How your culture can promote innovation

“Organisational culture is the sum of values and rituals, which serve as ‘glue’ to integrate the members of the organisation.” – Richard Perrin

I spent a wonderful day in Belfast this week with a group of Housing Organisations. It was refreshing as I got to talk not about tech and social media – but of leadership and culture.

We often bemoan the lack of adoption of innovative practices across the public sector and local government. But less often do we examine the reason why. 

One of them is they just aren’t ready for the latest innovation.

The culture of some organisations is superbly designed to repel anything new. Even if you let it in the organisational antibodies would surround it – killing it in no time. Like the common cold – you may get away with being a bloody great irritant for a while – but against a strong body you’ve no chance long term. 

I’ve been lucky enough to visit lots of organisations doing presentations on the Bromford culture – usually with my co-presenter Helena Moore (who recruited me long ago and did many of the slides above).  

We date our cultural journey from about 2000 – although truth be told a lot of the way we do things were laid out well before then. 

Here are four things I’ve picked up about culture and innovation along the way: 

Leadership is critical

You simply cannot create a culture of innovation if your leadership is not on side. As I’ve said before , if you’ve tried to change executive attitudes and the CEO still doesn’t get it – you have only one option.

Leave the company. 

It’s a noble task to continue the fight – but futile. Find somewhere where your energy and passions will be put to better use. 

The private sector is not more innovative than the public sector. 

There’s good and bad in both. However the private sector has got greater self belief and tends to source ideas better from customers and colleagues. The public sector , which can be prone to increased bureaucracy and risk aversion, is more likely to smother people’s natural creativity. When you’ve had an idea crushed for the 100th time it’s only human to stop telling people about them. Value all colleague and customer ideas – and have a disciplined approach to testing them out.

Being publicly funded is no excuse to be as boring as hell.

Mission and values set a tone for creativity. 

If you’re doing it right they become more than words on paper. They become a call to action and set a behaviour for the organisation. We ditched our mission and values when we realised they were exactly the same as hundreds of others. We asked colleagues to come up with something that they could believe in and remember. 

They came up with the DNA – Be Different, Be Brave , Be Commercial , Be Good. They’ve been made hashtag friendly so people use them in social conversations.  Others have attached their own personal meaning to the words.

Language matters.

It defines us. At Bromford we don’t use the word department (it’s team) we don’t call people staff (they are colleagues) , we don’t say tenants (they’re customers). I’m frequently challenged on the latter when I use it on Twitter. But I have been for over 10 years! Let your organisational language evolve for you and ignore those who sneer or pick fault. Be different.

Never believe your hype.

No matter what awards you win. No matter how many customers say you are brilliant – never ever believe it. The right cultures blend respect for their tradition with a healthy paranoia about the future. Your history counts for nothing tomorrow. 

On 24th October is was our Bromford Bash – a gathering that we feel is culturally important enough to bring 1200 colleagues together. 

It was the last event where Mick Kent will be our CEO. He’s moving on to new adventures in January.

CEOs come and go these days but Mick has headed up Bromford for 30 years. That’s longer than many of our customers and colleagues have been alive. He’s been an immense keeper of the culture. 

He’s one of the few CEOs I could confidently pitch an Innovation Lab to with the words “Look , 75% of what we do will fail”. But I knew I wouldn’t be shown the door. 

Innovation is most likely to take hold where strong leadership coexists with healthy financial viability and a well managed approach to risk. 

As Mick said on Twitter recently  “I never wanted us to be like everyone else …always proud to be different”.

What a journey. 

I guess the next one has just begun. 

14 responses to “How your culture can promote innovation”

  1. Clear, succinct, to the point and as usual thought provoking. Leadership is key & if it blocks or stifles innovation then culturally your business won’t move forward or succeed. Lots of debate at the moment about change, technological advancement & why the sector isn’t fully embracing it. Leadership may have the answers…

    1. Thanks Lisa I think you’re right. Sometimes we overstate the power of social media but the one think I it has successfully done is throw open the window on organisational culture and leadership styles. Possibly a reason many still resist it…

  2. Love this, Paul. Dare to be different, ignore the naysayers, ride out the negativity. As I said on Twitter last night…. whoever is delivering training in resisting change is really good.

    1. We all have our own personal thresholds when dealing with change but I think you’re right – the balance is slightly skewed at the moment. I think the point by Lisa above sheds some light here – there’s a leadership issue. It was wonderful yesterday at the Bromford Bash to hear our next CEO talking about pop up hubs as ways of working, ending micro management and using tech to experiment. That sends a clear message out to people – if you’re not up for being brave and moving forward , you probably need to look elsewhere.

      I’d like to hear more people delivering bold visions of change.

