How To Get Better At Failing

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“Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.” Neil Gaiman

Just before Christmas – in my final catch up of the year with my manager  – a pretty significant thing happened.

I was told that Bromford Lab seriously needs to up its failure rate in 2015.

Welcome to the parallel organisational universe that I exist in!

Of course this need for greater transparency of failure should be common sense to us by now.

Nielsen research suggests that “about two out of every three products are destined to fail.” However , outside of the startup community , this is rarely acknowledged and hardly ever promoted. 

In the public sector , where projects take years rather than weeks,  and pilots become mainstream services without any evaluation – things are worse.

Nothing fails.

Everything is a success.

If you doubt me on this pick any organisation and take a look at their annual review or report. See if you can find any mention of the things they did that failed – and what they learned as a result.

We are afraid of failing and it’s seriously constraining our creativity – and ultimately our credibility.

Here’s five ways we can get better at failure

Give people permission:

Too often targets and KPIs drive perverse incentives and lead to managers forgetting why they are even there. The Lab has no targets. Not a single one. It has an ethos though that 75% of work is permissible failure.

If we solely targeted success through the Lab – it would be catastrophic. It would drive a behaviour of pushing rubbish ideas into the organisational DNA. By giving people permission to fail you are saying “use your common sense”. That’s the only target you need.

Change the definition:

People see failure as a bad thing as it has been drummed into us through childhood and the corporate machinery. It has come to mean letting people down. Try to rebrand failure as a journey of discovery – in which you’ll learn the possibilities for you and your organisation.

Let’s remember there have been some amazing by-products of “failure”. Columbus could be said to have failed when he set out to find a new route to Asia, but his voyages led to the widespread knowledge that a new continent – America – existed.  3M certainly failed when they invented a glue that didn’t stick – but as we know it led to the creation of the Post-It note.  Failure is an option. Acknowledge and prepare for it.

See it as an investment:

This seems counter intuitive but there is a strong economic argument for failing more often.  As an example let’s say it takes 6 months and £100,000 to take a product from idea to launch. At best you’ll get two cycles in a year.

However, if you can do a complete cycle of learning in a week for £2000,  you can get 52 cycles in a year at about half the cost. Many of those cycles of learning will fail but will have less risk and negative impact than your latest big initiative. In the words of Andrew Stanton – “be wrong as fast as you can.”

Have a scientific approach:

Embracing failure does not mean having a lax approach or work environment. Have a hypothesis and test it. Involve your data geeks and people who have no vested interests in seeing the idea succeed. If people start getting excited you have a discovery. If not –  people will still feel it was worthwhile learning – but quickly move on to the next idea.

Capture the learning:

Failure is only bad if we are doomed to repeat it. Breaking our organisations out of cyclical failure is a huge challenge. Chris Bolton has asked if there’s a need for a Museum of Failed Products within public services. He’s undoubtedly right – the ‘corporate memory’ is often unreliable.

Don’t confuse this though with “We tried that before and it didn’t work.”  In the Lab we are quickly filling up our Failure Shelf  – but we might dust them down and give them another run out on a rainy day. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right.

And don’t be afraid of being laughed at , by colleagues , the public or competitors.

We will be laughed at as some people are willing us to fail. So embrace it.

Our job is to ceaselessly ask the question: would we do it this way if we started again?

The answer. Almost always.

No.

We need more people solving problems – not professionals.

Everyone has a story to tell, everyone has strengths beneath the conceptions that you have of them. But if you’re curious enough, you may just find that the answers you’ve always been looking for are there, often right beside you. – William Lilley

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Everywhere you look at the beginning of 2015 you will see a crisis.

In case you missed it there is currently a crisis in Accident and Emergency Units which is part of the wider health crisis. There’s a housing crisis as well. And a crisis in social care , unemployment , education and policing. Not forgetting the welfare crisis which is wreaking havoc on millions.

There’s crisis everywhere.

The current trend in mainstream politics , and on social media , is to talk of Britain as broken.  And then we act all surprised and outraged when people turn to parties like UKIP who hark back to a golden age that never truly existed.

People are so sick of hearing about crisis they lose faith and begin searching for someone who appears to offer a more compelling vision. Who can blame them?

Except if you scratch the service on any of those things you’ll find the crisis label to be untrue, or misleading at the very least.

What we have is an excess of demand over supply and deeply dysfunctional systems.

Most of our public services were designed pre-decimal never mind pre-digital.

We really shouldn’t be surprised they aren’t fit for purpose.

The problem lies with the people who created those systems and who work within them. Us.

