We Need Less Talk of Innovation and More Evidence of Impact


In my last post I looked at why change fails and how most corporate programmes are destined for failure. Year on year, huge resources are invested in them. Yet we somehow hope for a different outcome. 

The biggest reason change fails is employee resistance. Indeed – it’s the downfall of nearly 40% of programmes.

However, this isn’t employees trying to block change – rather they never thought it necessary in the first place. It’s a solution to a problem that they don’t recognise.

One of the big lessons I’ve learned from working in innovation is pretty much everyone thinks their idea needs attention. In reality almost always there’s a need for a more detailed problem definition before we run off changing things.

Lack of clarity about the problem we are trying to fix can lead to the Unholy Trinity:

  • Corporate Initiative-itis: The condition of equating innovation with being busy – whilst forgetting about scrutiny and evaluation.
  • Vanity Projects: Things that only got pushed through because of seniority, overly generous funding or organisational arrogance.
  • Walking Dead: Projects that look good on paper but don’t actually solve anyone’s problem – whilst costing a lot of (usually someone else’s) money.

All three are the result of ill defined objectives or poor impact evaluation.

To learn more we need to look at how successful change adoption really happens.

What the invention of the tea bag teaches us about change

The tea bag was originally intended as a non-consumer item. It was a way to provide restaurants with small samples of leaves before they placed orders. Tea leaves were packed and sown into small silk bags with instructions to slit open the bag with a knife, pour the leaves out, and put them into a sieve and brew.

But instead of opening the bags, potential customers found that it was faster to just throw the bag into a cup and pour boiling water directly over it.

This unintended innovation solved three problems:

  • No more messy leaves going all over the place.
  • The elimination of a complex brewing process.
  • A form of easy disposal – just throw the bag in the bin.

The fact it solved multiple problems made it relatively easy to market teabags. Customers recommended to other customers as it made their lives easier. The change went viral.  

But most corporate initiatives aren’t tea bags. They often don’t solve ANY problem, never mind three at once. And rarely is the change introduced anywhere other than from the top. 

Change for change’s sake doesn’t always result in progress.

Start with the problem

A good starting point is this:Change.001

Just being new isn’t good enough anymore.

We don’t have the luxury of unlimited resources. Public trust in innovation is no longer implicit.  We know from the Edelman Trust Barometer that innovation on its own is not perceived as an inherent demonstration of forward progress, despite the near reverence for the term.

51% of people think the pace of change is too great , with many ‘innovations’ appearing untested and unproven.

All across the social sector we are in for a tough decade. With the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills facing cuts between 25 to 40%, the good times are well and truly over for innovation types.

Show Me The Data

It’s time innovation and change demonstrates impactImpact is the less sexy , geekier twin of Innovation – but they need each other to survive.

Today – it’s the execution and impact of innovation and change that really matters. Not the relentless cheerleading.

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 20.35.30

It’s a micro sample admittedly. But a quick Twitter poll shows over 80% of people feel there’s room for improvement in how we evidence impact.

Storytelling is great , but now is the time for evidence.

Every change programme. Every organisation, lab, hub, funder and think tank must show:

  • How we solve problems for people.
  • How we realise savings.
  • How we make the world a better place.

We have a unique opportunity to demonstrate a new model of achieving change. We just need to prove it.

[Footnote: We’ve got a long way to go at Bromford – but here’s our latest social value report. Current tests and pilots are listed on the Bromford Lab Trello Board where evaluations will appear in due course. Please note we are currently updating the site so if information is hard to find – let me know.) 

Why Change Fails: Four Ways To Hack Your Culture

Org Structure

All over the the world our organisations are experiencing profound change. The most common way to react to that is the corporate change programme.

Every year businesses will embark on a series of reports , meetings, visioning sessions , training events and communication strategies. In almost every case the goal will be the same: to make fundamental changes to how business is conducted in order to cope with a new, more challenging market environment.

70% of these programmes will fail. And it will largely be down to your culture.

Blog 2.001

Generally organisations don’t change. They don’t like it and don’t see why they should.

They adopt a culture – a unique blend of practices , beliefs and customs – that takes a long time to form and an age to break down.

