“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” – Elbert Hubbard
Automation gets a bad rap.
The original draft of our design principles stated “Automate everything that can be automated”. People flinched – it was seen as too harsh.
Mention automation and people make a mental jump to a transactional, robotic service devoid of warmth and humanity.
‘Going digital’ is often seen only as a move to cut costs – punishing customers with a lesser service.
It shouldn’t be that way.
Successful automation – and digital transformation – is about freeing people up to tackle the problems they don’t normally get the time to solve.
If you’ve ever been to an Apple Store you’ll have seen this in action. Apple employ a lot of people in their in-store experience – about three or four times the number employed in a typical retail outlet.
Every employee is trained to walk a customer through five steps aimed at delivering a unique experience:
A: Approach customers with a personalised, warm welcome
P: Probe politely to understand the customer’s needs
P: Present a solution for the customer to take home today
L: Listen for and resolve issues or concerns
E: End with a farewell and an invitation to return
Their formula is simple – build relationships = sell more products.
Of course Apple can only afford to do this because of their profit – and their ceaseless focus on automating anything that gets in the way of customer experience.
We’ve been running design sessions across the whole organisation since last October. Embedding our new principles and taking people out of the here and now to imagine a 2.0 version of how we work.
One of the things that’s been most heartening is people’s honesty about the challenges of working within complex systems. One colleague explained how a team had to perform a manual task 20,000 times every year.
The creativity and sheer determination employed to resolve the problem was incredible. However, the problem didn’t need to exist. It’s capable of redesign and automation.
Across the social sector we have a lot of problems and a lot of people.
50% of day-to-day spend in the public sector is on employees.
37% of working British adults say their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world.
Only 18% of people say the jobs they spend most of their lives doing are “very fulfilling”.
An awful lot of people are doing meaningless jobs.
That speaks of poor leadership and a wholesale failure to embrace technology and new ways of working.
Imagine if we harvested all our creativity and determination and unleashed it on the problems worth solving?
At Bromford we are attempting to follow the Apple model. In our case it means putting people where the problems and the opportunities are – right in the centre of the community. In an age where people are withdrawing personalised services we are pushing them to the fore – boosting the ratio of people to customers.
Digital transformation is absolutely not about designing out people. It’s about designing out the ordinary and reserving people for the extraordinary.
Indeed , the paradox of automation says that the more efficient the automated system, the more crucial the human contribution. People are less involved, but their involvement becomes more critical.
Automation gets a bad rap, but it shouldn’t.
It makes us all much more important, not less.
Everywhere I look I see organisations and people investing heavily in new initiatives, transformation, and change programmes. And in almost every case the goals will never be met.
One of the most crucial causes of the failure? The right questions were never asked at the outset.
We default to ideas and plans. Too many of which fail to get exposed to the tough love of effective questioning. We get wrapped up in solutions.
It’s no surprise: we are conditioned to find solutions rather than define problems from an early age.
- We start off being very good at it. Kids ask about LOTS. Annoyingly so. We tell them to stop asking so many questions.
- In school we start to be assessed and graded on the quality of our answers, not the problems we are contemplating.
- As we enter the workplace we get rewarded for the solutions that we propose, not the questions that we have asked.
Indeed, great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.
So we become very good at solving problems – even if they happen to be the wrong ones.
Here’s a few things to watch out for when considering if your organisation is leaning towards solution rather than problem. And some questions you could ask.
Management is becoming excited by transformation as an end in itself.
Question: What exactly are we being transformed into and who asked for it in the first place?
People start talking a lot about what Apple would do. Or Netflix. Or Uber.
Question: We aren’t Apple, Netflix, or Uber. How are the problems our customers face similar to theirs and if they are, are we the best people to solve them?
Getting excited about building a new app or website
Question: What’s the unique benefit of your solution compared to what’s already available on the market?
Fancy PowerPoint business case pitches at corporate away days and Board meetings
Question: Before you tell us what Google did can you explain what the impact of your last project was, what failed, and what you’ll do differently this time?
You see – ideas people are regarded as sexy. They are positive, optimistic and the people you want to be around.
The person who keeps asking the difficult questions is often regarded as an obsessive – a detail person -a procrastinator. A complete pain in the arse.
