Don’t Listen To Your Sector: Be More Weird

Be_different___Smile_by_screamst

Had a bit of drama over the past week. I’ll recap it for you as quickly as possible – as most readers of this blog don’t work in the same sector as I do.

Essentially Mick Kent, my CEO, wrote a challenging piece setting out why we have embarked upon a different service vision. Bromford are celebrating 50 years in business – so you wouldn’t think it particularly controversial to reflect on the past and consider the future.

Not so. The piece sparked some astonishing responses – especially on social media. Many in the sector expressed derision and even outright contempt. How could one of their own say such things?

But experience suggests this is just a natural crowd reaction to someone stepping out of line and being different.

You’ll never see a sector – be it Housing, Care, Support or Health, drive innovation. It’s simply not in the interests of the majority to reward disruptive behaviour.

It’s one of the eternal challenges for industry bodies – they have to reflect the views of their average member. And the views of the average member are, by definition, average.

You’ll never find a sector that is wholly admirable either. Be it banking, retail, travel or charitable – you will find the good, the indifferent, and the bad.

And you’ll also find a few disruptors – pacesetters who are pushing forward with a bold new vision. Often that vision will be treated with initial scepticism – sometimes by customers as well as industry peers.

In the last month the 2013 UK Customer Experience Excellence Top 20 was announced. You’ll see that it’s made up of companies who have faced criticism precisely because they challenged the accepted order of things.

Let’s glance at the Top 10 :

10 – Waitrose – Broke out of their southeast heartland despite people saying, “It’ll never work in the north”.

9 – M+S – Launched Plan A (“because there is no Plan B”)  a programme to instil innovation across 81,000 employees and lose their old fashioned image.

8 – Ocado – A High St store “without any stores “ founded by three guys with no experience of retail. “A disaster waiting to happen” said critics.

7 – Lush – Showed cosmetics can be ethical and environmentally responsible, whist also being super indulgent and pleasurable. ” We hire for values , not skills”.

6 – M+S Simply Food – Darling of the middle classes opens branches in railway stations , airports and hospitals. Critics predict failure – “People will resist the idea of carrying high cost food shopping around with them.”

5 – Virgin Atlantic – Challenging the establishment, improving service and astounding its customers: “We’ve never been afraid to upset people”.

4- Amazon – From “destroyer of Book Shops” to “destroyer of the High Street”. Adored by their customers.

3 – First Direct – The only bank people love. Launched with two ad campaigns:  a negative one showing the everyday aspects of normal banking. A positive one showing how good First Direct would be. The banking sector was appalled. Customers applauded.

2 – QVC – Almost universally derided on its UK launch in 1993. Now a global leader in video and eCommerce retail. Just launched QVC Sprouts, a crowdsourced competition to search for the best up-and-coming entrepreneurs and new products

In first place? John Lewis.

A few years ago I was talking to John Lewis employees at a conference where they had been speaking. They told me that far from being lauded by their own sector they were often criticised. People said it was arrogant and pretentious they had their own language (colleagues as “Partners” for example). Their recruitment practices and culture had been described as “a cult”.

“People just think we are a bit weird,” they told me. “But we’re not bothered by what the industry thinks. Just the customers.”

I imagine the retail sector were cynical about the fuss around The Bear and The Hare , the Christmas advert by John Lewis . As was I.

Screenshot 2013-11-22 09.01.30

Nearly 8 million YouTube views. Number 1 in overall UK Customer Experience. Profits of 415 million.

A lesson for innovators – don’t listen to your sector: Be Different. Be More Weird.

  1. What if the NHS could follow the model of John Lewis? How fab could that be!

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    1. It’s an interesting thought isn’t it? And a challenge to all sectors whether public or private! There are some approaches to innovation and organisational agility that are common to all ten. Thanks for commenting

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    2. Might be better to follow the Acado model – they recruit from outside of the industry and employ graduates with degrees in ‘lean’ or kaizen. Healthcare and social care keep asking the same people the same questions. Fresh talent req’d.

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      1. A very good point Mark about fresh talent. It’s the balance between having a great organisational culture and one where there is a healthy friction that generates new thinking. Too much consensus can be a bad thing

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  2. ….and the pace of change in the real world is relentless. I remember a few years back when we asked ourselves “what if Tesco opened a housing association – what would that be like?” as if this would be the most radical, cutting edge competitor the world could imagine! A brilliantly articulated blog Paul.

