Three Ways Organisations Kill Ideas (And How You Can Remove Them)

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 Many organisations , without realising it , act as inhibitors of innovation.

Rules and protocols are put in place – often for very good reasons – that preserve the status quo.  Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms – ‘the way we do things around here’ – that either promote creativity or quell it.

Our employees generate ideas every single day about how their job could be done more efficiently. These ideas – thousands over the course of a year – mostly disappear , never to be harvested.

It’s a chronic waste of knowledge that organisations must make it a priority to unlock.

However , simply unleashing ideas just isn’t enough.

The odds of a turtle hatchling reaching adulthood are said to be 1 in 1,000. But in most organisations the chance of an idea reaching maturity has significantly worse odds.

As I detailed in my last conference slot – getting your organisation innovation ready means facing off three of the biggest threats to the survival of ideas.

1: Meetings

Meetings are the number one idea killer in any organisation.

Meetings can crush ideas. They are all too often a corporate power play where ego runs rampant. People want to look like they are adding something in meetings and being hypercritical is highly valued. Putting your freshly hatched idea in that scenario is asking for trouble.

It might have been a bad idea. It might have changed the world. We’ll never know – because someone just beat the hell out of it.  

I’ve been in meetings where senior leaders have debated the pros and the cons of an idea (usually the cons) that hasn’t even reached proof of concept.

Solution: create a space where an idea can take its first few breaths without someone trampling all over it. Let it come to life in a nurturing environment where we can see if it solves the right problems.

And keep managers out. There is evidence that managers can undermine employee creativity through interference – changing goals and getting over involved when they should just steer clear.

Only present it to a meeting after a test has demonstrated it’s actually worth doing. Arm yourself with evidence and a working prototype.

2: Hierarchy

Most corporate structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table.

Think about it. Any idea that emerges closest to the customer has to work its way up through a series of managers, any one of whom is likely to veto it. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is a cognitive bias against new, innovative ideas – a “hierarchy of no”.

The higher an idea moves up the chain of command, the more likely it is to be rejected, as the people furthest from the idea’s source will have a lesser understanding of its potential value.

It’s going to be difficult for any of us to abandon our organisational structures – but there are ways you can create a “hierarchy of yes.”

Ideally you’ll have the resources to establish an Innovation Lab or Intrapreneurship programme , but in truth any of us can create a virtual space that brings together innovators.

Internal social networks are great places to crowdsource ideas without being tied to the traditional corporate system.

Bypass the middle management ground and go straight to source.

Provocative ideas and posts will help identify innovators who you can work with to bring about change. It’s important that any informal group you establish is non-hierarchical. Swarming around a problem with very disparate points of view is often where the magic happens.

If that all fails just take this advice from Helen Reynolds: adopt guerilla innovation – just don’t tell anyone what you’re doing.

3: Job Descriptions

Job Descriptions are a much underrated enemy of innovation.

They encourage people to play it safe, keep their head down and do the very minimum. They are essentially a one pager on how not to be sacked – an insurance policy against someone screwing up.

However the effects of traditional JD’s are far reaching. They discourage risk taking and imagining better ways to perform the role (such as making it unnecessary in the first place.)

Job descriptions are like organisational treacle. They cause inertia because the moment employees are given specific responsibilities they expect them to stand still. Forever.

Additionally JD’s encourage organisational silos. They demand that people only think of the service from their point of view , rather than how the entire organisation impacts on the customer.

There are a number of solutions here.

The first is to abandon job descriptions altogether and move to a system of role priorities. Too radical for the public sector? Not really. Redkite Community Housing have recently done that very thing.

Secondly you could stick with JD’s but sex them up – making it clear they are actively working against the status quo. You can read more in my top five rules for job descriptions.  Disclosure: I do have a JD (although I’ve never read it to be honest).

The most achievable way of breaking away from silo thinking is to establish a way for colleagues to pitch ideas that benefit the customer. Establishing one point in your organisation that evaluates and acts upon bright ideas from stakeholders, customers and colleagues is the simplest way to make innovation part of everyone’s job.