This is the very problem we face – and why we see so much innovation theatre rather than genuine impact.
- Initiatives and projects come with an over simplification of the problem statement. If indeed such a statement exists at all.
- There’s a lack of penetration into the root causes of problems. We don’t understand our world half as well as we think we do.
- Most of our organisations have a cultural bias for execution over thorough problem definition. We simply want to get the product on the street. Even if it’s the wrong product (or the wrong street).
Not so long back Tom Hartland , our Lab Designer, was sitting evaluating a new concept. A senior leader walked past and asked him what he was working on. Tom told them there was a problem with the data, the impact was inconclusive and it needed lots more work.
The response came back – “Well, don’t spend too much time on it – we’ll probably do it anyway.”
I share that anecdote not to embarrass anyone but to illustrate the point.
We are hardwired to doing things rather than purposeful contemplation and questioning.
Innovation , as Philippa Jones said, is all about getting better at being wrong. However it must be founded in a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve.
To have the most impact, it’s simple. Just ask the right questions.
Hey – we have a great job going as Design Lead in the Lab. You need to ask a LOT of questions before you go near designing though. Take a look here or message me if you want a chat. email@example.com or DM me on Twitter @paulbromford
In 1988 Phil. S. Ensor coined the term the functional silo system. His contention was that narrow, specialised teams and jobs were easy to manage but imposed a very damaging learning disability on the organisation.
- We become focused on addressing organisational fixes rather than exploring the underlying symptoms.
- Social chasms emerge resulting in people not seeing any problem in context. Indeed – cross organisational problem solving can break down.
- And as every function focuses on its own objectives and KPIs – the organisation slowly becomes reactive.
Nearly 30 years later, silo working is one of our most enduring management buzzwords.
They’ve gone nowhere – so are silos really such a problem?
Truth is, we love them. They give us a lot of security and belonging.
Silos don’t just exist at team level. Our sectors organise themselves into siloed echo chambers – each with their own system of professional bodies, conferences and award ceremonies.
You may have your own silo at a personal level. Most of our online social networks – particularly professional social networks – conform to the functional silo system. We follow and connect with people just like us.
You see, the much maligned silo actually has a great deal going for it.
Silos are great for teamwork, but a barrier to external collaboration. And in a networked era – we need to adopt very different strategies.
I’m currently doing some work with David Anderton and the team at Bromford to redraw the relationship between 30 different service areas. It’s a fascinating exercise as you get to work with colleagues to draw a fantasy version of your organisation and then make it happen.
The lesson I’m learning is that our desire for operational efficiency has adversely affected interoperability between teams.
That’s not a bad thing per se – Bromford has a Moody’s AA3 rating and a core operating margin of 43%. Efficiency has a definite benefit! However we don’t want to rest on our laurels as we move to the dizzying challenges of the future.
In the book Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal describes taking command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq. He quickly realised that conventional tactics were failing. Although the allied forces had a huge advantage in numbers, technology and training – they were no match for the adaptable and networked nature of Al-Qaeda.
After watching Al-Qaeda confound the army and win battles, McChrystal saw that the problem wasn’t one of capability, but interoperability.
Each time valuable intelligence was gathered it tooks weeks for the data to be distributed. Also – the information flowed through silos. Information was sent up the chain of command, where it was passed on to other teams who would then develop strategies for the frontline.
The individual teams were all experts , armed and trained beyond the capabilities of their foe.
They were meeting all their individual objectives.
Yet the shared mission—defeating Al Qaeda—was being lost.
The answer was to build a “shared consciousness,” through the creation of a network of teams. This encouraged agile interaction, embedding the data intelligence within localised units and conducting daily status calls that included all of the stakeholders.
As McChrystal has said, “it takes a network to defeat a network”.
The focus on interoperability did reduce the efficiency of individual teams but the overall mission was accomplished.
Our job right now is exactly that – to reduce the efficiency of silos, whilst boosting the interactive capacity of small networked teams.
In the digital age we can no longer afford to think in conventional terms of efficiency.
We must optimise our silos to work together – as networks in the context of a fully understood mission.
Learning faster than the rest, and acting accordingly, is a new competitive advantage.
Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, most of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any antibodies. Add something new and it can get rejected.
As Chris Bolton has written organisations can have immune systems and idea antibodies. As Chris says – It’s not personal. It’s just an automatic survival mechanism.
The stronger your culture – the more resistant it can be to change.
The challenge then is not to embark upon another change programme , but to disrupt your culture.
I’m writing this on the way to talk to a group of Non Executive Board Members alongside Helen Bevan – on the subject of embracing challenge to build a stronger innovation culture.
We need a system upgrade for sure.
What does a 2.0 version of organisational change look like?
At Bromford we’ve learned to distinguish between wicked problems which might require widespread organisational change – and the smaller changes and innovations we can introduce from the edges.
Scalable innovation in our world is often about joining the dots & making optimal investments. Marginal gains rather than big bang programmes. This involves less reporting and more doing. Discreet tests and pilots that explore a new world without fully committing to it.
However – larger scale innovation dies or thrives from the top. Accordingly the role of Boards in understanding the process of transformation, and the innovation culture it requires to thrive, cannot be underplayed.
Boards themselves, not just executives, need to reflect on whether innovation receives sufficient attention during meetings, and also consider what role they should play in supporting transformative efforts. Supporting the attitudes and mindset from which effective innovation is born is a responsibility of all leaders.
Establishing a governance that supports disruption
If the culture is risk averse you have a problem as innovation always entails risk. A culture of innovation must accept and even encourage considered risk-taking – including failure.
Risk-aversion of corporate governance structures has the potential to quash innovation.
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.
There’s an inherent tension here – and for good reason. Permissions need to be managed or chaos reigns. The trick is finding the balance – and creating an innovation process that also practices good risk management.
The first step to change is recognising there is often a cognitive bias against new introductions.
Most Change Fails because the case for change has not been made strongly enough and communicated well enough. If it’s only leaders and managers who understand why the change is important it’s doomed.
Our track record of introducing change programmes is abysmal. And yet we now need to rewire our organisations for disruption.
What does a 2.0 version of organisational change look like?
It’s less a time limited programme and more a way of life.
It’s a culture where everyone is actively questioning the status quo and is rewarded for it.
It’s a culture that constantly asks: “How can we do this better?” or “What would we do if we started again?”.
It’s a culture that can sustain as much rapid change as possible without falling apart.
Transformation can’t happen without discovery and discovery can’t happen without experimentation.
It’s a new year and at Bromford we are planning a reboot of our approach to innovation (actually we are planning a reboot of everything).
My emerging thoughts are we need less talk of accelerated fast fail innovation and more a systemic and systematic approach to experiments.
Because innovation is almost never a single event.
As Greg Satell has written it can take decades for new solutions to be adopted widely. People cling to old models out of habit and convenience. Systemwide change doesn’t come easy.
The idea of putting a few people together in a room and expecting them to have some eureka moment about complex problems is , at best, naive.
Corporate away days, brainstorming, hackathons, conferences, unconferences, all promote the myth that bringing a few random people together solves problems.
It’s good to talk for sure – but let’s stop conflating collaboration with innovation.
Most hacks and conferences do not solve problems – and certainly not big problems. Problems are there for a reason. People are working to solve these problems constantly, spending much more energy and resources than a single group of people ever can.
As part of the programme I’m working on at the moment potential solutions often only emerge weeks, or even months, after the initial creative session.
The reality is that innovation is an ongoing process. A process that requires problem definition, research, creativity and testing. Lots and lots of testing.
Currently only a small proportion of organisations in the social sector incorporate this process alongside the introduction of a wide range of new knowledge, new process and new technology.
Organisations are jumping to the latter. However technology cannot magically mend broken systems or solve intractable problems.
The real opportunity in 2017 is combining experiments with larger scale transformation.
I’m no longer interested in the cheerleading of innovation and transformation as an end in itself. My interest lies in the practical examples of learning and exploration that organisations are able to evidence.
Smart organisations will:
- Build a portfolio of many different types of experiments from new customer offerings to new business models.
- View small experiments as a natural constraint to bloated and expensive ‘projects’.
- Conduct multiple experiments at the same time and be able to evidence their impact and share the learning.