Think how hard is to is to make a significant change to your personal life: quitting smoking , losing weight , ending a relationship. Multiply that difficulty by the number of employees you have and the hundreds and thousands of inter-relationships.

Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, most of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any irritant antibodies. Add something new and it’s likely to get rejected.

The challenge then is not to embark upon another change programme , but to disrupt your culture. To deliberately set out to mutate your organisational DNA.

But this isn’t easy and will be resisted. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new introductions – a “hierarchy of no”.

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.”

Here are four ways to begin hacking your culture and challenging the status quo:

1 – Hack your Hierarchy

Blog 5.001

As Tony Hsieh has said – one of the biggest organisational barriers to change can be managers themselves. Hierarchies simply aren’t built to accommodate change. If change is going to happen, it often has to be project managed a year in advance!

We don’t necessarily need to go the ‘No Manager’ extremes that Zappos are doing, but we do need a more democratic work environment. One where employees’ input is sought into areas once reserved for a select few. Social networks are wonderful opportunities to do this but, even in 2015, are still underused.

It’s more than seeking inputs, though. If we are serious about hacking hierarchy it means employees co-creating solutions with managers, not just feeding into meetings.

2 – Innovate from the edges

One of the mistakes change programmes often make is starting with managers. It’s almost impossible to innovate from the centre of the business. It’s easier to start at the outer edge and work your way in towards decision makers.

At Bromford Lab we’ve had to distinguish between wicked problems which might require widespread organisational change – and the smaller changes and innovations we can introduce from the edges of the organisation.

It’s why Jeff DeGraff argues for the creation of a “20/80 rule” to innovation: “It’s easier to change 20 percent of your organization 80 percent than it is to change 80 percent of your firm 20 percent,” he notes. Work your innovations from the outside in.

3 – Create an innovation dispersal system 

Keeping innovation locked up into a Lab or Hub type arrangement will only get you so far. You are going to need to infect emergent leaders if you want to bring about widespread change.

Leadership development programmes are a great way to make creativity part of everyone’s role. However they can often instill too much adherence to past organisational behaviour rather than a more disruptive future model.

As part of our own Lab work we helped formulate ‘squads’ as a way of cultivating problems and getting things to test quickly. This is also a way of seeding innovation throughout the organisation and beginning wider cultural transformation.

4 – Make everyone a disruptor 

Philippa Jones has recently called for people to use common sense rather than policies. For Bromford colleagues to bin the rulebook and think on their feet. For leaders to praise those who bend rules as long as it gets the right results for customers.

The organisation of the future will be one that differentiates their customer experience from the competition. Those who rip the rulebook apart, rather than slavishly follow the herd,  will be rewarded.

Giving people permission to create new rules is the quickest way to eliminate fear , the biggest enemy of innovation

These are all big, bold ways to hack your culture – but there are lots of mini-hacks you can do that will make a huge difference. Most colleagues are annoyed with a limited number of things which breed mediocrity.

The endless emails, the one to ones and appraisals, the meetings, the reports they have to write and the reports they have to read.

Most of us have the power to change these things. The power to test ideas and run experiments on doing these differently.

Our track record of introducing incremental change programmes is abysmal. And yet we now need to rewire our organisations for disruption. For sustaining as much rapid change as possible without falling apart.

The challenge is to develop a DNA that embraces those new and foreign ideas and quickly assimilates them.

  • A culture where change is led by everyone – not initiated by leaders and consultants.
  • Where everyone is actively questioning the status quo.
  • A culture that constantly asks: “How can we do this better?” or “What would we do if we started again?”.

If we all get to that, we’ll never need change programmes again.

[ Lead image rights: Integration Training

Nine Things On Customer Experience And Innovation From Indonesia


I have a thing for travel.

For me it’s as much about productivity as pleasure. I operate best in the four weeks before I go on leave and the four weeks on returning. In an ideal world I’d have a break every 10 weeks or so – but we don’t yet live in the world of unlimited annual leave offered by the likes of Netflix.

Travel places me in a more creative state. New sounds, smells, language, tastes, sensations, and sights spark different synapses in the brain.

There’s some science in it too: people have studied the phenomenon of why great ideas occur while in the shower or while engaged in some other relaxing or enjoyable activity.

