We need less talk about innovation and more about mediocrity

  “The only way to get mediocre is one step at a time. But you don’t have to settle. It’s a choice you get to make every day.” – Seth Godin


In my last post I named innovation as the most overused word of 2014.

It’s consistently misapplied to things that really aren’t innovative at all. Plus there’s now a surfeit of Labs , Accelerators and Hubs that have turned innovation into an industry all based around – umm –  being innovative.

But as self serving as the innovation industry is becoming there’s a much bigger problem.

Ever since I made THAT comment about drones – I’ve been asked more about the return on investment of innovation than I have in the past 10 years.

So what makes us question its value? Why do we apply scrutiny to people working in innovation in a way we don’t to other functions like Operations, IT, Communications, HR or Finance?

Maybe it’s human nature to pay a lot more attention to new things whilst ignoring the waste we build up around us.  When things have been around forever we stop noticing there are almost always better ways of doing things.

Here’s an example:

Something new:

Bromford announce an Innovation Lab with a fairly modest investment (four full time colleagues at a cost of less than 1% of total surplus). But despite only being a few months old we’ve had calls to externally publish our business plan, targets, costs and outcomes. The leadership of Bromford has been called into question for allowing such apparent waste.

Something old:

There are 1700 housing associations registered in the UK. So that’s 1700 CEOs. And probably about 5000 boards as each HA seems to have at least two or three. That simply cannot be efficient. But no one questions it.

Now expand that thinking.

Across the NHS, which is at breaking point even though it employs more people than the entire population of Estonia.

Across Local Government , care  , support and the welfare to work sector.

Now include the funders , think tanks and all the industry bodies.

Virtually all of them will have their own network of offices with their own IT, Communications, HR and Finance functions. Most were built with pre-digital thinking and with little thought about collaboration.

And if we looked closely at those hundreds of thousands of organisations with their billions of pounds of funding we’d be able to deduce three things:

  • One third would be excellent – and have a high capability and confidence when it comes to innovation.
  • One third would be average – although they think about innovation they only occasionally transform thought into action.
  • And one third would be absolute rubbish.

So I’ve a plan. Let’s continue to challenge the self proclaimed innovators.

They should publish their outcomes and their costs.

They need to lead the way when it comes to transparency.

But why let mediocrity off so lightly?

  • Let’s start questioning the organisations that exhibit no commitment to innovation.
  • Let’s challenge the publicly funded bodies where innovation is not addressed in their strategy or values.
  • Let’s see what resources organisations are allocating to disruptive thinking.

And let’s ask them whose responsibility it is to act upon bright ideas from the public and their staff – and ensure they get explored.

Mediocrity isn’t an accident. Let’s declare war on it.


22 thoughts on “We need less talk about innovation and more about mediocrity

  1. I should point out Paul that, as a communications person, I can assure you we are expected to demonstrate our value now more than ever. I’m up for doing so because it’s the right thing to do. This is not easy and may not necessarily translate into financial terms, but if we can’t demonstrate the value we create it becomes difficult to justify our existence. No amount of highlighting others’ shortcomings changes that fundamental fact.

    Re the drones comment, you’re not the first person to be caught unawares by a journalist in the crowd, although a savvy comms person could have forewarned you of this pitfall! That’s part of what we bring to the table every day, and is not the picture of mediocrity you depict.

    1. Thanks Ben – I think some comms teams are expected to demonstrate VFM although I’d challenge whether all are. That said I do think Comms and Marketing is a more scrutinised function than say IT, HR or – the least scrutinised of all – Finance.

      Just so I’m clear I wasn’t specifically accusing Comms people. But there is plenty of mediocre Comms – just as there is for every other function. Including Innovation!

  2. Bang on the money chap. Must admit I am guilty of over-using the I-word myself. The reaction to the Bromford Innovation lab is alas a sad reflection of the deeply conservative sector we work in. Can only hope this will change in time.

    1. Thanks – I think financial pressures will be main driver of need to challenge mediocrity. And the I-word is the only way of out of mediocrity…

  3. You always manage to articulate so well what I am thinking! Great post and absolutely agree, particularly about Boards – the sector is are overrun with NEDs of varying qualities and impact to the business. I regularly still hear things like “there’s a full stop missing at the end of the second sentence in paragraph………..” Where is the innovation at Board coming from? Why are we so intent on reporting, benchmarking, targets……..why can’t we all just agree to improve tomorrow what we did today in everything we do. The constant having to prove to so many people the reason for our being drains the energy, passion and “can do” attitude from so many great people around us on a daily basis. Strip all/some of that out and who will benefit……….our customers – the reason we are here, yes?