Over new year I had a break at one of the Red Sea resorts seeking a bit of winter sun along with scores of pasty faced Europeans.

One of the benefits of being locked into an all-inclusive euro-mashup is you have some very random conversations with people we are told are hugely different to us , but are of course not.

The best conversation I had was with an Italian guy and one of our Egyptian hosts.

We were talking about the various crises our countries are experiencing and the role of communities.

Sal was telling us of the boom in the ‘suspended coffee’ movement in Italy.  The concept is pretty simple: You walk into a coffee shop, and instead of buying just one cup of coffee you also buy one (or more) for someone in need. Your get yours and the second coffee is “suspended”. It can be claimed or given out by the barista to people they think deserving. I always believed that the movement was a modern viral phenomenon but Sal told us it was a Neapolitan tradition that originated in World War II. The principle is that in a time of hardship, Italians can lack many things, but not coffee!

Ahmad told us about the rise of the “Town Helper” in parts of Cairo and Alexandria. Because of the huge drain of young men to work in the Red Sea resorts many of the families left behind face a significant skills gap. These guys work incredibly long hours with hardly anytime off. When they do  get a few days off – every few weeks – they return to their families for precious time with loved ones. To make sure they spend the maximum time with their families they fund , largely through tips from tourists , a number of people to do tasks whilst they are away from home. Each Helper , is shared between a number of families , to plug the gaps that have been left in communities.

I talked of the growth of Food Banks in the UK which we largely view as a sign of failure but actually speak of tremendous generosity – of communities looking after their own. I don’t pretend to give lots, I just throw a few things in the collection on every visit to the supermarket – to the extent that I’ve actually stopped thinking about it. It’s just a little pay it forward gesture that millions of us are doing without prompting. I also told them of the Bromford Deal and how we are embarking on a huge cultural shift to unlock potential in people rather than seeing ourselves as professional rescuers.

I talked of how the Deal is – at its essence – a belief that people don’t exist in a state of need and can do amazing things if we empower them and step out of the way.

Due to excess brandy the conversation veered off in all sorts of directions: but the important thing is we all agreed that some of the best initiatives don’t come from Government. None of the above did.

For many years we’ve built infrastructure and services that people neither need or want. We make interventions without outcomes. We produce reports that have no readers. 

We must ask ourselves how we became so removed from the people we were set up to serve. 

Our communities are not in crisis.

There is a massive untapped reservoir of skill and talent that we chose to ignore because we thought we could do it better as professionals.

We couldn’t.

Let’s put it right.

2015: The year we put the social back into housing 

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You can have super star status online without any official status offline; you can be a powerful chief executive offline with very little impact online – Victoria Betton 

Just over two years ago I pronounced rather grandly that 2012 was the year we went social. The year the UK housing sector embraced new technologies embarking on a journey of redefinition for the era of digital transformation.

Looking back at that now it seems very naive. 

In reality only a fraction of the sector is genuinely experimenting with new forms of digital engagement. 

I haven’t the time or inclination to count how many housing CEOs maintain an active social media presence . But I’m taking a considered guesstimate it’s around 15%. 

By way of example just five of the high profile G15 Group of CEOs have a presence on Twitter and only three in a way that’s meaningful. 

But it’s not just leaders , The staple roles of the sector , housing officer , maintenance engineer , support worker are – by and large – missing in action and failing to embrace golden opportunities to connect with communities. 

Board members are pretty much invisible although there are some very notable exceptions. 

Organisations that livestream or share from board meetings?  CEOs doing Facebook chats or hangouts? You could count them on one hand – even if you’d had an unfortunate accident with a meat cleaver.

 Additionally most organisations still have the dial firmly set to Promote rather than Converse.

Do a check on any housing brand account. Check how many of their last 10 posts directly link back to their own website. There’s a prize if you can name ten that don’t reference themselves 90% of the time. 

Here’s a shot of realism: UK housing is about 10-15% operational on social media. At best. 

This speaks to me of a lack of curiosity. An insularity that has haunted the sector for the entire time I’ve been part of it. It’s not a good look. 

People often talk to me about the battles fought in their organisations to get digital adopted. It’s all too often a sad story of risk averse leaders , hierarchical control and command, power mad comms teams and rabid IT and governance departments.

Of course this isn’t true everywhere: some are setting an astonishing pace. 

Power Players 14 and Connected Housing showed there are a raft of organisations and people who are sharing ideas, connecting with others and reaching beyond sector boundaries. We could have filled the Power Players list four times over last year.

There’s also a growing movement of CEO front runners – although it’s notably stronger in northern England and Wales than elsewhere. 

