for the status quo is seen as a negative. During performance appraisals managers will have conversations with people about how many ideas they have submitted each month or year , and suggest ways they could make more.
Make offering ideas easy:
Submitting an idea at Ricoh is as easy as writing it down and passing it on for evaluation. “If you make people complete a 2 page report , they just aren’t going to do it” we were told.
Make ideas visible:
Everywhere you walk at Ricoh , and I mean everywhere, there are visible reminders of the ideas that have been pitched. This helps build momentum.
Something I especially liked is that twice a year the senior leadership will visit each team and hear about the ideas they’ve submitted and how these have improved the business. Awards are given, success celebrated, but they also discuss ideas that didn’t work.
The key takeaway here is that management go to the team not the other way around. Most organisations would just ask the team to complete a report for management to read through in a meeting.
Make it achievable:
Innovation requires more than just coming up with ideas. Filtering and selecting the right ideas takes time and resources. So small ideas get fast tracked with bigger ones passed on to specialists. If you ask for ideas and then don’t act on them you will destroy trust. It’s better to avoid asking for ideas than failing to act upon them.
Through promoting a culture where part of your day job is to have ideas – Ricoh have made innovation accessible to everyone in their organisation.
It’s a truly global innovation lab.
How is your organisation encouraging and acting upon bright ideas?
We must be different. We must be lopsided. No more herdlike regression toward the mean – we must find the things at which we’re great, and build on those - Tim Kastelle
A few years ago my organisation adopted a new way of working. We implemented it , with the help of consultants, as it had achieved glowing praise during a regulatory inspection at a similar organisation.
It was held up as an example of that most intangible of things: best practice.
We all had lots of meetings about it. We all had training. And we all did a lot of work to prepare for the arrival of this system that promised to change the way we worked forever.
You can probably guess what happened next.
In fact I don’t think I ever used it. Not once.
The problem with buying in solutions that have performed brilliantly in other organisations is that most of the time, they just don’t work.
That’s not to say they never worked. They may well have worked for somebody else, somewhere else. They may well have worked at another time. But it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to just port successful practice from one place to the next.
The public sector predilection for best practice and benchmarking is quite perverse when you think about it.
- Imagine starting up a new business and the first thing you decide to do is figure out who is operating in a similar space as yourself.
- Having found them you both start a club and invite others, who are also like you.
- Then you all start comparing your practices, processes and results and eventually work out who’s the best.
- Then you copy them.
That’s absolutely not the route to greatness.
If everyone strives to do the same thing the same way, they will end up close to average.
Best practice and benchmarking are just a race to be first at being average.
A quick caveat: best practice can work in some scenarios. Usually very simple repeatable ones. Chris Bolton points this out in his excellent post, but goes on to say, “The chances of someone else’s best practice working in your complex environment (particularly if it is forced onto you) seems unlikely.”
Not only is it unlikely but the very act of best practice and benchmarking can drive standards down. It encourages all organisations to think alike. At sector level it creates groupthink , and we all know groupthink is the avowed enemy of innovation.
Within organisations a culture of following best practice can quickly become a culture that is frightened of doing new things.
I’ve heard many in my own sector say “We aren’t brave enough to do the things that (insert someone innovative) are doing, we’d rather watch and learn.”
This is a terrible mistake.
If you watch them and they fail – they have all the learning and you have none.
And if they succeed it means you have failed to keep up with them, and you still have zero learning.
Rather than regressing towards the mean let’s learn by being responsibly creative.
Try visiting lots of people who are unlike you.
The more unlike you they are the more you should visit. Connect with people via social media who are the polar opposite of you. If you are just hanging around with the sector crowd you will become more average with every passing day.
This a slide from Creating a Culture That’s Innovation Ready showing some of the organisations that we have visited and done business with over the years.
We haven’t attempted to be like any of them but it has been a massive generator of new practices, ideas and possibilities. Never go away and try to copy them though , always adapt the idea to your own culture.
Try learning by doing.
Most of these ideas are best tested by adopting a safe to fail approach: small-scale experiments that approach issues from different angles. We will always learn more by making our own mistakes than comparing each others (usually flattering) benchmarking scores.