Studies have shown that when increased dopamine levels (the “feel good” transmitter released during pleasurable activities) combine with distraction our brains are in the best position to come up with inventive ideas.

I’ve just returned from Lombok in Indonesia and thought I’d capture some of the things that made me think differently.

Board a Plane with your Watch:


This trip was the first ever in which I was entirely paperless – despite the fact I had six flights and six hotels to negotiate. Everything was stored in Apple Passbook or in Tripit , an app that organises an itinerary for you.

Emirates are absolutely rocking their online customer experience at the moment. On this trip they did two things that really made my life easier.

Firstly – my boarding pass was sent directly to my watch – how cool is that?

Secondly – they used bluetooth to automatically alert me when flights were boarding. No more craning your neck to look at 34 gates on a departure screen.

And although the in-flight wifi wasn’t free – it was good quality and affordable at just 66 pence.



So you’re stuck in transit at an airport for 8 hours. Too much time to spend shopping – but not enough to justify a hotel.

The solution?

SnoozeCube – a bookable by the hour bed for one or two people. It’s no frills – with just enough room to squeeze in your hand luggage. What about SnoozeCube in the office for that quick energiser nap?

School Kid Entrepreneurs:


It took about two minutes of us having a drink in the shacks of Kuta, Lombok before our pasty white skin sent the local kid sellers into overdrive.

What I love about these guys is the way they use commercial thinking and excellent mastery of english to compete with each other to drive the best deal.

One of the older boys (9 or 10 I reckon) followed me to a local restaurant and told me about the YouTube business he started advertising his other goods.

Excellent english + street smarts + technology is a powerful combination. Southeast Asia is “Mobile-First” —  and this could be the breeding ground of future business models.

Karaoke Taxi Drivers:


I was intrigued during the first couple of rides I had in Lombok at the musical tastes of the cab drivers. There seemed to be a predilection for MOR soft rock – The Eagles, Eric Clapton, Cranberries etc.

To me this seemed out of kilter with their age range (late 20s-  early 30’s). It wasn’t until a driver asked us if we minded him putting his “learning music” on that it clicked into place.

They were using karaoke CDs – that displayed the lyrics on screen – to learn better english.

This generation had slightly missed the internet , which came later to Asia , so were having to catch up on english lessons whilst they worked. Brilliant!

Open Living Spaces:


If you don’t have the same problems in a community you can design very different homes.  On the idyllic island of Gili Meno I stayed in a place with a completely open living room and bathroom.

No windows, doors or locks downstairs. Only the bedroom was defensible. Anybody could walk in , take the flat screen away , empty your mini bar or steal your toiletries.

This was jarring at first and challenged western expectations – I even heard some people complain.

But you don’t need to design out crime when crime doesn’t exist.

With a local population of just 400, zero crime and no police force – you can think very differently about space.

Tourism will , inevitably, bring crime to Gili Meno – but it’s not happened yet.

Wifi in the Middle of Nowhere:


The first place I stayed was down an unlit dirt track – off a road that didn’t even exist two years ago. It was full of dogs , chickens and in complete darkness at night.

But it had fibre optic broadband delivering 30meg consistently. Unlike in the UK – if people want to make it happen , they seem to make it happen.

We’d have just done a report about it.

House Building Combined with Community Building:


House building seemed to be going on everywhere. Not big developer led sites – this was local housing by local people for local people.

I was told it was common for skills to be shared in the community to identify the people best able to help others build new homes for their family – or improve shared spaces.

Repairs were carried out by a member of the family being trained up to a sufficient standard by an elder.

I’m not necessarily endorsing this – but it seems a world away from the paternalistic model delivered by the social housing sector.

How Clear is your Pee?

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 06.45.49

This is a great health nudge. Ladies , you’ll have to forgive me for this.

You’re standing at a public urinal doing a pee. Men will not, under any circumstances, make eye contact with each other in this scenario. You’ve only one place to look: straight ahead at the space usually reserved for gambling advertisements.

But at Bali airport they’ve gone with this nudge – which leaves you with no option other than to check the colour of your pee. Being a social sort of guy I tweeted mine was a four and quickly bought a bottle of water.

(Please note I’d zipped up and washed my hands when I took the photo. Got a few funny looks though.)

