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And technology and design: Wow – the sheer hell of passport renewal has been replaced by….something quite simple.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.
There’s not a week goes by – and I mean that quite literally – in which we don’t see a sector bemoan its image problem. The launch of some campaign or other to raise awareness of a ‘message’ and get people to see the valuable contribution it makes to society.
This week it’s housing, but I could have selected almost anyone. Charities, the NHS, Financial Services – everyone, everywhere is obsessed with image.
One thing I’m certain of is that all these marketing campaigns and re-branding efforts will fail.
Here’s why: trust in institutions is eroding. And trust can only be rebuilt by actions, not words.
Imagine you’re in a relationship that starts to break down. You don’t seem to understand each other anymore. Here’s what you might do:
- Go back to the start. Revisit the experiences that attracted you to each other in the first place.
- Recalibrate the relationship – trying new things together.
- Wipe the slate clean. Start afresh and reinvent yourself. A new era and new challenge.
Here’s what you absolutely would not do:
- Start a Twitter campaign to raise awareness of your contribution to the relationship.
- Get all your mates to agree you’re a brilliant person and tell your loved one that he/she’s mistaken.
- Launch a new strategy to tell them what you’ll achieve over the next five years.
But time and again we see organisations adopting exactly that approach – just with the public and politicians in mind.
The issue that we face is that trust is in question. Distrust in business and government is the new normal. And you can’t rebuild trust through marketing.
The latest Edelman Trust Barometer shows that we face a truly global challenge.
In the digital age we are getting ever more astute in spotting spin, marketing and doublespeak.
The most credible sources are not your comms team, but an academic, a technical expert, a regular employee and “a person like myself”. All of these are more trusted than the people we here from the most – CEOs.
A ‘person like yourself’ builds trust – so we need to promote the voices of those engaged in frontline services, not the hierarchy.
Government is ,unsurprisingly, the least trusted institution. However non-profit organisations are also losing trust as they are perceived as ineffectual.
In the world after Kids Company , and amid a huge decline of trust in charities, it’s no longer good enough to do good. You need to BE good.
If trust is at a tipping-point it’s a time for action not words.
To rebuild trust in our organisations we need to be more like people. Relationships in the digital age require acknowledging and accepting our human flaws. Ironically digital gives us the opportunity to be more human, to interact with people in more nuanced, intimate ways.
For organisations that means adopting behaviours of extreme transparency , honesty and sharing failure.
There are four things we need to do:
- Default to transparency – publish everything. Even our biggest mistakes.
- Reinvent services – not rebrand them.
- Humanise the organisation – push our customers and colleagues to the forefront, not the bosses.
- Forget trying to change the image of sectors – if we align ourselves with a sector we just become an average of everyone else.
Ultimately – if you really want to transform perceptions of your organisation or sector there’s only one option:
Anything else is just an expensive waste of time.