Try being an organisation that only you can be.
We are living in times when we need radical solutions to big problems. Trying to be like each other is a criminal waste of time.
The market is , as Seth Godin said , begging us to be remarkable.
We have an opportunity to be more different, more memorable and make more change than anyone else.
Who wants to win the race to mediocrity instead?
We’ve seen an alarming evaporation of trust across all institutions, reaching the lows of the recession in 2009. Trust in government, business, media and non-profits is below 50% in two-thirds of countries, including the U.S, U.K, Germany and Japan. There has been a startling decrease in trust. Richard Edelman
The annual Edelman Trust Barometer is always fascinating reading but the 2015 edition is one that really should make us sit up and take note.
It appears we have entered an era of ‘trust deficit’ – where more people distrust institutions than believe in them. And we can’t blame those pesky bankers for this one – the causes are far more evenly spread that you might think.
It’s a truly global decline, spanning sectors and industries. The rise of connectivity and access to information, fuelled by social media, surely play a part in this shift.
- 60% of countries now distrust media.
- Government is distrusted in 19 of the 27 markets surveyed.
- Trust is strongest in non-profit organisations but even here it’s waning – alarmingly so in the case of the UK , down from 67% to 51%.
But don’t worry – those crazy social disruptors and innovators will surely save the day.
Errr – except people don’t trust them either.
Indeed , public trust in innovation is no longer implicit. As the report says “innovation on its own is not perceived as an inherent demonstration of forward progress, despite the near reverence for the term.”
51% of people say the pace of change is too great , with many ‘innovations’ appearing untested and unproven.
This is surely a wake up call to all of us working in Local Government, Health , Housing and Care. These are sectors that often spend an undue amount of time blaming other people for their problems. Problems , it seems , that lie somewhat closer to home.
Trustworthiness is said to consist of competence (ability), having the right motives (benevolence), and acting fairly and honestly (integrity). Any person or organisation who displays those attributes consistently will be trusted. But get any of them wrong, and you blow it.
The impact of a trust deficit is tangible:
- In public services a lack of trust means people not buying into services and values. If means a declining reputation, wasted resources and a sharp increase in avoidable contact and failure rates.
- In business it hits profit , two thirds of people refuse to buy products and services from a company they do not trust, 58% will criticise them to a friend.
- And those of us based in the UK will see the impact of the lack of trust in government on 7th May. People are increasingly disenfranchised from mainstream politics – especially, but not exclusively, the young.
So what do we need to do?
As the report says: The trust-building opportunity lies squarely in the area of integrity and engagement.
Obviously there are some global mega trends at work here that are difficult to shift. But what can our organisations practically do to start building up trust?
Here’s five things we could all start doing tomorrow:
Stop saying how great your organisation is
There’s a huge dissonance in the public sector where services are often described as great when they are merely mediocre.
This includes the issuing of flattering press releases , massaged customer satisfaction scores and meaningless benchmarking results. The only people who have a right to say we are great are our customers.
Everytime we say how wonderful we are a little bit of trust dies somewhere.
Start engaging rather than broadcasting
It’s time to do less talking and more listening. Cut it with the jargon and PR doublespeak.
If you want to understand why trust in politicians is flatlining you need look no further than the Twitter feed of prospective Prime Minister Ed Miliband. To say this account is robotic is a genuine insult to our android friends. The Canadian hitchhiking robot HitchBot demonstrates more insight, humour, warmth, and humanity.
We need to start acting , and talking, like people again.
Default to transparency
Publish everything. Even your biggest mistakes.
I frequently talk about the work of Buffer , to my mind a truly transparent organisation. Take a look at their transparency dashboard which features details of salaries, profit and loss, even their emails. They have built a business with strong social media presence and enshrined transparency as part of their values.
How honest are our websites? Maybe we should ask our customers.
Stop innovating for the sake of it
The report notes that trusted innovation means us adopting a new framework rooted in dialogue, sharing information and fostering collaboration.
We need the various Labs , Accelerators and Hubs to adopt stringent methodologies for testing innovations and proving their worth before launching them to the public.