Our environment is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and interconnected. We can’t afford to have our organisations stifled by the protocols of a very different age.

It’s not necessary, or even possible, to completely remove these three idea killers. But knowing your enemy , and developing strategies to avoid these pitfalls, will boost your capability for innovation.

Why Great Customer Experience Requires Great Design

Note to reader: This post was written on a smartphone over 14 days sitting on a beach. It was completed at an altitude of 35,000 feet after several white wines.

I’ve chosen to publish it unedited to retain a tropical , stream of consciousness vibe. Subsequently it’s a bit more disjointed and a lot longer than my usual posts.

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Almost everyone who returns from a truly great travel experience comes back to work with the same mindset.  Zen-like calm: pondering why the world has to be so complex.

They’ll change the system this time though. They’ll go through the organisation from top to bottom removing needless bureaucracy , silo thinking and those perverse policies that punish the customer.

A week later and they’ve given up.

It’s easier to just book another holiday.

I’ve just returned from Dhidhoofinolhu in the Maldives , staying with the wonderful LUX resorts. It was a surprise break for Karen’s (special) birthday. I’d stayed at another LUX resort about five years ago and was wowed at how they had created an environment – a stage if you will- for truly special occasions.

LUX operate towards the higher end of the travel market – they aren’t cheap. It’s Apple travel. But a lot of the things they do that are special just take thought, not money.

They design well , join the dots and execute brilliantly.

So few organisations design customer experiences.  They let them happen.

Design is thinking about the exact experience you want people to have.

It’s about creating the right environment, with the right ‘back-stage’ support – and then enabling your people to facilitate an experience that will be truly valued.

It’s not the sole preserve of upper-end travel brands. Anyone can do it.

Many would deny this. Indeed many in the public sector deny the existence of customers altogether.

Customers are regarded as tenants or service users or patients or something else. The public sector is different – people don’t have the same degree of choice so the rules of customer experience don’t apply.

Bullshit.

Total bullshit.

Service is service. You can create an environment for a great customer experience in almost any scenario.

The public sector excuse of a different operating context is just convenient cover for a paucity of imagination and chronic laziness.

Here’s five things that LUX did that we could all do too:

Think of the day your customer just had and make it a bit better

You’ve been travelling for 16 hours , you’re tired and hot. You’ve almost certainly forgotten something. “Do you have your camera ready sir?” , I was asked as we prepared for a seaplane transfer. “I’d suggest you get it ready – you are really going to want to capture this.”  Normally you get on a plane to be told to put away your electronic devices but these guys did the opposite, even making sure our devices were charged. “If you don’t have any charge take your chargers out of your cases now – we’ll have about 15 minutes to get you ready.”

That’s thinking about the day you’re customers have had – and thinking how you can help get the experience off to the very best start.

And on arrival – they didn’t just land. They did a long circuitous sweep of the island – for us to get the very best pictures of the experience. Awesome.

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Get up close with customers 

Managing By Wandering Around (MBWA) – the idea that service gets better just by having managers walking the floor – is one of most hackneyed phrases in the management lexicon.

There isn’t a manager alive that wouldn’t claim to do it.

Doing it and making it truly meaningful are two different things. I was struck at LUX at how the manager , Mamoun, met every single guest arriving by seaplane or speedboat. That’s a phenomenal number of customer interactions. Not only that – he bids farewell to every customer as they leave.  Additionally we had at least two conversations with him when he was wandering the restaurants seeing how customers were being treated.

That’s not just MBWA – that’s being ever present and making yourself as close to the customer as you can be. He even left us his business card!

Don’t rip people off if you don’t have to

Virtually every hotel I’ve ever been to tries to rip you off with international calls. But this place has turned that on its head with this free phone box that you can use to call anywhere in the world.

As it says in the picture below “We don’t like to see faceless international telecommunications companies profiteering off our guests through excessive roaming fees.”  This is designing services to be deliberately different. Plus I love how they’ve hosted this internet based service in a traditional box with retro phone.

A delightful mix of old and new tech. Innovation!

