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.
Many of our 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’ designed to protect the business from failure.
One of the biggest inhibitors of innovation is part of human nature itself — the fear of losing what we’ve got.
What if innovation isn’t about doing more stuff but just removing barriers?
What if we just become more conscious and innovation takes care of itself?
Perhaps by identifying and removing barriers we can accelerate innovation simply by leveraging the capability that’s already there.
Six things we can stop supporting:
Most corporate structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table. Structures that support hierarchical decision making limit opportunities for people to have influence and innovate.
Push power down by giving each employee as much decision-making power as possible within the framework of his or her job.
Restrictive job profiles
Job descriptions are like organisational treacle. They cause inertia because the moment employees are given specific responsibilities they expect them to stand still. They cause people to focus on “just doing the job”, not “thinking outside the box”.
Huge resources lie untapped. The networked organisation of the future will utilise the skills of people regardless of where they sit or what they do.
What if we made it the number one objective of management to just get out of the way?
Most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore simplicity should be a key goal in management and unnecessary complexity should be avoided.
It’s hard to innovate when people work in silos. Splitting teams into isolated units limit the ability to identify which areas could be combined to create new products and services.
Lack of resources
Innovation is not about doing more stuff but doing less. We need to have honest conversations about decommissioning non value-added services. Go through your website and find 10 things you could stop doing today.
Reports and approvals
We need less time in meetings and more time conducting dangerous experiments.
Let’s stop writing reports and use the resources to 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.
Too many organisations are failing to grasp how profoundly the rules of business in the digital era have changed. How we must become more networked, more social and more agile.
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.
(This article is an excerpt from “Can Innovation Labs Save The World” — a talk given to the National Housing Federation — full slides below)
In late 2010 my personal assistant Sarah-Jane conducted an experiment on me – without my permission or knowledge.
Unknown to me at the time she took my effusive notes from a couple of “Future Service” conferences and sealed them as a private entry in my diary to be opened in 5 years time.
I was pretty surprised to see “READ ME. Has it come true?” pop up in outlook.
Sarah-Jane no longer works for me but she was a bit of an oddity (in a nice way). A millennial who had a deep mistrust of creeping technology and the digitisation of our culture. She’d closed her Facebook account and challenged me about my burgeoning cheerleading for tech and social business.
“Do you honestly believe any of this stuff will actually happen?” she said of my conference notes. “You should keep this – and check if any of it does”.
Let’s look at the main predictions and whether they have come true. (A copy of my report is here. The original was on Microsoft word. We had no work access to Google Docs in 2010)
Not a very good strike rate overall. In fact this is a great illustration of the fallibility of futurology. It has become known as Amara’s Law , that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.
All these things are available , just not evenly distributed. I can buy a robot assistant from Japan but I still can’t get decent wifi at Manchester Airport.
It seems the futurologists may have been more successful in predicting the changing relationship between organisations and their customers.
Although the concept of social business is a slow burn in many organisations I think we’ve largely underestimated the way our work behaviours have changed.
Sarah-Jane has made me realise how far the world of work has progressed in five years.
- I sit next to a 3D printer.
- Except I don’t sit I stand – as I don’t have a desk.
- I don’t use a single work owned device – it’s all my own.
- I don’t use Word anymore. Or Excel. Or Powerpoint. (Yes, I’m still stuck with Outlook)
- We publish everything we are working on online , accessible for anyone.
- We have an Xbox and Wii U in the office.
- We don’t measure what the team do in hours. They work when they want.
- I work on solving problems with people in different time zones.
- I chat with customers in real time, unrestricted by office hours.
- I get fewer emails everyday.
- I hardly ever go to meetings.
- Yesterday I took part in a Google Hangout with people from all over the world.
In our rush to celebrate technology as an end in itself we risk forgetting how simple tools are allowing us to reshape relationships and extend our networks. Five years ago Bromford were still some months away from sending their first tweet. I would have been laughed out of the building for suggesting we need an innovation lab. Our collective network today is light years away from where we were.
When I read my secret message I whatsapped Sarah-Jane to tell her I’d read it (we don’t text anymore). She’d forgotten she posted it and agreed more had come true than had not. I told her I read her return message on my Apple Watch. She said “I knew you’d fall for buying one of those. What a geek. Some things never change”.
Perhaps we all need a little more cynicism when it comes to the big tech trends. It’s the small changes that are going on around us unnoticed that can make the biggest difference to people’s lives.
In 1975 Cambodia attempted the most radical reinvention of society and community in history.
This was ‘Year Zero’ – a beginning of a new era where people would return to a mythic past. Self sufficiency and collectivism were promoted, technology and creativity mistrusted. City dwellers, professionals and intellectuals returned to toil the land alongside peasants.
About 1.7 million people , 20% of the population, died in the ensuing madness.
Proof – if it were needed – that not all social innovations are good ones.
Cambodia truly has been to hell and back. Today economic growth is robust, poverty is still high (but falling) and there is a burgeoning startup movement. Siem Reap has been named the top tourist destination in Asia and number 2 in the whole world.
Here’s my pictorial guide to 13 things I found creative, quirky or were simply great experiences.
Wifi in the Sea: Our desire for connectivity knows no bounds. Hotels and bars are competing with each other to offer ever better wifi connections. This place on Otres Beach nailed it with connectivity that worked a good 100 metres into the ocean. My first experience of vining, instagramming and downloading music (the new Bowie album) from the water.
A country bouncing back from the brink with fresh thinking , drive and determination. Loved my trip and hope some of the ideas inspire you as much as they did me.