In 1943, the U.S. Airforce met with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to express their need for a fighter plane to counter a rapidly growing Nazi jet threat. Because of the need for secrecy “Skunk Works”, as it became known, was allowed to operate undercover. No rules and no bureaucracy that could stifle innovation and hinder progress.
It built the XP-80 in only 143 days, seven less than was required, and was given a full time remit to “break the rules in a safe environment”.
I’ve given three talks this week to very different audiences – but they shared strong themes:
- How can you kickstart different behaviours within the confines of an organisational structure?
- How can we do experiments in public without falling flat on our face?
- How do we make a business case for bright ideas in cash conscious times?
My simplistic advice is Think Big, Start Small.
The evolution of the Bromford Deal, featured in the slide deck above – began with just four people in a room talking about creating a new ‘deal’. We soon took three colleagues out of their operational roles and gave them a special remit – “what would we do if we started again?”
They operated in complete isolation for 12 weeks with a couple of ‘mentors’ dropping in occasionally. It was our own Skunk Works and a forerunner of what evolved into Bromford Lab.
After a raft of tests, pilots and detailed evaluation , Bromford has scaled the proposal, changed strategy, mobilised 130 new roles and is launching a transformed service.
Small empowered teams, bold tests, pilots demonstrating increased value to customers and improved cashflows have given us persuasive data to inform the business case.
More important than that is a culture that values the lessons learned when you are bold enough to attempt something that hasn’t been done before.
This week I spent a lot of time talking about rapid experiments.
Sometimes we need to scrap the comforting safety of product planning and project management. Instead, we should learn to practice high‐speed experimentation.
The examples I give in the slides of frugal experiments are deliberately frivolous.
What happens if:
- You stick Amazon Alexa in the office?
- You put Google Glass on customers for home viewings?
- You give people access to 3D Printing?
- You install home sensors that can track the occupancy of homes?
- You make video gaming available at work?
- You get kids to redesign communities with Minecraft?
- You use Whatsapp in place of team email?
- You let your development team use drones to photograph land?
As I said to one of the groups I spoke to. We know the answer to all of these things. That puts us ahead on the learning and adoption curve of new technologies at work.
It’s these practical experiments that show whether the fundamental assumptions about radical innovation are correct and what they mean for your business.
The challenge? Shifting our learning from slow and expensive to fast and cheap.
How can you get your team to learn 10x faster than everyone else?
“Weak signals consist of emergent changes to technology, culture, markets, the economy, consumer tastes and behaviour, and demographics. Weak signals are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear” – Vijay Govindarajan.
Luckily for us the future doesn’t arrive in an instant – but unfolds seconds at a time.
Despite our organisational 2025 strategies, our five year forward views, it’s impossible to predict what our world looks like in the years ahead.
We are making, as Jason Fried has said, business guesses rather than business plans.
Launching a service or developing a new product against this ever shifting background is fraught with difficulty. What’s good for 2016 could be surplus to requirements a year later.
Today all our new services must be iterative and capable of scaling for mergers, growth and indeed for retraction and redundancy. Designing for obsolescence is more important than ever.
At Bromford Lab we’ve worked with our Insight team to give a tentative green light to a new service – and I think there are some lessons to learn. Tom Hartland gives an overview of our thinking here with an excellent slide deck showing the design process.
The concept is simple. Switch from being a reactive service (waiting for basic repairs requests) – and move to offering proactive coaching so people can do things for themselves. It’s aiming to tackle exactly the same things as many of our public services are: reducing demand by focusing on prevention rather than cure.
Lesson One: The test has been beset by implementation problems.
As it should be.
If you are launching anything new against the background of what could be legacy services and systems – it should be plagued by problems.
Expect lots of tiny failures. The worst thing you can do is to give up. Unfortunately many of our organisations, and certainly most of the media, do not think like this. This is part of the re-education journey we need to take people on.
Lesson Two: The test hasn’t delivered tangible business benefits. Yet.
So why are we recommending that it proceeds to pilot?
