How to create a culture of experimentation in traditional sectors and businesses.
On Thursday I was really pleased to be able to speak about our Bromford Lab approach to innovation at a networking soirée hosted in London by Made by Many and partners Curve, Albion and Abracadamy. We were invited to share our experiences of creating a culture of experimentation in a traditional sector, at the first gathering of what is hoped will become a movement of like-minded changemakers and innovators from across a range of industries. Many of the problems we face transcend organisatons and even sectors, so if we are all working on the same things, we should be sharing, learning and collaborating with each other. Makes sense, right?
It does to us and that’s exactly why I was so happy to accept our hosts' kind invitation to be the guest speaker at the event and share our experiences in such good company on Thursday evening.
To get the conversation started, our hosts provided some great tabletop provocations, and judging by the buzz and chatter around tables, they worked.
Innovation at scale
Working in house, it can sometimes feel hard to innovate the further you get drawn into the centre of the organisation. There seems to be a tension between being given just enough space to get on and try radical new things that may not have huge impact, and moving into a space where you have the potential to have a wider impact but have to compromise on the approach you take and the level of innovation involved. But that tension can be managed. Innovation at scale is possible if you strip your thinking back to what is important - helping people visualise how things could be in compelling ways which make it hard for them to talk themselves out of trying something radically different. It doesn't actually matter how you get there or what tools you borrow from which methodologies, so long as you get your mindset right.
Creating a culture
The Lab was founded because Bromford could see that there was a need to create a space for colleagues to think differently about the problems they faced. Often, colleagues were having ideas, but increasingly found that they had no way of taking them forward, or even worse, took them forward without understanding how or if they contributed to the wider organisational ecosystem. The Lab started as a physical space but these days, whilst that space is still there, we think of the Lab more in terms of a way of thinking than a place to think in. We might be the Innovation Team, but we aren’t the only people who can innovate. Creativity isn’t like a tap that can be turned on and off when you step into a space with a certain group of people. After all, how can people think outside of the box if they are locked up inside it?
We are lucky at Bromford. Our ‘cultural patina’ is made up of passionate colleagues who work hard for our customers. But as Philippa Jones our Chief Executive once said. . .
“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.”
The problem that the Lab was therefore setup to fix was that innovation was random and unfocused at Bromford. It happened at will, and there wasn’t a resource to nurture and protect new risky ideas from the day to day business. Bromford Lab was founded as a way to nurture innovation and since then we have been working across the business 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.
Creating a culture of innovation is like turning an oil tanker, not a dingy. It’s long haul. To avoid ‘innovation theatre’ we have to think less about our own egos and more about the people we are designing for, helping colleagues think more in terms of why they do things, rather than what they do or how they do it. At Bromford, creating a culture of experimentation isn’t about painting over our patina with a shiny gloss finish, It’s about exposing it. Gloss is superficial. Gloss is innovation theatre and innovation theatre is one of the biggest threats to being able to have true impact at scale.
Truly innovative organisations value good problem definition. The emphasis has to be on solving the right problems rather than focusing on building lots of shiny solutions to problems which might not exist or which we don't fully understand. For us, understanding customer need is central to understanding our problems. Despite what can sometimes seem like relentless pressure to strip out and standardise, starting from the point of designing around customer need rather than business need and achieving cost efficiency aren't mutually exclusive.
Getting serious about measuring impact
The spirit of the Lab has always been to get on and try things out, rather than talking about doing it. It's a principle we still hold dear. But over the past few years the Lab approach has evolved. Working off instincts is an important part of the design process, they can often give us a position to start from, but when we take things to scale based on instincts alone, without the evidence to back it up, all we are really doing is making judgements based on what we think we know.
When we started out designing our localities approach, we made sure that we were able to prototype, test and iterate the idea in a controlled environment and when, and only when, we were ready to pilot we were able to measure the impact and link the outcomes directly to organisation strategy.
The £3.5 million localities approach developed in the Lab means that Housing Managers are now taking on new roles as Neighbourhood Coaches, unlocking the potential of individuals, groups and communities. In contrast to many other Housing Associations who have used digital transformation as a way to increase patch sizes from around 500 to 1000+, as part of our localities approach we have actually reduced them to around 175 homes. Neighbourhood Coaches are given more autonomy over the way they work and now own Bromford’s relationship with our customers. Whilst it’s tempting to view a landlord / customer relationship as a binary transaction, what we can never forget is that we are only a small part of people's wider lives. We simply can't design services that our customers both need and will engage with, without understanding them in a wider context than simply being our tenant.
Making decisions based on what we think we know can be dangerous and costly. 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. Neighbourhood Coaches provide a great opportunity for us to pick up and act upon weak signals from our communities, and that's a pretty powerful thing for any organisation to be able to do at scale.
So, if we were to pass on 5 key pieces of advice based on what we’ve learned during our Lab journey what would they be? Well . . .
Create design thinking organisations - Build your patina, don't gloss over it (thanks Tim Malbon)
Help colleagues spot opportunities and work with them to find the best ways to exploit them. Not every improvement needs to be innovative so know where to place your flags in the ground and only spend time on the things that really matter.
Start with problems, not solutions - Focus on the human stories and create ecosystems, not silver bullets
Most organisations have a cultural bias for execution over thorough problem definition. Innovation is all about getting better at being wrong. Spending time properly understanding the problem you are trying to solve trumps implementing 10 poorly thought out solutions every time.
Link into strategy - Inform the strategy
It might feel like you're getting caught in the bureaucracy you desperately want to avoid, but the truth is solutions simply cannot scale if they don’t have a place within organisational strategy. As part of our organisational transformation work at Bromford we have a growing pipeline of work - exploration areas, tests, and design challenges that contribute directly to the strategy, but we’re also working on speculative design challenges that help us spot trends and inform future strategy. Doing both is an important part of our role as innovators.
Measure and communicate success and failure
Fast failure is good risk management. Think more in terms of prototypes and tests than jumping straight to pilots, but be ruthless by pulling the plug at any stage of the design process. Not every idea or project is destined for success, but you need good quality insight to know when to pull the plug in order to avoid spending large sums of money on nothing more than vanity projects.
What Made by Many are doing in collaboration with Curve, Albion and Abracadamy by hosting gatherings like the one I attended on Thursday evening is providing a space for like-minded people to come together to start those honest conversations, building a movement which nurtures cross-sector creativity and has the potential to lead to exciting, innovative collaborations that can achieve a real impact.
This way of thinking fits perfectly with our final piece of advice. . .
You can’t save the world on your own
More and more of the problems we are seeking to address are wicked by nature, and because wicked problems transcend organisations and sectors, no single organisation can solve a given problem on their own. The solution lies in creating effective networks that work together to transcend silos. Organisations need to get better at celebrating their failures, turning them into opportunities to learn, share and ultimately provide products and services which really work for people.
True innovation is disruptive and disruption is hard. Scaling innovation involves tenacity and resilience. Together we are stronger.