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Surprise people at every opportunity

So you’re walking along a picture perfect beach and everything’s great but the one thing you really need is a cool drink. You went out walking without thinking of taking a bottle of water. But the guys at LUX have thought of this and put these juice and water stations in the trees with a couple of seats for you to take five.

Most organisations don’t think of these small things that go a long way to creating an awesome customer experience. Or they think of them but just can’t be bothered to implement them as the only person who truly benefits is – the customer!

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Also who can the resist the idea of a treasure hunt for a secret bar – that moves around the island to a different location every day? Genius!

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Design the ending to be as good as the beginning

You’ve got an outgoing customer. They are leaving you. They’ve spent their cash and you don’t really need to bother anymore.  That’s how most organisations treat the departing customer. Here they did things differently.

They noted the food we most enjoyed most throughout the holiday (admittedly I kept raving over the reef fish curry) and did a special dish on the last night even though it wasn’t on the menu.

They noted our favourite spot in the day so set up a night table for us with our feet in the water. They gave us some handmade gifts and some a couple or personalised t-shirts that probably cost a couple of pounds all in.

But it’s not the economic value of an experience that leaves an impression. It’s the emotional.

The way you left somebody feeling. The fact that they even noticed the small important things that you value.

Here they designed an experience from beginning to end and executed it flawlessly, without the technology and systems that too many of us think will transform our services.

Your next IT or business transformation programme is virtually doomed to fail. It’s likely to be focussing on your organisational aspirations rather than those of your customer. You’re making it far too complicated.

The challenge is how to design your business to be more simple and human in a complex and digital world.

For the first time in a long time this trip made me think about career change. I came away pretty envious of Mamoun and the experiences he was creating day after day.  I’m wondering if I can ever achieve truly radical change in the sector I work in.

I’m bored of reports and meetings and conferences and campaigns. I’m bored of mediocrity, barriers, and things taking years that should take weeks.

We shouldn’t even need Innovation Labs and Think Tanks and Accelerators (there weren’t any on Dhidhoofinolhu – I checked).

We should be redesigning services and making them truly astonishing.

So here’s my new mantra:

  • Let’s redesign from start to finish rather than just making our services a lighter shade of grey.
  • Let’s challenge ourselves what we’d do with unlimited resources and work back from there.
  • Let’s surprise our customers at every opportunity and set a stage for unique experiences.
  • Let’s make people talk about us rather than keep talking about ourselves.

I’ve been back five days. And I’m still hopeful.

How to Make Innovation Part of Everyone’s Job

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

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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.

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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.”

Incentivise ideas: 

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?

It’s Time for Us to Unleash the Hidden Power in Communities

“It’s so tempting for those of us who provide services….support workers, housing providers, social workers, community workers, health visitors, GPs…to see ourselves as the ones with the gifts. The ones with the solutions. The superheroes ready to fly in and save people.

 Maybe there is already a superhero living on their street”  – John Wade 

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The typical story arc of the superhero is fairly predictable.

The journey to greatness begins with a background rooted in tragedy or potentially limiting life events:

  • The sudden death of family members (For example, Batman or Spiderman).
  • Being cast out alone into an unknown world where you are markedly different from everyone else (Superman or Thor). 
  • Troubled or abusive families triggering low self-esteem or even mental illness (Wonder Woman or Bruce Banner/The Hulk).

Having got us firmly rooting for the underdog the story unfolds, telling of the discovery of a hidden power or talent , and the difficulties of coming to terms with it.

This will be followed by a challenge to those newly found skills and a struggle against a society that wants to put the budding hero back in their place. This is usually represented through the introduction of a nemesis or villain. 

And finally the story will tell of the mastery of their talents – and an acknowledgement that with power comes a responsibility to help others fulfil their own potential.

I don’t think Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were thinking about asset based community development when they created Superman in the 1930’s. However the stories they wrote and inspired always trod a familiar path: the most unlikely people developing skills that others thought them unworthy or incapable of.

The potential for people to do amazing things.

This belief in people is evident all too rarely in the public sector. Indeed – it seems we are almost hard wired to think of people as problems.

If you don’t believe me – take a look around.

