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.

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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

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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!

TOM

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 

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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

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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)

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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?

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