I recently presented at the National Housing Federation conference alongside Carole Clark our Head of Insight. The aim of the session was to highlight how organisations can use evidence-based research to transform service offers, develop innovative ways of working in an increasingly challenging climate and how insight is helping to build stronger relationships. We shared the session with Matt Brazzier and Marie-Claire Delbrouque from Flagship Group, and a Q&A was chaired by Carolyn Brown, Chief Technology Officer at the National Housing Federation. Here is a link to slide deck Carole and I used during our session - What is the point of insight & innovation?
The Innovation Lab was founded back in 2014 as a place to nurture innovation at Bromford. Since then we have been working across teams to help colleagues capture, frame and realise their ideas, with no pressure to force bad ideas to work. In fact, failing and failing fast was one of our founding principles. Bromford Lab is about insight and innovation working together, and for us, innovation is the creation of new products and services, that deliver value to customers, in a manner that is supported by a sustainable business model. We’re passionate about innovation, but as our chief executive, Philippa Jones reflected in her recent article for Inside Housing - “It’s fair to say that [as an organisation] our focus on doing the right things for our customers has sometimes meant we followed our hearts rather than our heads – designing services around gut feelings, instincts and myths, rather than data, analytics and research.”
I’m sure that is true of many organisations with a social purpose. French physiologist, Claude Bernard said - “It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning”. When you think about it, that’s often quite true. Instincts are an important part of the design process, they can often give us a position to start from, but when we make judgments based on instincts alone, without the evidence to back them up, all we are really doing is making judgments based on what we think we know.
We are in the process of moving to a localities approach at Bromford. Our Housing Managers are taking on new roles as Neighbourhood Coaches, and we’re reducing the size of their patches from around 500 homes to around 175 homes. We recognise the benefits that getting to know our customers better can bring. We also know that we can't design services that our customers both need and will engage with, without understanding more about their lives and without involving them in the design process. Making decisions based on what we think we know can be dangerous and costly. I see a large part of my job as Lab Designer being understanding people. If we understand people’s needs and wants we can make decisions based on insight, both quantitative and qualitative. That’s important because if we just think we know, all we are doing is making stuff up. The Lab is actually, therefore, the antithesis of an ivory tower; what we are doing is moving Bromford to a position where everything we do is based is based on some form of evidence and customer insight.
Clanmil Housing in Northern Ireland (#RealClanmilLives) and Soha Housing in Oxfordshire (#RealPeopleTrueStories) have produced some great videos which show that customers are more than just a homogeneous group and they paint a vivid picture of their customers as individuals. The TV2 advert on Danish TV is also a great example of how what we think we know can often lead us to make the wrong decisions about people.
To design sustainable services we need to understand:
- What happens when customers use our services
- How customers feel when they use our services
- How the service works from a customer perspective
- How the service works from a business perspective
We use Design Thinking to bring together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable. This means that our decisions can be made based on what customers really need and want, and how our tests and pilots have performed, rather than relying solely on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct alone.
However, it's important to remember that insight and evidence should support our work, not be a blocker to starting it. We place a different emphasis upon insight and evidence at different parts in the design process. We might start our discovery based on an ‘informed hunch’ and test our assumptions on a handful of customers. At the beginning of the design process, we might get enough insight from an afternoon of door knocking to provide us with the evidence we need to either continue our research down a particular route or shelve the idea altogether. What is important is that we test our assumptions. During early stage discovery, we look for evidence to support or disprove our hunches. Trying to get this from statistically viable research would mean that nothing ever got started. At the early stage of a project, we are simply looking for enough evidence to inform a decision. As testing progresses the robustness of this evidence needs to get stronger with each iteration.
In the delivering culture change session at the NHF conference, Michael West, Senior Fellow at The King's Fund, talked about the importance of safe spaces for colleagues to develop and test ideas. At Bromford our Innovation Lab provides us with a safe environment to experiment. We try things out on a small scale, take controlled risks – low numbers, low budget. We prototype, test and accept failure as part of progress, re-inventing our own methods and approaches as we go along.