  3. Great post Paul, lots of points in here that are bang on the money. The language issue in particular is vital. I like the way Bromford use customers – it implies a power shift toward their favour. Languiage definitely has the power to both undermine or reinforce culture and mindset, so if you can get this right, it opens a lot of doors.

    Have a great weekend!


  4. It’s interesting how you interpret that Dyfrig as it’s the exact opposite of how many in my own sector view it.

    They see it is actually disempowering as it undermines tenants rights as well as implying they have choice.

    But you’re interpretation is exactly in line with its original intention. When I was visiting organisations back in the early 00’s I was struck by a customer focus that was lacking in our sector at the time – and that’s why we introduced it.

  5. Reblogged this on The Creek Bed and commented:
    I think this appropriate to reblog after Council on Innovation yesterday.

  6. good presentation – what are the otucomes which say – this is working? (One of my aunties is a Bromford tenant and customer – tenant is a legal status, customer is about how people are treated).

    1. Thanks Paul. Evaluating outcomes of culture is a very difficult thing.

      Indicators I would look for:

      How well do colleagues work together?
      Is there evidence of colleagues and customers speaking up to identify problems?
      How do the company values play into the culture?
      How does the company deal with new ideas?

      But of course many would look at metrics around engagement , advocacy etc. I always remember a judge on the customer experience circuit telling me that culture could be evaluated within 2 minutes of walking through the door! Unscientific but I think he could be right!

      A bit different to new product or service development where I think we’ve been historically slow at developing decent test measures and outcome appraisals.

      I agree by the way about separating legal status from relationship status. As Dyfrig noted above the use of customer was meant to illustrate a power shift in favour of tenant. Customer is our collective term as many of our services users have no tenant relationship with us.

  7. […] I explained in my last post – this is one of the reasons people may dislike you. Many people , whatever they say , […]

  8. Reblogged this on bromfordhr and commented:
    (Almost) everything I love about Bromford summarised in Paul Taylor’s latest post.

  9. I learned from experience about your point about the private sector not being more innovative than publicly funded orgs – amen to that. I realised actually caring about the effect your work has on the world is a motivating factor I need to do my best stuff.

    Your point about being boring is great too – take any of my favourite brands and they just shouldn’t be able to compete.

    Guinness is lovely but it will always be the same, a (delicious) black and white drink – simple and unchanging. Subway do nice sandwiches, Lego make little bricks.

    The work of housing associations, councils, the NHS and other government departments is about our lives: it’s dramatic, it makes a difference to the way we live every day and the stories are changing and fascinating.

    Being important doesn’t mean being tedious. Having serious intentions doesn’t stop you from being entertaining.

    Next to the ‘cool’ brands we can proudly see our ‘product’ is way more interesting. There are no excuses for the dull or (small c) conservative approaches we might think are the norm.

    1. Yes, Helen. Yes, yes, and double yes…… and a triple yes as well!!!!

  10. Social landlords being boring (or not) being innovative (or not) hides or ignores a significant par of the jigsaw and that is the speed of change. Many social landlords have a speed of change akin to an elephant on a snowboard going down a giant slalom course and suddenly realising they need to go uphill – a long winded and verbose analogy but you get the point!

    This is THE essential element of the culture of change, having the b*lls to change or attempt it, the will to try – not just the first PC being an XT with twin 5.25″ floppy drives as in the presentation (yes showing my age and no not harping on about digital, digital digital as the only panacea!)

    The pace of change is not just about having a boss that says try it Paul, go for it, if 3 in 4 b*gger up thats your fault and the 1 in 4 that succeeds is all your credit. The pace of change is relative to how social landlords know their (soon to be) customer as prior to welfare reform and its behavioural nudge theory, social landlords never HAD to know their tenants but do now. The welfare reforms truly put the ‘social’ into social housing as never before needed.

    Unfortunately, social landlords tend to react to and not lead change and that has to change too. Social housing like all industries has to be ahead of the curve not trying to make up an impossible curve like the elephant on the snowboard.

    Social landlords are often more resistant to criticism however constructive than resistant to change – that too has to change and change quickly. We may not be able to go back and change (DeLorean aside) but we all need to admit mistakes and be empirical about them.

    Change needs to be welcomes and while scary is far from boring and for me exciting as hell, not for change sake but for a constant striving to improve everything housing does and can do

    Working in supported housing for most of my 20+ years in housing, mainstream general needs housing which unlike supported didnt have to deal with people but with units of bricks and mortar and didnt have to know its tenant (or customer) needs to embrace that dimension given the welfare reforms put the social into social housing. General needs housing needs to embrace not deny that expertise of that complex tiny subset of housing that is complex and has reputational risk very high up the daily agenda which welfare reform necessitates now.

    Social housing by definition deals with people and about time the snowboarding elephants all too prevalent realised these basic points and stopped resisting change out of the we have always done it this (boring) way mentality

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