Clearly too much of our time is focussed on seeing the flaws and shortcomings, zeroing in on gaps and insufficiencies in every person, relationship or situation.

This deficit based mindset has profound implications, not least economically. Our organisational cultures will become trained to perceive people as problems – which will further distance them from communities they serve.

Adopting an asset based approach would help us tackle these ‘problems’ very differently:

  • Older people have wonderful skills and wisdom that we can now tap into for longer than ever before.
  • Young people have remarkable talents and capabilities – different ones than we did at that age.
  • Social housing tenants are not a breed apart but have often had their aspirations crushed by a system that celebrates need and dependency.
  • The NHS is an institution that people would fight for – and there’s an army of community connectors available to help it operate more effectively.

Judging by the conversations I see going on – things are changing.

I see a growing movement of asset based thinking and the rise of a community of connected care.

I see the role of social technology in helping us have more open and transparent conversations with communities about local decision making.

I see a move away from where ‘professionals’ cast themselves as the superhero capable of solving society’s problems.

As John says , there could be a hero living on your street – right now. It’s time for public services to reach out and begin their journey.

“Too many possibilities currently closed off to us would open up if we’re prepared to fail at being superheroes” – Cormac Russell

Best Practice, Benchmarking and the Race to Mediocrity

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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.

Nothing changed.

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.

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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?

The End of Trust (and how organisations can rebuild it)

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

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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.

Six Ways To Kill Email

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Every week more and more organisations are waking up to the tyranny of email, and the part it is playing in the impending death of the office. We spend hours each week , up to four years of our lives, shifting low value (or no value) information from one place in our organisation to another.

Despite this, email apologists will tell you it doesn’t really need to be tamed . There really isn’t a problem: email , for all its faults, is the best thing we have right now.

I don’t believe that for a second.

ATOS chief Thierry Breton , who has banned internal email, estimated that barely 10% of the 200 messages his employees received on an average day were useful. ATOS calculated that managers spent between five and 20 hours a week reading and writing emails.

Nick Atkin of Halton Housing has announced that internal email will end from this February. He’s said it’s part of a fundamental rethink of how the organisation works, stating “We are taking back control from some of the systems and cultures we have all allowed to develop during the 20 years email has been part of our working lives.”

Email is undeniably wasteful but my problem with it runs deeper.

Email represents anti-social business. It locks down knowledge in silos. It reinforces hierarchy and disconnected thinking. It promotes an insidious system of cc’ing and , even worse , bcc’ing as a way of denying accountability. 

Despite that I do use email – it still has uses, but needs replacing as the default way we choose to do work.

Is it possible to seriously tame email without turning it off completely?

Yes. I’ve managed to reduce the time I spend on email by about 75% by adopting six rules.

The results speak for themselves – when I took nearly 3 weeks off work last September I returned to only 20 emails.

So , in the spirit of open knowledge sharing, here’s my six tips for a saner inbox:

1: Don’t send any 

This is by far the most effective thing you can do. Every email you send begs a reply – sometimes several. By pressing send you are literally making work for yourself – which is a pretty stupid thing to do. Copying people in to every email is not effective information sharing. There are loads of better tools for keeping people informed of what you’re working on (Note: they probably aren’t interested anyway.)

2: Use WhatsApp for chats

Since the formation of Bromford Lab , we’ve turned off in-team email and moved to Whatsapp. WhatsApp is great for creating groups and promoting a more social place to chat and interact without the annoyance of email threads. It eliminates team spam about cakes and whose birthday it is. And it’s loads more fun too.

3: Create a “Yesterbox”

I’m shamelessly stole this tip from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.

The idea: Only deal with yesterday’s emails today. 

The rule: If it can wait 48 hours without causing harm, then you are not allowed to respond to any emails that come in today, even if it’s a simple one-word reply. You need to psychologically train yourself to not worry about emails that are coming in….

You can read an outline of the concept at Yesterbox.com

It’s worked well for me as you have a much better sense of which to prioritise – as well as ruthlessly deleting any that aren’t worthy of attention. Which leads us to…

4: Delete any that are three days old 

This takes some bravery – but trust me it works. If you haven’t looked at something for three days it simply can’t be very important. Delete it. If anyone is bothered they will chase you up on it. 90% of the time they don’t – it was low value work that never really needed doing.