The answer to that is a mix of art and science. We have some evidence of potential success but we need a more detailed and longer term evaluation.
However not all insight can be gained through evaluation alone – but by picking up what futurists term ‘weak signals’.
Generally organisations are poor at picking up these signals. Arguably the fact that we are still talking about digital transformation demonstrates that the weak signals from the 1990’s onwards were largely unheard.
There are a number of signals that we are picking up at Bromford that – if correct- means our concept could have a very positive future. With time there’s a possibility of substantial financial returns – alongside fulfilling our strategic objective of growing customer skills and aspirations.
Here are a few of the things that we do, and don’t know about the future:
- We have an ageing population with more people living on their own. We don’t know if this will have a positive or detrimental effect on future demand.
- We know that driverless cars will soon be on the roads – drastically reducing transportation costs to get parts to our residents homes. We don’t know the speed of adoption.
- We know the maker community – people using 3D printing and other self manufacture tools – is growing. We don’t know whether this will ever move beyond a niche and into the mainstream.
- We know artificial intelligence – think Siri and Amazon Alexa – is rapidly advancing. We don’t know whether AI advice and coaching delivered through technology or a robot will ever be a good enough alternative to physical delivery.
- We know housing associations are unlikely to be flooded with lots of public money in the future. We don’t know what future welfare reforms look like.
Putting all of these things together alongside the evidence we do have is persuasive enough to take the test to a next level.
None of us can predict the future – but we can attempt to second guess it. And the best way to do that is by low-cost experiments to test the unknowns, before gambling any big money.
Ultimately our organisations will succeed by exploring these weak signals – abandoning them as they fade or focussing investment when they get stronger.
The only choice is whether to be an active participant in what the future looks like or just let it relentlessly unfold around you.
I’ve just had to apply for a new passport.
It’s one of those things that you generally only do every ten years or so. It prompts you to ruminate on a few things.
Ageing: That old passport photo you were embarrassed about now looks like the ideal version of you. You shudder at the thought of what the 2026 edition will look like.
Life: Where have I been in the past decade, what experiences have I had, what have I learned?
And technology and design: Wow – the sheer hell of passport renewal has been replaced by….something quite simple.
Back in 2006 only 3% of us owned a smartphone. Today that figure is 71%. The phone is now the hub of our daily lives – transforming the way we interact with services.
It’s driven us to crave ever greater simplicity. Things we can do on the go. Complex tasks we can perform in minutes rather than hours.
Yet most of our organisations have not adapted to this.
Most of the problems we were set up to solve were relatively simple, but as organisations get larger, there’s more technology, more people, and more regulation. We put together processes, controls, reviews, and structures to deal with all these things. All of these factors together create a great amount of complexity.
For most organisations it’s easier to make a simple thing more complex than it is to make a complex thing more simple.
But our customers’ needs are not so complicated.
Making things simple for them is now a competitive advantage.
Back to the passport.
Mine came back in 8 days – 10 years ago it took about a month.
There are 6.7 million passport transactions in the UK each year – numbers most of our organisations couldn’t dream of handling. To understand how that’s happened it’s useful to look at one of the Government Digital Service (GDS) design principles:
GDS have achieved this transformation by doing less not more. They’ve not added new options – or any bells and whistles – they have ruthlessly focused on user need.
The only apparent ‘innovation’ in passport services is that there is now a beta test where you can take your own photo using a smartphone – making the process fully digital. If you’re in the business of manufacturing those little photo booths you get in supermarkets you need to move on. You’re going the way of VHS.
However this simplicity comes at a price – there’s only one way to get a passport. If you want one – you’re going to have learn how. That means acquiring basic digital skills for a start.
This is a world away from how most of our organisations , particularly in the social sector, operate.
- We bend over backwards to do more things.
- We create bespoke ways for customers to do business with us – trying to do the right thing but adding layers of complexity and cost into the process.
- Our websites – often providing an illusion of digital transformation -offer so many services it’s often unclear what organisations actually do.