Pop-Up Everything:


I’ve featured this kind of thing before – but I love the pop-up nature of life in parts of Asia.

Need a book? Here’s a pop up library.

Need a beer on the beach? I’ll bring my crate to you and a stool for you to sit on.

Got some fruit to sell? Here’s a roadside cabin for you to use as premises until you’ve sold it.

Some of this – but not all – is symptomatic of cultures without developed welfare systems – where community has to support community and constantly think of new ways to create value. It brings a wonderful vibrancy that I think many of our high streets have lost.

  • Unencumbered by bureaucracy.
  • Emboldened by technology.
  • Routed in strongly resilient communities.
  • A growing and highly motivated workforce.

South East Asia is rising – and could be on the way to disrupt us. It’s not just the likes of Uber we should watching..

Blog 6

How Connected Citizens Are Mobilising Social Movements

This post is long overdue and has been sitting in my “must edit” file for a couple of months. The prompt to finish it has come from events in the past few days where online campaigns and watershed moments in the media (traditional and social) have again found our politicians wanting. 


In June I was on holiday in Greece, my first time back there in about seven years. The country was on the edge of a precipice – calling a referendum on the bailout deal proposed by its creditors, and recommending its rejection.

You wouldn’t know it of course – unless you read the news. Yes – tourism was down slightly as people panicked at the idea of cashpoints running dry (they didn’t) – but the locals were as hospitable and hardworking as ever.

In a tiny harbour in the picturesque town of Molyvos there was a new concern  – a steady trickle (not yet a swarm, horde or influx) – of Syrian and Afghan refugees arriving on shore in rubber dinghies or being rescued by the coastguard as they sank.


Contrary to the images that I’d seen in the mainstream media – there was no begging, no ‘harassment’ of tourists, no sitting around in doorways looking forlorn. They were simply looking for a bit of respite before the next leg of their journey.

I never photographed them – as it felt too intrusive. I now regret that as the past few days has shown the power of imagery to change public opinion.

Most mornings I said “Hi” as I walked around the harbour snapping stuff. It was my phone that initiated most conversations as most of them hadn’t seen an iPhone 6 Plus before. Some of the young people had rigged a temporary charging station for phones onto the side of a street lamp which , though probably illegal, I found pretty cool. I gave them a couple of safer power adaptors for their onward journey!

Smartphones are a lifeline for the refugee. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has given out 33,000 SIM cards to Syrian refugees and 85,000 solar lanterns for charging.

Far from being a luxury these keep friends and family back home up to date. WhatsApp is used to allow easy and instant communication. GPS helps people cross dangerous territory. Facebook groups help facilitate border crossings and keeps people in touch through a vital information exchange. And never has the power of citizen journalism been more powerful than as demonstrated by people such as Maziad Aloush, a former school teacher fleeing the Syrian war, who led his band of refugees through five countries using his Instagram to document the journey.

In Molyvos – as the EU abjectly failed to deal with situation, social media was being used on the other side – by the local Greek community to provide emergency assistance. A Facebook group and crowdfunder was in place to help facilitate support.

One resident had turned a bit of land behind her restaurant into a temporary campsite. Every day her kitchen team at The Captain’s Table went to work preparing food for the refugees, using supplies donated by tourists and locals.

In our civic life we are beginning to see a new kind of bottom up social movement. Connected citizens are using digital media to mobilise people into action in a way Government and authority simply cannot fathom.

It seems future solutions are less likely to come from national policies and more from communities finding their own way to solve issues through local innovation.

The devolution of public spending to the third sectors and private sectors seems inevitable, and it’s vital we enable community connectors and influencers to ultimately decide what that this looks like.

Examples like these local Facebook crowdfunders are in themselves grassroots alternatives to welfare – and we’ll see more emerging. The rise of food banks arguably demonstrates this trend towards self-organisation. 

At the moment these local social entrepreneurs are largely disconnected from the political establishment – which is fuelling the disillusionment with mainstream politics. (By the way if you’ve never done it , try explaining to a 15 year old why you can’t vote by SMS and why you can’t switch that vote at will if they don’t keep their promises.)