5: Restrict mail to just four sentences.

If you do get an email from me you’ll see this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 19.44.59

By cutting down the waffle and getting to the point you save time for yourself and the recipient. The link takes you to this site which explains why verbose mails are toxic. If you want to be more radical you can take it down to three lines, or if you’re really hardcore, two.

6: Unsubscribe from everything 

Make it part of your day to unsubscribe from at least five email lists. Email marketeers breed like rabbits but you can stem the flow by turning off their constant distractions.  Don’t just delete them and hope they will go away – they won’t. Also go into the notification settings of any work networks like Yammer you are part of. Turn them off – you’ll see a huge difference instantly.

I’ve seen radically different results from using these six tips, I hope you found them useful.

Please share any of yours in the comments section – if we get enough I’ll turn it into a slide deck.

How To Get Better At Failing

Failure 3

“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.

Nothing fails.

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.

No.

We need more people solving problems – not professionals.

Everyone has a story to tell, everyone has strengths beneath the conceptions that you have of them. But if you’re curious enough, you may just find that the answers you’ve always been looking for are there, often right beside you. – William Lilley

o-GLASS-WATER-HALF-FULL-facebook

Everywhere you look at the beginning of 2015 you will see a crisis.

In case you missed it there is currently a crisis in Accident and Emergency Units which is part of the wider health crisis. There’s a housing crisis as well. And a crisis in social care , unemployment , education and policing. Not forgetting the welfare crisis which is wreaking havoc on millions.

There’s crisis everywhere.

The current trend in mainstream politics , and on social media , is to talk of Britain as broken.  And then we act all surprised and outraged when people turn to parties like UKIP who hark back to a golden age that never truly existed.

People are so sick of hearing about crisis they lose faith and begin searching for someone who appears to offer a more compelling vision. Who can blame them?

Except if you scratch the service on any of those things you’ll find the crisis label to be untrue, or misleading at the very least.

What we have is an excess of demand over supply and deeply dysfunctional systems.

Most of our public services were designed pre-decimal never mind pre-digital.

We really shouldn’t be surprised they aren’t fit for purpose.

The problem lies with the people who created those systems and who work within them. Us.

Over new year I had a break at one of the Red Sea resorts seeking a bit of winter sun along with scores of pasty faced Europeans.

One of the benefits of being locked into an all-inclusive euro-mashup is you have some very random conversations with people we are told are hugely different to us , but are of course not.

The best conversation I had was with an Italian guy and one of our Egyptian hosts.

We were talking about the various crises our countries are experiencing and the role of communities.

Sal was telling us of the boom in the ‘suspended coffee’ movement in Italy.  The concept is pretty simple: You walk into a coffee shop, and instead of buying just one cup of coffee you also buy one (or more) for someone in need. Your get yours and the second coffee is “suspended”. It can be claimed or given out by the barista to people they think deserving. I always believed that the movement was a modern viral phenomenon but Sal told us it was a Neapolitan tradition that originated in World War II. The principle is that in a time of hardship, Italians can lack many things, but not coffee!

Ahmad told us about the rise of the “Town Helper” in parts of Cairo and Alexandria. Because of the huge drain of young men to work in the Red Sea resorts many of the families left behind face a significant skills gap. These guys work incredibly long hours with hardly anytime off. When they do  get a few days off – every few weeks – they return to their families for precious time with loved ones. To make sure they spend the maximum time with their families they fund , largely through tips from tourists , a number of people to do tasks whilst they are away from home. Each Helper , is shared between a number of families , to plug the gaps that have been left in communities.

I talked of the growth of Food Banks in the UK which we largely view as a sign of failure but actually speak of tremendous generosity – of communities looking after their own. I don’t pretend to give lots, I just throw a few things in the collection on every visit to the supermarket – to the extent that I’ve actually stopped thinking about it. It’s just a little pay it forward gesture that millions of us are doing without prompting. I also told them of the Bromford Deal and how we are embarking on a huge cultural shift to unlock potential in people rather than seeing ourselves as professional rescuers.

