Thinking Differently Is Slowing Transformation

Despite the perpetual cheerleading for innovation, most of our organisations need to be boringly effective.

This week we’ve been mapping our work across 30 service objectives at Bromford – and it strikes me that most of what we do doesn’t need any bells and whistles. It just needs ruthless efficiency.

Our innovation efforts really need to focus around the 10% – where we can be truly different. Everywhere else we can pretty much copy what the best in the leading sectors are doing.

The social sector is terrible at just implementing what works everywhere else. 

That’s why you get bespoke housing, health, education, justice and social care ‘solutions’.

According to the latest report from Gartner only 5% of government/public sector environments rate as ‘top’, in terms of their digital transformation credibility.

The vast majority – 95% – are swimming in a sea of mediocrity and operate at only average or worse-than-average performance levels compared to other industries.

The social sector is hampered by increasingly ageing applications, which don’t lend themselves well to ambitious digital transformation schemes. 54% of government core business applications were implemented between 1990 and 2009.

We have people coming into the work place who are using systems and applications that are older than they are.

Transformation is failing for many reasons, including a skills deficit , a lack of vision, and entrenched workplace culture.

There’s something else I think is hampering progress:

The insistence by the social sector that it is somehow unique.

That the services that are provided are different in there very nature to those provided elsewhere.

  • We are different – we cater for the vulnerable and excluded.
  • We are different – our users are not conventional customers but have complex needs .
  • We are different – we are people, not profit focused.

This insistence of this difference leads to two outcomes:

  • A preference for bespoke solutions rather than what’s already available and what works best
  • The resulting needless organisational complexity

Despite the hype – most of our organisations provide the same services as everyone else. We have customers:

  • They order and purchase things
  • Things need scheduling
  • Jobs need completing
  • Stuff needs paying for

At the highest level – we are no different from your local pizza delivery place. Except they probably have a more customer focused service offering than we do.

It’s when we get into the detail that we get complexity creep – when we start insisting we need all sorts of checks and balances as our users are different.


Our design principles were implemented partly to counter this view that we are somehow different from everyone else.

Thinking you are different is the first step towards complexity. And for most organisations it’s easier to make a simple thing more complex than it is to make a complex thing more simple.

Our customers’ needs are not so complicated though. To transform we need to focus on simplicity and standardisation.

If we spent 90% of our time trying to be the same as everyone else rather than convincing ourselves of our difference, we might boost our effectiveness.

We only need to be different where it matters to customers.

Everywhere else – we can be simple but boring.



8 thoughts on “Thinking Differently Is Slowing Transformation

  1. Paul, good perspective. While I agree the variety of bespoke tech ‘solutions’ (for what are essentially common interactions) hampers innovation, I think paradoxically the reason this is and why digital transformation is struggling to generate impact, is because strategic planning doesn’t go deep enough.

    I absolutely agree that we could and should be taking a ‘U-bend’ approach to digital design. No-one redesigns the u-bend anymore because it absolutely works the way it needs to. It doesn’t need anything else.

    But to thrive, every organisation must create and sustain points of difference. Really smart digital strategies play to and develop those points of difference and they create compelling experiences through their own way of configuring exciting interaction.

    It’s the one-size-fits-all, off-the-shelf approach here that is bland and boring.

    1. Thanks Anne – there’s an inherent tension here but I think your point about strategic planning not going deep enough is spot on.

      There are experiences we need customers (and colleagues) to have that should be unique points of difference. This is where the design needs to run deep and infect the rest of the organisation. The danger is thinking all organisational parts are somehow equal when it comes to digital design.

      It’s the thinking time and planning for holistic organisational change that most times just doesn’t happen.

      Too often everything gets boiled down to a transaction that lends itself to off-the-shelf vanilla.

  2. Thanks for this Paul. I despair at the waste of time, money, energy spent by housing organisations trying to prove how ‘special’ they are.
    To me it’s all just coffee. Might be Maxwell House granules. Might be that posh stuff pooed out by a monkey in Lima and hand-roasted by ‘artisans’ in Brighton. Might be anything in between but when push comes to shove punters want a cup of coffee.
    Tenants not particularly interested in your ‘brand’ – neither is anyone else.

  3. Paul – this is very similar to other sectors and has been going on for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s I worked in building societies, and most in that sector thought we were a special case. The organisation I worked for punched well above its weight exactly because we weren’t different and we adopted patterns from other sectors. However, in my limited experience of the housing sector, there is one key difference – I tried to engage with the sector some years ago, but there was some (completely spurious) benchmarking data doing the rounds which said that money spent with externals brought a lower rate of return. One can only speculate at the motives for promoting that nonsense. Innovation in a sector usually starts with the process of abstraction; abstract your situation to the generic then match the abstract pattern to other sectors. Then work on the wrinkles of applying it to your own specifics. It’s quite simple really, and external experience is often the quickest and most cost effective way to do that. Regards

    1. Thanks Doug – I don’t know where this thinking comes from but it might have its origin in how we recruit. Employers have a choice whether they “grow their own” or do they go out into the job market and recruit outsiders. Research shows some quite substantial costs to external recruits and some substantial benefits to internal mobility.

      If an organisation has a strong internal grow your own culture that could – I’m supposing – lead to a culture of doing things yourselves. And as we know – proximity to a problem doesn’t necessarily make you the best people to introduce a solution.

      Thanks for commenting

      1. Currently everyone is talking about digital transformation but it’s nothing new really – it’s been happening since 1990’s. However there is a critical mass which is creating an imperative around it and unfortunately lots of comment and advice from people with no solid experience in the field. There’s more on PROVEN, PRACTICAL approaches to digital transformation on my website

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s