Our Bromford Lab and Research Team have begun to show our organisation and customers that testing social innovations in a robust way is not bureaucracy – but necessary evaluation.
Rather than launching initiatives in a blaze of publicity we’d be better off making test results publicly available for review, which 80% of people say would boost trust.
Turn your people into brand advocates
People just don’t buy our marketing anymore. They don’t believe us. We need to radically transform Communications and Marketing teams. Rather than gatekeepers they need to be enablers. The more of our colleagues we have on social , the more honesty we share, the more trust we build.
I’m a big advocate of social CEOs – but the report highlights they are regarded as the least credible sources. A ‘person like yourself’ builds trust – we need to promote the voices of those engaged in frontline services, not the hierarchy.
To prevent further decline we need to consider whether every action we take is a trust builder or trust killer.
Every action, every report, every single tweet.
To rebuild trust we must show we are worthy of it.
“Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.” Neil Gaiman
Just before Christmas – in my final catch up of the year with my manager – a pretty significant thing happened.
I was told that Bromford Lab seriously needs to up its failure rate in 2015.
Welcome to the parallel organisational universe that I exist in!
Of course this need for greater transparency of failure should be common sense to us by now.
Nielsen research suggests that “about two out of every three products are destined to fail.” However , outside of the startup community , this is rarely acknowledged and hardly ever promoted.
In the public sector , where projects take years rather than weeks, and pilots become mainstream services without any evaluation – things are worse.
Everything is a success.
If you doubt me on this pick any organisation and take a look at their annual review or report. See if you can find any mention of the things they did that failed – and what they learned as a result.
We are afraid of failing and it’s seriously constraining our creativity – and ultimately our credibility.
Here’s five ways we can get better at failure
Give people permission:
Too often targets and KPIs drive perverse incentives and lead to managers forgetting why they are even there. The Lab has no targets. Not a single one. It has an ethos though that 75% of work is permissible failure.
If we solely targeted success through the Lab – it would be catastrophic. It would drive a behaviour of pushing rubbish ideas into the organisational DNA. By giving people permission to fail you are saying “use your common sense”. That’s the only target you need.
Change the definition:
People see failure as a bad thing as it has been drummed into us through childhood and the corporate machinery. It has come to mean letting people down. Try to rebrand failure as a journey of discovery – in which you’ll learn the possibilities for you and your organisation.
Let’s remember there have been some amazing by-products of “failure”. Columbus could be said to have failed when he set out to find a new route to Asia, but his voyages led to the widespread knowledge that a new continent – America – existed. 3M certainly failed when they invented a glue that didn’t stick – but as we know it led to the creation of the Post-It note. Failure is an option. Acknowledge and prepare for it.
See it as an investment:
This seems counter intuitive but there is a strong economic argument for failing more often. As an example let’s say it takes 6 months and £100,000 to take a product from idea to launch. At best you’ll get two cycles in a year.
However, if you can do a complete cycle of learning in a week for £2000, you can get 52 cycles in a year at about half the cost. Many of those cycles of learning will fail but will have less risk and negative impact than your latest big initiative. In the words of Andrew Stanton – “be wrong as fast as you can.”
Have a scientific approach:
Embracing failure does not mean having a lax approach or work environment. Have a hypothesis and test it. Involve your data geeks and people who have no vested interests in seeing the idea succeed. If people start getting excited you have a discovery. If not – people will still feel it was worthwhile learning – but quickly move on to the next idea.
Capture the learning:
Failure is only bad if we are doomed to repeat it. Breaking our organisations out of cyclical failure is a huge challenge. Chris Bolton has asked if there’s a need for a Museum of Failed Products within public services. He’s undoubtedly right – the ‘corporate memory’ is often unreliable.
Don’t confuse this though with “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” In the Lab we are quickly filling up our Failure Shelf – but we might dust them down and give them another run out on a rainy day. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right.
And don’t be afraid of being laughed at , by colleagues , the public or competitors.
We will be laughed at as some people are willing us to fail. So embrace it.
Our job is to ceaselessly ask the question: would we do it this way if we started again?
The answer. Almost always.
“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.