On our last night in Molyvos there was a huge thunderstorm. The owner of The Captain’s Table did something very special. She asked us if we minded moving our table and bunching together so that the refugees could seek shelter with us.


The one photo I did take: refugees shelter from storm at The Captain’s Table

The locals sang them Greek songs of good fortune and they reciprocated with a song of their own. As the (crowdfunded) bus arrived to take them to the capital and their ownward journey to Athens and beyond, they drew a round of applause to wish them luck.

I don’t know where their journey ended or even if it has.

But I hope they and others like them continue to share their stories , connect with like-minded communities, and help us build a very different type of democracy.

Our Next Innovation Challenge: Stop Talking To Ourselves

“Wicked problems”—ranging from malaria to dwindling water supplies—are being reframed as “wicked opportunities” and tackled by networks of non-governmental organisations, social entrepreneurs, governments, and big businesses.

The challenge is connecting the players and closing the gaps.

William Eggars Global Public Sector Research Director at Deloitte, speaking at Lab Works 2015

I had one huge takeaway from Lab Works – an annual event that brings together the growing international network of innovation labs, units, offices and teams working inside and alongside Government on society’s biggest challenges.

It’s this:

So many of us , right around the world , are working on solving exactly the same problems.

From Singapore to Malaysia to Denmark to Mexico to India to the UK- we are all working on the same things.

That’s huge amounts of global talent seeking to address climate change, income and health inequality, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, ageing, digital exclusion and loneliness. All uncoordinated and fragmented.

In Great Britain – the third most populous island in the world after Java and Honshu – it fragments even further. Health, Housing, Social Care, Education and the rest go about their business largely in isolation. They congregate on an annual basis at conferences (separately), they lobby politicians (separately), they communicate their ‘message’ (separately). Even on borderless platforms like Twitter they self-organise using their own hashtags.

Undoubtedly digital can connect us in ways never before possible – yet whole sectors are still just talking to themselves.

So – who is doing the joining up? Who’s making it their job to prevent duplication on a massive scale – to co-ordinate the research, the tests, the pilots and the learning from failure?

William Eggars made the answer to this very clear:

No-one. No-one is doing this.

So who’s job is it?

And it could be yours?

I reckon this sector silo thinking, this lack of knowledge sharing at national and international level,  is one of the most wicked problems we face. So how can we reframe it as a wicked opportunity?

Let’s take this right down to a practical, organisational level. Here’s four suggestions for how we could at least get started:

Identify the problem

First of all we need to identify our wicked problems. A lot of organisational strategies actually aren’t focused on wicked problems. They are often solutionist (e.g we’ll achieve this by 2020 or we’ll implement these things in the next three years). Wicked problems are different, they can be difficult to get to grips with. Often they won’t have a stopping rule,  the search for solutions never stops. Ageing is a good example, you’ll never “solve” it. It requires a different way of looking at it.

Reframe them as opportunities

Seeing them as opportunities automatically shifts your mindset into a far more expansive and creative state. An organisation that sees problems as opportunities will develop a much more positive relationship with our world of volatile change. We need colleagues as innovators and entrepreneurs rather than adopting deficit based behaviours. A good example is the UK social housing sector – which generally adopts an attitude of “no-one likes us, no-one will fund us”. Rather than being a problem that’s a wonderful opportunity. No-one in that sector has a brand value of an Apple or Amazon. Any one of 1500 players could step forward to claim it. 

Engage your people 

Once we’ve identified our opportunities – let’s open up our organisations and work out loud.  Silos emerged out of efforts to make our organisations more efficient. In 20th Century command and control management it made sense to operate an industrial mentality of division by function and department. But wicked problems are , by their nature, extremely complex . We need to embrace this complexity and form people around them with range of skills. Your organisational structure chart won’t help you here. We need a much more fluid and collaborative model that allows people (employees and citizens) to swarm around the opportunities they are most engaged with.

Embrace the network

People are working on the same things as us across the globe. We won’t solve things on our own. We are desperately inward looking. Our sectors , our organisations , even our teams. There will always be more talented people outside your organisation than within it – so lets seek them out. Collaboration is a central theme to innovation because of speed , connections , energy and the ability to fast track implementation.  Most of us have hundreds , thousands or tens of thousands of connections. Worldwide. Let’s put them to work.