Doing less not more requires a cultural rather than a digital shift. The lesson from GDS is to find your ‘irreducible core’ – and then constantly refine and innovate against it. Accept we are not always the right people to solve the problem. Do what only you can do.
How do you make your company’s services simpler? You can start by simplifying your company.
Reset All Assumptions
We must selectively forget the past. That means not accepting current practices but challenging underlying assumptions, our solutions and mindsets, and the way we tackle the problem.
We need services designed as people need them – not as we have learned to do them.
Bromford Design Principle 1 (Draft)
I’m doing some work at the moment on organisational design principles – which is as good an opportunity as any to stand back and assess our capability for radical thinking.
A lot of the conversations I’ve been party to recently have centered around the need for a strong organisational culture to promote innovation. Indeed – I took part in an innovation assessment that seemed to hold teamwork, co-operation and shared purpose up as a kind of holy grail.
My experience of working with teams is almost exactly the opposite. Innovation often thrives because of diversity and discord. “The idea that will get you fired” is often the best one to explore.
Strong cultures are a positive – but there’s a tipping point. A point where conflicting opinions can get stifled rather than being actively cultivated.
Phrases such as “That’s the way things get done around here” or “That person isn’t really a (insert your company name) sort of person” are early warning signs you’re reaching that point.
In the book VG proposes a simple test to assess the size of the challenge in forgetting the past.
Here are some of the questions:
- We primarily promote from within
- Our culture is homogeneous
- We have a strong culture
- Employees have a long tenure
- We rarely recruit from outside apart from entry level positions
- When people are recruited from outside, we have strong socialisation methods
- We have a track record of success
- We don’t mess with success
- The senior management team has a long tenure and has also worked primarily in our sector
VG asks us to answer the questions scoring 1-5, with 1 representing ‘strongly disagree’, and 5 representing ‘strongly agree’. The higher the score the bigger the challenge.
I ran my own organisation through this – I’ll be asking other leaders to do the same – and found we score pretty highly.
As VG teaches us – this is not cause to throw our heads into our hands and despair. Rather it’s about surfacing awareness of the weight of our history – and the chains we may need to break to move forward.
A crucial part of this is about resetting our assumptions about why we do what we do, how we do them, and who does them.
It means embracing misfits – not rejecting them from “your” culture.
Contained in our own personal and organisational histories are thousands of assumptions. Assumptions that we live by everyday.
To truly transform we need to question every one of them.
The frugal innovation revolution, by making the means to innovate more widely available, has the potential to speed up the innovation process – Jaideep Prabhu
Jugaad is a Hindi word that roughly means ‘solution born from cleverness.’ It’s usually applied to a low cost fix or work-around. In a culture where people often have to make do with what they have it’s an improvised or makeshift solution using scarce resources.
Anyone who has been to India or other parts of Asia will have seen examples of jugaad on a daily basis.
In case you’re new to the word I’ll give you four pictures:
Building a house with discarded cola bottles
Making tea using an iron
Attaching an extra seat onto mopeds (or attaching literally ANYTHING onto mopeds)
Bike + Tuk Tuk + Wifi
I’ve seen washing machines used to whip up yoghurt drinks, an indian toilet converted to western style just by sticking a chair over it. The spirit of frugal innovation is everywhere.
Although the book Jugaad Revolution was published four years ago – it’s only now entering mainstream thinking in many western organisations.
Partly this is a result of austerity. In an era of abundance there isn’t much desire for the simple fix. Scarcity drives creativity in ways abundance cannot.
We’ve also seen a generational shift. Many of us have moved towards a post-materialistic mindset. We are more interested in the environment. More interested in experience rather than acquisition. Digital platforms have opened up new marketplaces and information exchanges so we are all buyers and sellers – of products, services or even knowledge.
A new report from Nesta asks whether Europe needs frugal innovation. It’s well worth a read – particularly the points around how little real innovation is around for low income consumers.
The question is whether organisations – often risk averse rather than risk seeking – can bring the principles of jugaad on board without killing the spirit.