    1. Thanks Tracey. Very relevant about Boards. I find that many organisations in the “highly capable” innovation camp have much more streamlined governance arrangements and focus more on shaping / coaching than checking and benchmarking. How many Boards are structured for innovation and digital leadership?

    2. Agree! or as my gran used to say “folk should put their own house in order before they seek to lead others” or as th’owd bible says ‘first cast the bean out of thine own eye’. There is far too much paperwork and tick boxes for anything innovative to actually happen these days.

  4. Hi Paul

    I’m afraid I’ll have to respectfully disagree with parts of your blog. Please bear with me – hopefully you’ll find a reasoned argument below 🙂

    I hate mediocrity and ‘just getting by’ too. My own background is one of constant improvement – I agree firmly with moving the goalposts as soon as you start getting too comfortable. Challenging yourself is the only way to improve!

    There are many people like me, who seek to improve through continuous professional development. There are loads of courses and conferences in whatever field you are in. I can only speak about comms but I know that in Manchester, there are loads of housing comms bods who are eager and willing to learn from each other’s expertise and move forward. We have a cake club, we go to conferences. We email each other and constantly seek to get better.

    Many of the people in those groups would baulk at being labelled mediocre.

    The other thing I’d like to question is your maths! I agree that there are people within our industry who are happy to be mediocre. I think that’s a real shame and would agree with most of your points on this.

    But I think you are overstating the issue. I’m not sure that you can divide the groups into equal thirds. I don’t think that there’s an equal top tier of innovators, an equal middle-tier of just-getting-bys and an equal bottom tier of rubbish.

    I just don’t think that’s true and I’d like to understand how you’ve arrived at those figures.

    I suppose I’d also like to question your definition of innovation. Are you talking about ‘big’ innovation here? Or little innovation? And which is better? The best definition I could find was from 1992, so it’s quite old.

    “Innovation can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, inarticulated needs, or existing market needs.”

    Where I think we agree is in our mutual hatred of the phrase “It’s always been done this way.” “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” is, to me, one of the most scandalous phrases in the English language. It doesn’t need to be ‘broke’ to be made better.

    So I consider innovation to be rethinking how things are done. That could be in the most simple form of re-drafting a letter. It could be reviewing a process, streamlining. Taking out a middle man. Constantly evaluating what you are doing to make sure it’s working. If it isn’t working, then making it better.

    That, to me, is just as important in the world of innovation as drones. For the record and for the removal of doubt, I think your drones idea is really interesting. I congratulate you on it and wish you well with it.

    But I think that ruling out two-thirds of the housing sector as lacking in innovation is a big leap, particularly if that’s because they aren’t making those big public gestures.

    Finally, I’d just like to echo Ben’s comments about comms proving its worth. I know you’ve addressed it in the comments field, but I agree completely that comms is one of the most evaluated parts of the business. Although we give off a fluffy exterior, comms teams are well-versed in hard maths – calculating return on marketing investments, analysing data etc.

    More than ever, we’re forced to prove that what we are doing makes a difference. I think that’s a good thing.

    1. Great comment Pamela thanks for taking time.

      First of all can I be clear that I’m definitely not labelling people as mediocre. Most people – in any organisation – come to work to do a good job. Most people will suggest ways that job can be improved. A tiny minority of these ideas will be listened to and even fewer acted upon. The person eventually gives up pitching ideas and sticks to the way it’s always been done.

      This – in my opinion – is a more common scenario than we think and why we need to focus on innovation capability. The housing sector is probably no better or no worse than average on this. However – it is not organised for innovation. If it was it would never have allowed the creation of , say, choice based lettings – one of the most abysmal customer experiences available on the planet.

      The maths is of course a gross oversimplification of reality. But in my experience of being in the sector for 16 years I don’t think it’s that far from the truth. There will always be leaders in deploying new thinking and product and there will be always be laggards. And there’s always a middle ground in transition.

      The main point is this is not aimed at the housing sector or even the public sector. But all organisations have a responsibility to weed out mediocrity and to make free expression of new ideas the default.