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    1. Thanks John – that’s a great blast from the not so distant past! Perhaps we could now imagine the WordPress HA? They host 20% of the world’s websites with a couple of hundred people and everyone builds everything themselves…

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  3. Whilst some of the comments on Mick Kent’s piece have poked fun at his/Bromford’s desire to be different (Matrix references and Harlem Shakes and all), for the most part it’s been about the comments on ‘dependency culture’. The irony is that whilst this might be ‘disruptive’ thinking in the sector, it’s buying straight into to current norms outside the sector. If we want to be really challenging, let’s disrupt the big picture, not the small one.

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    1. It’s hard to depoliticise this. But my own , personal, view is that Government can be a distraction to this topic. I remember doing a workshop to private sector companies when Caroline Flint was at DWP and she had suggested that unemployed tenants should ‘actively seek work’, as a condition of their occupancy. The audience were as stoked up about “dependency” as anyone now. Perhaps more so. Housing failed to heed this warning and innovate their offer. And it came back and bit them.

      I’m with you on the disruption though and thanks for your comment. I appreciate them.

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  4. Paul – I have to respond to your blog, because you have erected a straw man which you then proceed to knock down. To try to present the response to Mick’s letter as primarily about people who oppose or fear innovation, or view it with contempt, is highly misleading. No one to my knowledge challenged or criticised Mick for being innovative or for challenging the sector and I am sure Bromford has done interesting things in these areas. Instead, there was a strong reaction because Mick wrote of a “dependency culture” within social housing and claimed that this had been “produced” by the welfare system. I argued in Inside Housing that there was some dependency in our sector but that this shaped the welfare system rather than being shaped by it, as Mick claimed. What’s more, “dependency” is very different to a “dependency culture” – the latter implies a choice or lifestyle (as in the culture of an organisation or the “drinking culture” of an office) whereas I take the view that dependency is not a lifestyle choice but a necessity for many people affected by low wages, high rents and poor employment opportunities. I argued that most housing associations had contributed to this dependency by forever going along with the latest government initiative – “affordable rents” being the latest wheeze, something that will trap many of our customers in poverty in perpetuity by imposing high rents on them.

    However, on one thing I do agree with Mick: housing associations have had it too easy for too long by having rent paid direct. They should have to fight for their money like everyone else. But please do not forget that over 60% of your salary, and the salary of all those who work in housing, comes from the taxpayer. In my view, making comparisons with Virgin, John Lewis etc (who receive no taxpayer funding) is rather hubristic and not helpful. And at least one of the companies in your list is a serial tax avoider!

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    1. Colin – I’m going to do a fairly brief reply not because I’m skirting the issue just I don’t want the post to get dominated by housing issues. Hope you appreciate this.

      First of all I think the “dependency” issue has hijacked the cut and thrust of Micks post. It was mentioned twice – both times in the context of questioning whether we’ve focused too much on what people can’t do rather than what they can (which I totally believe the sector has by the way). The concept Bromford are trying to introduce is to flip that. To believe that people have skills – sometimes buried deep – and our focus should be to unlock them.

      As you might see in my response above – the warnings signs to housing have long been there. We didn’t judge the public or political mood and we failed to innovate our service offer as a sector.

      My post is essentially about that – we can’t expect a sector like housing with so many HAs to mobilise itself in times when change is needed. It’s like herding cats.

      I don’t think making comparisons with the organisations I have done is misjudged. I could have easily produced a list of 10 innovative non-profits (and I think I will – it’s worth a blog!).

      All organisations exist at the behest of public opinion. Not least Amazon – who have fallen from top spot precisely because of the tax issues you mention. Thanks for commenting Colin.

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  5. Another great blog article Paul. I’m certainly drawn to people (and orgs) that step out of line and are different. Wouldn’t the world of Housing (or another other sector for that matter) be boring if there weren’t the disrupters pushing and stretching the boundaries!!

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    1. Absolutely Brett. And it’s important that all of us support new ideas even though we might sometimes disagree with them. Not all ideas are good, in fact most aren’t. But the very worst thing we can create is a culture where people are afraid to present them for fear of ridicule. Ridicule is nothing to be scared of – Adam Ant 1981. 😉

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    2. Sorry but this once again completely misses the point. Talking about what people can or cannot do is irrelevant if you are pushing up their rents and making it impossible for them to live a decent life. Give us some facts. What proportion of Bromford’s tenants receive full and partial HB and how has this changed over the past ten years? How many “affordable housing” homes will you produce this year & how many conversions are you doing? What will be the average rent and the average income for these tenants? How can you convince us that these tenants will be able to work, pay their rent and achieve a decent standard of living after paying all their bills? In terms of the Bromford Deal, how many/proportion of tenants have been encouraged back into part time or full time work – what percentage of your tenants are now working instead of living on benefits, and what % are able to pay their rent and have a decent standard of living? It would be helpful to have hard facts about the “Bromford Deal”, not propaganda. I would like to see trends – is life for your tenant improving or worsening? Less rhetoric, more facts please.