- Use the governance, scale and resources of transformation programmes to ensure the adoption of proven experiments.
Our job is to set the stage and create the right environment for those experiments.
We need a safe space for exploration. We need permission to cross organisational silos and assemble diverse co-creators. We need to move out of our ivory towers and shift innovation as close as we can to the colleagues and customers who know the jobs that need doing.
Organisational change doesn’t come easily.
A joined-up process of collaboration, research, experimentation and transformation would certainly make it a lot faster.
According to Clayton Christensen , 30,000 new consumer products are launched every year—and 95% of them fail.
There’s no equivalent figure available for the public or social sectors – but I’ve been wondering how many services have been launched in 2016 and how many will have met their objectives by next Christmas.
In the social sector services don’t fail in a commercial sense. The lack of a conventional market means they can be propped up artificially using money. Often someone else’s.
The thing I’m really interested in is how many of our services would people actually purchase – if they had a choice?
And in the design of new services – or redesign of existing ones – are we really nailing the job the customer needs done?
Many products and services fail because of ineffective market segmentation. An organisation typically looks at users as groups of people subdivided by demographics, such as age, gender, or income level.
An example of this are “older persons services”. Some of these are eligible for people aged just 55 – nearly a third of the UK population. No-one in that huge group self identifies as being part of some homogeneous old folks club. Designing services to such an ill defined group is certain to fail.
One size fits no-one.
Christensen has said it’s time for companies to look at things the way customers do: as a way to get a job done.
He gave the example of McDonald’s who wanted to improve their milkshake sales. They enlisted a researcher, who approached the situation by trying to deduce the “job” that customers were “hiring” a milkshake to do.
They spent 18 hours in one of the restaurants – observing who was buying them,when they bought them, and where they drank them.
One thing stood out – 40% of the milkshakes were purchased first thing in the morning, by people who ordered them to go and then drove off.
On interviewing customers it emerged that the reason people were buying milkshakes was simple – boredom.
They faced a long routine commute and were using the milkshake to pass the time and stay engaged. The milkshakes did the job better than most alternatives as the consistency meant they’d take about 25 minutes to consume. A banana doesn’t do the job as it’s gone in seconds.
So the answer to selling more milkshakes wasn’t to change ingredients or introduce a new range – it was to make them do the job they were being hired to do, but do it better, by being more readily available to commuters who were in a rush.
How many of the services launched this year have really gone through this kind of problem definition?
We make a lot of assumptions about the people who use our services and why they use them – and it’s time to go to the next level.
At Bromford we are changing how we are doing things – and going through a process of deconstructing our assumptions about customers. It means starting again, getting to know them and the jobs they really need to get done.
The exciting thing about working using a Lab methodology is that even though the new approach isn’t fully operational we are already working with colleagues on the next iteration.
We’ve recently agreed a principle of moving away from a ‘one-size fits no-one’ home repair service – working with a small group of people to design more bespoke service offers. We expect the team to do this thinking over weeks not months – ready for us to take into test as early as February.
The danger is that we start thinking of our customers as problems to be solved. Of “78 year old Betty ” who can’t use her taps as she has arthritis. Once these kind of personas are created they run through an organisation like wildfire and – hey presto – you’ve got a tap fitting service for all 70 year olds.
Our mantra is now community first, services last.
The three questions we all need to ask before launching any initiative in 2017:
- What job does our customer need doing?
- Are we the best people to do it?
- If we are – why is our product or service worth hiring?
Thanks to everyone who has shared my posts, commented or read them this year. I hope you and your loved ones have a wonderful Christmas.
If you speak at conferences about innovation you’ll almost always encounter some frustrated people.
They approach you at the end, or contact you a few days later. They often have one thing in common.
They, and others like them , have ideas that are being shut down because they don’t fit the system.
They tend not to be the loud ones, the self styled boat rockers and rebels at work, but just people who are quietly trying to make a difference.
They see a refusal to identify, create, embrace, explore, develop or adopt new ideas. They see missed opportunities for new products, better processes or different ways of doing business.
This week we spoke at an event at Alder Hey Innovation Hub on the subject of fast tracked innovation.
- The NHS is 68 years old.
- Bromford is 53.