  5. Hi Paul. An interesting and challenging piece as always.
    I think I have said before that over my career I have worked
    with many HAs who tried to challenge current practice and do things
    in a different way using new technology and processes. HACT is still
    leading the way on this. My first HA then called CCHA now part of Midland
    Heart set up an R&D department in 1980. Two of its early innovations
    were introducing production line techniques to the Rehab process and new
    financial models for home ownership. It also introduced extra care to the sector.
    I guess what I am saying is challenge and change is not new in the sector. I always liked the thought that my coach for a number of years was Jenny Tann who now has the great title of Emerita Professor of Innovation at Birmingham University!!

    1. Fair point Tom and I agreed challenge and change is not new – and can be over-hyped. But I think we know that we’ll be need to be at the top of our game for foreseeable future

      Thanks for commenting

  6. Very good post that I agree with. 1700 CEOs and 5000 is a extravagance that is totally unjustified and serves no residents interests and only those who are earning a wage well beyond what their skills warrant

    My view is all too often with a few wonderful exceptions the sector is dominated by exec leaders whose first thought is self preservation and risk aversion. They push out fresh thinking for fear of what change might mean for them and proclaim to care about mission and customers when really they care only for their own status and benefits.

    All power to the challenge you make and the leadership your organisation shows in backing you, I fear the voices for change are too sparse and the status quo too strong but hope I am wrong. I also think if the sector is hoping a Labour government rides to its rescue next year it is mistaken and that the policy agenda will only driven more change on a sector that wants to bury its head in the sand and hope policy comes to back to a view which has long since past
    Time to have leaders that are change orientated , open to risk and innovation and do not see organisations are their own personal fiefdoms (how long is the average tenure of CEOs in HAs?), when this change happens then maybe the sector will truly start to serve its customers in the way they deserve so much

    1. Wow – challenging comment! It might be that having 1700 CEOs is the very model of efficiency – but I’m unconvinced when you scale it up across the rest of the “social sector”.

      One of the biggest issues we face in a networked age is that rigid structures and hierarchies prevent breakthrough innovation. I don’t think we are currently organised in a way that focuses us on the right things.

      Thanks for your comment

      1. Challenging commentary is the only way to start a dialog that challenges the comfort zone that too many public sector organisations culture is rooted within. I am sure you agree that If you were to start the sector afresh it would never be designed with 1700 CEOs , 5000 boards etc.

        You are absolutely right that rigid hierarchies based on status constrains innovation and change all too often. However with the networked age giving more and more information and thus empowerment to customers combined with the political direction of travel it will ultimately force this comfortable consensus to change far more rapidly and extensively that we see at present.

        Best wishes on your endeavours and continue to promote the change that is needed

  7. It think you’ve hit the nail on the head here Paul.
    There is an obsession with trying to measure the return on investment of innovation (or anything new for that matter), whist the waste piles up knee deep with things that have been going on in the same old way for years.
    Part of the reason?
    The old things are comfortable, safe and low risk. Better th kill off the new (with un-achievable requirements to prove ROI) rather than risk upsetting the apple-cart.
    Just to cheer things up a bit.
    Back in the 2000’s Best Practice was the ‘phrase de jour’.
    There’s an interesting take on mediocrity and best practice from Dilbert back in 2008.
    Basically he’s saying, if everyone is implementing industry best practice, aren’t we just mediocre?
    What will be the case when everyone says they are doing a dumbed down, homogenised form of innovation…… What do we move onto then?
    Arrrghhhh …..
    I’ll tweet you the Dilbert cartoon.
    Great post.

  8. Indeed the world talking much about fostering innovations and helping entrepreneurs, while at the same time keeping mum about the credit-risk weighted capital requirements for banks.

    That piece of regulation imposes on our banks the kind of risk aversion that, in the best case scenario, can give you mediocrity but that, in the long run, should only be able to guarantee that our economy will stall and fall… and that our western world economy, built upon risk-taking will, like old soldiers. fade away.

  9. Great post. Very interesting to read some of the comments on the lack of innovation being about preserving the status quo. Our colleague Mark Jeffs has written a great blog on how staying as we are is actually risky in the current climate (http://jointhedwts.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/do-nothing-is-not-the-safe-option/). We need innovation in order to keep services viable, let alone improve them. Thought provoking stuff, cheers Paul.

    – Dyfrig

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