Turning this problem into an opportunity won’t be easy. We face a hugely competitive funding environment and an incredibly crowded social space. Everyone is fighting for attention.

Removing the huge duplication might mean we don’t all need our own website, back office teams, or even chief executive. We might not all need to exist – someone might be better placed than you or I to grasp the opportunity.

But if we are serious about attacking real problems there’s no room for vested interests. To address wicked problems our organisations must be reshaped in the shadow of the network. The wicked opportunities lie at the heart of it.

We need to encourage organisations to seek risk – and forgive failure

“I’ve focused on the idea of failure being the engine for innovation. Not being afraid of failure but seeing it as a learning opportunity, and the value of getting out into the world and testing things earlier rather than later.” – Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots, Google X

Risk management flow chart on a blackboard

Risk is still a toxic word across much of the public sector.

It’s often still seen as something to avoid at all costs rather than embrace. In less complicated times it was the right thing to do – sweep through organisations and make sure everyone knew the dangers.

Everyone risk assessed each other and every activity. We told people to follow the rules whatever the situation. Customer experience , if such a thing even existed, was standardised rather than personalised.

But we don’t live in those times anymore. We live in momentous times.  Across the public and social sectors problems aren’t slowing down – they’re picking up.

Taking considered risks has to become part of our everyday roles. And with risk inevitably comes failure.

Innovation only thrives in a forgiving organisation. And if failure is the engine for innovation , our challenge is to make our organisations more forgiving.

When I initially pitched Bromford Lab the number one objective was to create an environment where failure was not just accepted , but encouraged. 75% of the things we worked on would fail.

This was not to create a culture that celebrated failure. It was to create a place where people felt it was safe to fail. They wouldn’t get punished for messing up.

It was to detoxify risk.

To promote learning from failure.

To make our organisations more forgiving we need cultures that promote well managed risk and bravery. So what are the things that are preventing more forgiving cultures?

Risk as an inhibitor of innovation

Traditionally we have not being good at focussing risk management on the right areas. Significant amounts of time are spent auditing areas that are highly unlikely to ever cause major reputational damage. This can be a huge inhibitor of potential innovation. Most policies don’t prevent your company’s downfall – they just stop colleagues from doing the right thing for the customer. This graphic from a recent HBR study shows auditors are simply looking in the wrong places.


Policies don’t bring organisations down. Toxic cultures do.

But cultures are rarely audited. It’s easier to tick boxes.

How does your organisation actively seek out risk? Only 20% of strategy officers describe their organisation as risk seeking. We need to transform risk management from being about “stopping doing things” to being about “starting doing different things” within a well managed framework.

Making things ‘work’ that just don’t

Hardly anything ‘fails’ in the social sector.  We are largely taxpayer funded – to admit wasting resources would be foolish, surely?

Plus people genuinely care and want to help the less fortunate. That’s a great thing. But these can also be the undoing of many projects and pilots. We want things to work so badly our emotions get in the way. We often fail to scrutinise well intentioned initiatives and don’t equip colleagues with the nuclear option when it looks like things are going wrong.

At Bromford , we are trying to instill a culture of honesty and openness. If you think our latest initiative is crap and you wouldn’t spend your own money on it – it’s pretty likely the customer will think the same.

Not all ideas are created equal – some things are just not meant to be. Let’s stop doing them and use our resources to make greater impact elsewhere.

Lack of transparency killing trust

In the social era many of our organisations are in the difficult transition of becoming human again. We still get locked into broadcasting rather than meaningful conversations in public. That means starting owning up to mistakes and admitting we sometimes fail to learn from them. We are human. We mess up more often than we care to admit because we fear the consequences. 

So with this new transparency has to come forgiveness from the customer. If organisations are to admit failure there has to be a maturing of public debate. Social media has brought us many wonderful things but it has also introduced public shaming by the mob, trolling , and a serious lack of empathy. Think before you publicly criticise someone’s failed initiative. When you do it you create a little more fear in organisations. And somewhere a bit of innovation dies.

Despite this, organisations must push themselves ever further towards transparency. What have you funded that hasn’t worked? In the new transparency you may as well wash your dirty linen in public – it’ll save a freedom of information request in the future.