I talked of how the Deal is – at its essence – a belief that people don’t exist in a state of need and can do amazing things if we empower them and step out of the way.

Due to excess brandy the conversation veered off in all sorts of directions: but the important thing is we all agreed that some of the best initiatives don’t come from Government. None of the above did.

For many years we’ve built infrastructure and services that people neither need or want. We make interventions without outcomes. We produce reports that have no readers. 

We must ask ourselves how we became so removed from the people we were set up to serve. 

Our communities are not in crisis.

There is a massive untapped reservoir of skill and talent that we chose to ignore because we thought we could do it better as professionals.

We couldn’t.

Let’s put it right.

2015: The year we put the social back into housing 

Social-Business-Textbook

You can have super star status online without any official status offline; you can be a powerful chief executive offline with very little impact online – Victoria Betton 

Just over two years ago I pronounced rather grandly that 2012 was the year we went social. The year the UK housing sector embraced new technologies embarking on a journey of redefinition for the era of digital transformation.

Looking back at that now it seems very naive. 

In reality only a fraction of the sector is genuinely experimenting with new forms of digital engagement. 

I haven’t the time or inclination to count how many housing CEOs maintain an active social media presence . But I’m taking a considered guesstimate it’s around 15%. 

By way of example just five of the high profile G15 Group of CEOs have a presence on Twitter and only three in a way that’s meaningful. 

But it’s not just leaders , The staple roles of the sector , housing officer , maintenance engineer , support worker are – by and large – missing in action and failing to embrace golden opportunities to connect with communities. 

Board members are pretty much invisible although there are some very notable exceptions. 

Organisations that livestream or share from board meetings?  CEOs doing Facebook chats or hangouts? You could count them on one hand – even if you’d had an unfortunate accident with a meat cleaver.

 Additionally most organisations still have the dial firmly set to Promote rather than Converse.

Do a check on any housing brand account. Check how many of their last 10 posts directly link back to their own website. There’s a prize if you can name ten that don’t reference themselves 90% of the time. 

Here’s a shot of realism: UK housing is about 10-15% operational on social media. At best. 

This speaks to me of a lack of curiosity. An insularity that has haunted the sector for the entire time I’ve been part of it. It’s not a good look. 

People often talk to me about the battles fought in their organisations to get digital adopted. It’s all too often a sad story of risk averse leaders , hierarchical control and command, power mad comms teams and rabid IT and governance departments.

Of course this isn’t true everywhere: some are setting an astonishing pace. 

Power Players 14 and Connected Housing showed there are a raft of organisations and people who are sharing ideas, connecting with others and reaching beyond sector boundaries. We could have filled the Power Players list four times over last year.

There’s also a growing movement of CEO front runners – although it’s notably stronger in northern England and Wales than elsewhere. 

This lack of leadership presence is especially puzzling given housing has an obsession about getting its message heard. (The laudable if slightly self-serving “build more homes”). 

And therein lies the problem: anyone that focuses solely on getting their message heard is guilty of the most heinous of social crimes: broadcasting. 

My big wish for 2015? That organisations and a whole sector could wake up to that fact that endlessly broadcasting your “message” just isn’t going to work. 

This is a world built on relationships and connections. It involves you listening to others, generously sharing and doing more than just following everyone else in your sector. 

I hope to be writing a different post in 12 months time.

  • I hope to write of the social leaders who are openly challenging mediocre services and championing innovation and risk.
  • I hope to see organisations using social to reconnect with communities and embracing the emerging online tenant voice. 
  • I want to see organisations experimenting with new networks and technology in inventive ways. Having a Twitter account is a minimum requirement now not a badge of honour.
  • I’d love to see more recognition of the talents of individuals and communities rather than the well intentioned but paternalistic focus on rescuing people from the latest reforms. 

Most of all I want social housing to be more social.

It’s a new year and a new start – where we can put bad habits to bed. Latecomers can join the party and we’ll welcome them with open arms.

Let’s make 2015 our Zero Year. 

We can do amazing things when we’re better connected. 

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