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      1. All good questions Colin and some of these I’ll be honest about: we simply don’t know the answers yet.

        Certainly sustaining employment and people being better off in employment is a key foundation of the deal but the problem with innovating is as soon as you start doing something it can create a problem you haven’t foreseen. (Which is one of the reasons employability has never been a core service from HA’s – whatever rhetoric might have us believe.)

        So the issues of job supply , financial capability , benefits rules on volunteering , rent affordability , and parachute payments for going into work are all very real to us.

        But our view is just because something is difficult and may need us to invest more to develop new products and services is not a reason not to try it. It would be a lot easier for us just to stand still – but it’s not what our customers want from us.

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  6. Interesting blog.
    I have been disappointed that anyone disagreeing with ‘that letter’ has been portrayed as ‘anti-innovation’, as well as being ‘outraged’ ‘indignant’ and self-righteous’. I’m none of those things! I met Helen C a couple of weeks ago and was saying to her how much I admire the work that you do at Bromford, as I admire the work of so many other providers, including Yarlington.
    I just disagree with Mick about the causes of some of the challenges facing people who live in social housing,just as I disagree with you, and others, about introducing conditionality. My reasons are complex but are influenced, in part, by what we can learn from the legal system. The ‘threat’ of custody in the Criminal court and the possibility of a much-loved child being removed is often not enough to change behaviour – two of the worst thing that can happen to anyone. Why on earth am I going to believe that the threat of the non-renewal of a tenancy will succeed?
    I also believe that the Tenancy Agreement forms the basis of the relationship between Tenant and Landlord, just as my relationship with the Halifax is based on the legal contract between us. This is just what I believe. It does not mean that Landlords should not be offering opportunities for residents to make changes, I just do not agree that there should be any more compulsion.
    I totally agree that we need to look outside the sector but don’t like the inference that all new ideas generated from ‘within’ are by their nature inferior. A day doesn’t go by without me being inspired by someone. Today it was a 22 year old Student Union Sabbatical Officer who blew my socks off with a presentation on branding, on Tuesday it was the High Sheriff of Essex, Monday it was a tenant from Family Mosaic. I was lucky enough to meet Karren Bradey at the WIH Awards and saw the best presentation on Leadership that I have ever seen.
    My point? Please don’t be tempted to demonise those who happen to disagree.
    And, please, carry on blogging!

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  7. First of all Alison – welcome to the blogosphere! Worth reading my response to Colin above (or maybe not dependent on your viewpoint)

    My absolute intention is not to say anyone disagreeing is anti-innovation or to demonise them! Just that it’s a natural reaction to new things.

    David Floyd from Social Spider tweeted about the post earlier and said something I think is incredibly important:

    “Not to say that everyone who says something different is right but it’s important to understand that suggesting anything that’s meaningfully different to the status quo will generally involve upsetting people.”

    To your point about conditionality – I don’t think this is about forcing anyone to do anything – it’s about making them want to do it. I’m not – at this point – at liberty to say where Bromford is going with the Deal but I can assure you it’s likely to address a lot of your well-founded concerns.

    And I agree – inspiration can be found anywhere and in the most surprising of places. Thanks for the comment.

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  8. I don’t know how truly innovative the top ten is? Or how weird?

    What they all have in common is that they all put the customer at the centre of whatever they do.
    They all provide at least one of the following.
    Great customer service, great prices, great quality and great delivery.
    They listen and respond to their customers making changes to their businesses to reflect the needs and wants of their customers. They are accommodating!

    I look at that list and it screams ‘reliable and dependable’ For me if there is an odd one out it’s Lush – Great product, but it’s a great shopping experience. It’s an “Apple” type shopping experience. Soap you really do want to lick!

    I don’t think a USP is as important to your business as your customer focus, those businesses have USP’s but is that what’s responsible for their success?

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  9. ‘Be more weird’… I wonder the reaction if I suggested this for a new company mission statement…it’s got a certain something!

    I really enjoyed this post, Paul, and the debate that has ensued!

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