  • We need to establish a new relationship with the public where humility and failure is seen as a positive attribute rather than a weakness. 
  • We need to demonstrate that we are getting better at learning from failure, not repeating it.
  • We don’t need to celebrate failure – but we do need to become more comfortable with it. It’s normal. 

To successfully tackle the huge problems we face we need to experiment more. Many of those experiments just won’t work.

If we want to see radical improvement in our services we’ll need to be forgiven by our organisations.

And we’ll need to be more forgiving of each other too. 

12 Months of Failure: Lessons Learned in Year One of Bromford Lab


Guest post by Tom Hartland

One year ago the Bromford Lab was established as a way of accelerating new ideas, driving innovation in the business and building our external networks.

‘Failing fast’ was a founding principle, any idea was a good idea and our 12 week window to complete work was the target to aim for.

It’s good to see that we’ve failed to realise each of these ideals at least once – failing slow, watching good ideas turn bad and blowing our 12 week window to pieces… technically I’m still involved in a concept that went live in October!

These failings have helped us build, test and rebuild the processes that guide us, but only because we’re willing to learn from them. What we’re left with is a better way to frame potential concepts, a robust and flexible process to test new ideas and a separate, more defined pipeline for service pilots.

We’ve helped formulate ‘squads’ as a way of cultivating problems/opportunities from themed areas and getting things to test quickly – particularly the tests that require significant resourcing (i.e. a designated colleague). This is also a way of seeding innovation throughout the organisation and beginning wider cultural transformation.

We use the word ‘test’ more and more nowadays because we’re constructing them as safe environments to fail – typically time-limited, minimal resource and therefore low risk. The impetus is on testing more and piloting less, and where pilots are launched they’re supported by a raft of pre-testing to prove their value.

We’ve recognised that we need to be more ruthless – killing potential zombie projects and burying bad ideas in the innovation graveyard.

Working out loud, sharing everything we do on our website and trello board, we’ve become one of the most transparent teams in Bromford. In the same breath we’ve been reasonably useless at publishing updates on our internal network, yammer, something we’re going to get much better at in the coming year.

It’s hoped that by sharing our progress we can keep building our external networks – cross-pollenating ideas and sharing learning from similar concepts. We’re also working on an offer for potential partners to share our innovation-addled brains, toolkits and processes, negating much of the difficulty establishing a lab from scratch.

For now, have leisurely flick through our slide deck and enjoy our imaginary Bromford Lab birthday cake.

Here’s to year two!


Five Questions for Prospective Digital Leaders

Engaged leadership in the digital era means not chasing the latest apps and gadgets. Being an engaged leader in the digital era means knowing what your goals are and what tools to use to achieve them. It also means being brave and bold enough to step into the fray: listen to followers, share yourself with them, and engage them directly in new and amazing ways. – Charlene Li 


It’s highly unlikely an app is going to save your business. The huge problems across the social sector will not be solved by technology alone.

In our headlong rush to tech for solutions we risk ignoring the root of our problems.

People. Poor service design. Leadership.

Certainly if I look at the work of Bromford Lab over the past year I’d say 90% of the time has been spent exploring non-technology solutions. This would surprise many people who think we spend our time playing with 3D printers and drones. Why is this?

People are fascinated with technology and the possibilities it presents to transform their lives. And they are looking for salvation. The majority of our working lives are fairly humdrum – boring even. Most of us have not escaped the tedium of commuting , of meetings , of email. We dream of a day that technology will come along and make our lives better.

However, technology won’t save us.  We don’t need new websites – we need new cultures.

The breakthrough digital has given us is the opportunity to listen to our organisations and our customers in real time. Never before have we had the opportunity to share ourselves and our thoughts. We’ve never been able to work out loud before.

But – wake up call – it’s a tiny percentage of leaders who are really living a digital lifestyle. There are still relatively few having open debates , showing transparency in public discourse , answering questions online and sharing progress.

I often see comments like “isn’t it great we have so many (insert sector) leaders on Twitter?”. Let me kill that for you. That is NOT , by any measure, a way of gauging leadership. Membership of a network does not imply positive use of it.

Digital leadership is too often taken to mean “people who use digital” rather than “people who use digital to lead”.