Benjamin Franklin said - “I haven’t failed. I’ve had 10,000 ideas that didn’t work”; what a great way of looking at getting things wrong. We don’t think of failure as a taboo word or as a bad thing. The only real failure would be for us not to learn from the things that have gone wrong. In many ways, if you never fail, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. To quote another great American innovator; Thomas Edison said - “of the 200 light bulbs that didn’t work, every failure told me something that I could incorporate into the next attempt”. There is, therefore, a certain tenacity required to make innovation happen.
Part of our DNA at Bromford is to #BeBrave. We aren’t afraid to ask the question WHY? Actually, experience tells us that if we keep asking why, we tend to get to a root cause that can often put a whole different slant on what we think we need to do. Our Lab projects are scoped out so that we know exactly what we are working towards and the parameters we will work within. At the start of a project we are often working from instinct more than insight, so we undertake a piece of discovery work to understand more about what we think the problem is. This takes the form of both quantitative (working with insight colleagues) and qualitative (working with customers). This is important because real life isn't like field of dreams; design without insight leads to designing the wrong things and if you just build it people probably won’t come.
It’s only after our discovery phase that we can say that we truly understand the problem. Sometimes what we thought was the problem actually turns out not to be. We refocus and revisit the scope if necessary to say - actually we need to be looking at this. We then use our insight to test some ideas on a small scale before deciding if this is something we need to pilot. For us a test is small, dynamic, fast, cheap and provides evidence of feasibility. If we move to a pilot, they are longer, static, come with a larger budget and provide evidence of outcomes. The whole process could take a few days, a few weeks or a couple of months. It all depends on the project at hand.
One of the most important functions of the lab is to challenge whether we are working on the right problem. We are spending a lot of time at the moment thinking about how we can make our problem definition tighter and we know that data and intelligence can surely play a big role here.
This all sounds great, but how do we know we are having an impact? When we are testing and piloting we need to be able to measure how well we are doing. Measuring impact is tricky if you don't have a time machine, especially for non-transactional services. GDS are trying to address this issue and have written an interesting blog on the subject called - Non-transactional services: measuring the unmeasurable. We work really closely with the Insight Team to help us measure our impact, which is just one of the many ways that insight and innovation work together at Bromford.
For Bromford the benefits of having a specific Insight and Innovation Team is in the unbiased viewpoint we bring to the projects that we are involved in. We don't have a vested interest in any particular solution and we maintain an independence from the operations teams we work alongside. All this means that we can help ensure that investment is based on evidence, listening to our heads, not just our hearts. Over the past few years, we have learned a few things about setting up our dedicated space for insight and innovation. Carole shared her top 5 tips with the delegates:
Invest in Insight - Insight isn’t a luxury that can be cut, it’s an integral part of the business. Bromford reinvests around 1% of its profits in insight and innovation and this investment enables us to accurately assess whether every pound invested in frontline services delivers the desired outcome.
Give it a go - Trying to get the approach to insight perfect before you roll it out could mean you never get started. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and give it a go – it will move it in the right direction once you take the first steps.
Build on skills - HACTs standards of evidence in housing provides a great toolkit for those starting out on the insight journey, but don’t think you need to start big. Do what you can with the skills you have now and then build on skills as you go.
Get buy-in from leadership - Build trust with senior leadership so that they see the vital role insight pay in ensuring research and evidence is robust. Getting your insight team involved in projects from the start saves time and resources in the long run and ensures that your evaluation is as robust as it can be.
Have patience - Robust research is time-consuming and this means that there are often questions around its value. We established the Insight Team at Bromford around 3 years ago and in the first year, there was lots of debate about whether it was actually worth it. It was only a year later that we could demonstrate the value of the information and data we provide to the business – that’s when the team’s true worth was understood and rated.
People are individuals and organisations are individual. One size doesn't fit all. What is the right approach for one organisation might not be right for another. As we move to a localities model at Bromford, we will move away from traditional housing management conversations. As we move further from transacting with our customers and more towards building relationships with them, more of the problems we will work with them to address won't be solvable by working in silos. In the public and social sector, we’re all working on same things. We need to work together as partners and stakeholders alongside our customers in order to find the solutions together.
For me the future, both with our customers and within our sector is all about developing effective relationships, partnerships and networks for social change.