Most organisational approaches to change or transformation are carefully structured. Agile or lean are process frameworks, whereas jugaad is void of process altogether.
Innovation in the social sector is often focused on introducing shiny new things rather than bending the rules to make existing things work. Even creating new things with meagre resources requires a complete shift in thinking.
I’ve been out with quite a few customers recently and it has reminded me of two things:
- I need to get out more. You don’t solve the problems that matter from a lab or office.
- Innovations ARE passing a lot of people by. The relentless focus on digital and technology as an end in itself is blinding us to the real needs of communities.
Our own Lab is currently running a test that very much harnesses the spirit of jugaad. We are developing resident skills to open up ways they can do their own home repairs – literally hacking the home.
My personal belief is this is the best way western organisations can adopt jugaad: by directly channelling it into communities themselves. The frugal revolution needs to be driven by people – not from your boardroom.
That means learning to forget the past, and challenging our current solutions and mindsets.
Bromford alone has over 80,000 customers. Imagine if everyone of them became a jugaad innovator – hacking solutions for themselves and the wider community.
The time for westernised jugaad has very much arrived.
If you’re of a certain age you’ll sometimes find yourself reminiscing about an age where things were built to last.
My own mother swears her first washing machine lasted for over 20 years. Today, Apple expects the lifecycle for an average iPhone to be just three.
Firstly – this is almost certainly a rose tinted view of the past. I remember several breakdowns and days of hand washing in our house. Statistics back me up – In 1971 Which? found that 50% of washing machines broke down in their first year. Today the chances of a breakdown in six years is just 12%.
Secondly – the relative cost of technology has fallen dramatically. In 1970, the cost of a washing machine was extortionate – equal to about 8% of average annual earnings. Today it’s barely 1.5%.
In truth – today’s goods are far cheaper and far more reliable than they ever were before.
The price we pay for this innovation is a much shortened lifecycle. And it’s known as planned obsolescence.
This is a strategy in which the process of becoming obsolete— unfashionable or no longer usable – is planned and built into it from conception.
Many see planned obsolescence as a driver for innovation. Philip Kotler has described it as
the working of the competitive and technological forces in a free society—forces that lead to ever-improving goods and services.
Others regard is an exploitation of customers – driving them through a never ending cycle of wasteful upgrade or repurchase.
However – I propose that it has a place. And that includes a role in how we design our organisations and how we design our public services.
One of the questions I often hear asked is why aren’t our organisations embracing change, new technology, social innovation, more quickly.
The answer is pretty simple I think:
Getting rid of the old is harder than embracing the new.
All the talk and excitement of sexy new tech and ways of working runs out of steam when faced with legacy systems, established practices and policies. All formed in a very different age and stuck in place like a limpet on a rock.
Whilst organisations are generally very good at coming up with new ideas and practices they are generally not so skilled at decommissioning older ones.
- So what if we designed all new services and products with the life cycle of an iPhone?
- What if our customers and colleagues knew at the launch of a service that the infrastructure was in place for just four years , after which a newer , more powerful upgrade was to be launched?
- What if rather than plan on our services being around forever , we designed for the very conditions in which they would cease to exist?
Wouldn’t that be a better future than yet more failed attempts by services to fix society?
Over the next few months Bromford will be launching a completely re-engineered way of providing our core service. In fact it’s less a service and more a relationship. A relationship less about housing and more about people.
It’s the result of all the testing , piloting and exploring we’ve been doing over the past few years. The learning from all these pilots has brought us to an overriding conclusion: we can have the most impact with our customers when we truly get to know them and are freed from the shackles of how we used to do things.
This redesign will be accompanied by a process of decommissioning. And we’ll have dates by which we will know whether objectives have been achieved. Dates when we can begin again or decide we are no longer needed in the same way. Or even at all.
If we all planned for obsolescence we’d perhaps see a very different social sector. A sector where innovation wasn’t endlessly lauded so much as endlessly practiced.
A sector where things maybe didn’t last so long , but where services had more impact, were cheaper, and rarely broke down like they used to.