As Li points out in her latest book, to be a true digital leader requires a metamorphosis. It requires connecting directly by listening, sharing, and engaging using digital technologies.

Only this new type of leader is going to help us move forward. And they might not be the people at the top of , or even part of , our organisations.

Five questions for prospective digital leaders

  • Do you actively listen and respond to what internal and external communities are saying?
  • Do you use digital technologies to source new ideas for your organisation or team?
  • Do you put opinions out there rather than press releases? Are you known for provoking debate?
  • Do people you’ve never met come to you for advice on the strength of your online presence?
  • Do people tell you they value the resources and information you share?

I’d suggest that if you can answer yes to three of those you would be going in the right direction.

Digital leadership is not gained through position or self proclamation. The network dicates who are its influencers.

Rather than looking for technology to solve problems the digital leader understands that this network is their greatest ally.

And that the true power lies at its centre.

Lessons From a Year Spent on a Two Pizza Team


Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team – Steve Wozniak

In the early years of Amazon , as the company was in transition from fledgling startup to world-eating behemoth , managers held a corporate away day to consider their main challenges.

One executive opined that communication across the company needed improving – employees simply needed to talk more. The CEO , Jeff Bezos,  is alleged to have stood up and said “No, communication is terrible!

Bezos didn’t want more communication. He wanted a decentralised, even disorganised company where creativity and independence prevailed over groupthink and management.

Hence he established a fondness for what became known as the Two Pizza Rule: if a team couldn’t be fed with two pizzas, it was too big.

The term has precedence in things like Brooks’ Law – which states that “adding manpower to a late project makes it later.” Getting bigger often means your communication overheads grow and doesn’t necessarily yield faster results. As Brooks said: “Nine women can’t make a baby in one month.”

It’s interesting then if you observe any management meeting when a problem comes up around a deadline or late project. Invariably the solution is to throw resources at it. In fact the opposite is often true – you should take resource away. 

Historically career progression has been gauged on the amount of people you manage , the budgetary responsibility you bear. Your position in the hierarchy. In a networked age –  power and influence simply don’t work this way.

The monolithic management structures across much of public services need aggressive simplification. Revolution rather than evolution.

Twelve months ago , as we prepared to launch Bromford Lab, I had all my resources taken away.  And I’ve never felt better. 

We have four people on the Lab. A lot of people who visit ask if there are any jobs going. The answer, sadly, is no. Two Pizza Law means we can never expand.

What are the benefits I’ve found from this way of working?

Agility ramps up.

We can have an idea on Monday morning, have the process mapped by lunch and the product in place by the end of the day. There’s less consultation and less ego to negotiate.

Hierarchy gets blown apart.

There’s no management meetings as there isn’t really any conventional management. Everyone knows what’s going on in the wider company – even the things that could previously be marked management confidential. The tendency for lower-paid employees to defer to the highest paid person’s opinion (HiPPO syndrome) just doesn’t happen.

Performance becomes transparent.

In big teams I’ve managed and worked within I’ve experienced “social loafing” – where people exert less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when they work alone. But there’s no hiding in a two pizza team. A weak link gets shown up straight away.

I’ve noticed that performance management has become more democratised too. We call each other out publicly (usually on WhatsApp) when tasks are unfinished or performance drops.

The downside? 

Well, even Steve Wozniak would agree that to deliver great product you need a great team around you. You can’t do it alone. And that’s where the rest of Bromford come in.

Next week we’ll expand Two-Pizza working by assembling four semi-automonous squads to help us work on themes we know are important to customers.

These will synchronise with the work of the Lab, Insight and Customer Experience teams – adopting some of our agile methodology – as well as working out loud using more collaborative social business tools.

Each squad will be encouraged to be radically transparent – engaging more colleagues and customers in their work without the hindrance of line management responsibilities.  In time we hope these guerilla cells turn our approach from innovation lab to innovation company.

In truth – we know all management is waste. In a connected business power no longer emanates from the boss or the top of the hierarchy. It lies right at the centre of the network.

The challenge for all large organisations is how they make every business unit act like a startup. Every employee thinking like a business owner rather than being served by the company.

The future of work is already here, just not evenly distributed.

And it’s a lot smaller.

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


 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.


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