That means we have at least two things in common.
- We’re successful. Our vision and purpose has remained relevant across decades.
- We’re in danger. The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today. We shouldn’t really still be here.
If you’ve been around that long you’re going to have a huge amount of organisational wisdom. You’ve become very good at what you do.
However – older companies are really bad at innovation because they’re designed to be bad at innovation.
Older companies are designed to execute on delivery — not engage in discovery.
And this is where all those frustrated people come from. They are explorers locked in a system focused on repetition.
Smart organisations know that innovation has to happen by design. They know that you have to build non-linear processes that encourage purposeful deviation.
It’s project unmanagement.
Project management as in methodologies like PRINCE2 can be anti-innovation. It’s about defined steps to make something logical and organised. PRINCE actually stands for PRojects IN Controlled Environments.
Let’s be clear – I’m not dismissing the importance of controlled projects. However my experience of talking to a lot of frustrated people is that organisations are confusing control and exploration.
As I heard this week – “I just keep getting told to take my idea to the project team, but they don’t seem to get it”.
No. They wouldn’t get it.
NEVER take an idea to a project management team unless you want it come back with a risk log, a contingency plan and a Gantt chart.
As this diagram from Tom Hartland shows – there’s a whole fuzzy front end to deal with first.
The conundrum we face is that the very processes that drive toward a profitable, efficient operation tend to get in the way of developing innovations that can actually transform the business.
Until organisations invest in a test and learn framework to accompany their efficiency models they are doomed to disappoint a lot of employees and see ideas go nowhere.
Creating a safe place for intrapreneurs to test ideas and gain supporting evidence so they can justify requesting funds is now necessary whatever the size of your company.
What’s the ROI?
A better question to ask is how you measure the return for an idea that does not yet exist.
The latest Lab slide deck is below. Thanks to Tom for the awesome illustrations.
Technology failed us.
We thought the world of work was to be reimagined. The death of the office. The end of email. A utopia of work/life integration fueled by work-where-you-want technology.
It hasn’t happened.
Six years ago 2.8 million people made daily commutes of two hours or more. In 2016 that’s risen to 3.7 million.
And despite unprecedented access to virtual tools – our actual productivity has slumped to the worst level since records began.
Is it possible to spend a whole year in meetings?
In 2014, a research team from Bain and Company used data mining tools to analyse the Outlook schedules in a large company. It concluded that in one calendar year the organisation spent 300,000 hours in meetings.
Given there are only 8,760 hours in a year that’s quite some feat.
It’s because of what they termed the Ripple Effect:
- The weekly Executive Meeting – essentially a status meeting – accounted for 7,000 hours.
- 11 Unit Heads met with their senior team to prepare for that meeting – another 20,000 hours.
- The 21 divisions racked up 63,000 hours in the subsequent team briefings.
- 210,000 hours were “sub-meetings”. Literally – meetings about the other meetings.
Very few of us do the meeting maths. As Jason Fried has written – the time blocked off doesn’t equal actual time spent. A one hour meeting with 6 people is a six hour meeting. A 15 minute meeting with 9 people is a two-and-a-quarter-hour meeting.
What if every meeting we had kept a real time counter of the salaries in the room, increasing minute by minute?
If you’re brave – try running this meeting calculator at your next one. Even if you run it based on the average UK wage the results are eye watering.
We all know we can be better than this.
Work can be better than this.
We can make it more collaborative, more efficient, more connected, more transparent, more elegant, more fun.
In the current incarnation of Bromford Lab we’ve abandoned meetings altogether, even weekly planning. We run our work through Basecamp which prompts us to answer “What do you plan on working on this week?”.
We get a daily prompt to ask what we’ve completed and can answer it at our convenience. The productivity , or sometimes lack of it, is visible for us all to see.
Technology is not to blame. It’s our failure to adapt our leadership for the digital age.
We still have 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.
Until there is a monumental shift in the leadership dynamic from the old fashioned command and control to a collaborative, status free, matrix way of working, then we will still have all those meetings.
The challenge is spotting the friction and noise that is dragging us back to 20th Century management behaviours – and then personally doing something about it.
Technology didn’t fail us. We failed technology. And it’s our job to fix it.