This lack of leadership presence is especially puzzling given housing has an obsession about getting its message heard. (The laudable if slightly self-serving “build more homes”). 

And therein lies the problem: anyone that focuses solely on getting their message heard is guilty of the most heinous of social crimes: broadcasting. 

My big wish for 2015? That organisations and a whole sector could wake up to that fact that endlessly broadcasting your “message” just isn’t going to work. 

This is a world built on relationships and connections. It involves you listening to others, generously sharing and doing more than just following everyone else in your sector. 

I hope to be writing a different post in 12 months time.

  • I hope to write of the social leaders who are openly challenging mediocre services and championing innovation and risk.
  • I hope to see organisations using social to reconnect with communities and embracing the emerging online tenant voice. 
  • I want to see organisations experimenting with new networks and technology in inventive ways. Having a Twitter account is a minimum requirement now not a badge of honour.
  • I’d love to see more recognition of the talents of individuals and communities rather than the well intentioned but paternalistic focus on rescuing people from the latest reforms. 

Most of all I want social housing to be more social.

It’s a new year and a new start – where we can put bad habits to bed. Latecomers can join the party and we’ll welcome them with open arms.

Let’s make 2015 our Zero Year. 

We can do amazing things when we’re better connected. 

My Five Most Popular Posts of 2014

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It’s the time of year to reflect on the past 12 months and consider where next – personally and professionally. 

To that we also need to add our online profiles and give consideration to how we spend our digital time. The temptation with social is to spread yourself across every available platform – and I can’t be the only one nearing digital burnout. 

I closed several accounts this year and am starting to withdraw from the seemingly endless discussion groups. “Let’s set up a Yammer group to continue this debate”.  No, let’s not! Social media going forward is about developing social layers rather than siloed networks.

This year I’ve spent more time on Instagram and SlideShare than before and Twitter continues to provide great value. 

It’s been a pretty good year for this blog. It’s had a significant increase in hits and , much more importantly, a big spike in the number of comments and contributors. 

I think with blogging most of us start out posting what we think other people would want to hear before finding our true voice. The organic nature of social media means you end up in the hands of people who share the same passions – and you connect with fascinating people from all over the world. 

Whatever anyone says, blogging isn’t easy. Just like any form of social media the more you give the more you get out.

I know a lot of people who’ve started blogging in a professional capacity only to give up when their first few posts receive minimal attention. 

It’s time to wake up folks. 

Social media is an increasingly crowded space and no-one is waiting on your latest pronouncement! Just because you are a big organisation or successful CEO you have absolutely no right to command attention. 

Social is about relationships – they take time to build and need effort to truly nurture. 

It’s no coincidence that the 5 most popular posts on here have either featured other people’s work , started a debate , or were collaborations.

Here they are – in reverse order of course: 

5 – We need less talk about innovation and more about mediocrity

My attempted takedown of the innovation naysayers generated lots of comment. The war on mediocrity needs to intensify in 2015. 

4 – Managers are waste: five organisations saying goodbye to the boss

As public service cuts deepen it’s only natural that enlightened organisations will embark on a cull of their most expendable and expensive resource – the manager.

3 – The Top 50 Digital #PowerPlayers14 in #UKhousing 

The second year of the online influencer list for people working in and around social housing sent my Twitter into meltdown. This time we introduced a public nominations system (thanks Shirley Ayres for that idea!) which received hundreds of votes – showing that people love the interactive elements of social.

2 – Three things we should learn from Benefits Street

I was in Vietnam when my UK timeline erupted in fury at the latest Channel 4 docu-soap. Intrigued as to whether the haters had actually watched it , I came back and viewed it back to back. They clearly hadn’t. Poverty porn, much like real porn I guess , comes in varying degrees of quality and this series was pretty damn good. It had a better narrative about hope and aspiration than the social housing sector has ever managed. 

1 – Why the death of the office can’t come too soon

My most popular post (ever) detailed how 90% of work is a waste of time and money. It split the comments section , but I guarantee we’ll see some big UK organisations rationalising their offices in 2015. 

My blogging resolution next year is to be more diligent with the regularity of posts. With the exception of powerplayers , all these were written very quickly indeed.

I mess about with posts too much and perhaps worry about offending people. On social media someone somewhere gets upset about anything and everything.

I’m going to hang a a little looser this year and maybe publish some of my 100+ draft posts. 

Happy New Year to you and your loved ones. Thanks for your support! 

10 things we learned from launching an Innovation Lab

“If you are going to take an innovation job, make sure to buy yourself some time, and then, use that time to make sure you make a difference.”  Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

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It’s now over six months since we launched Bromford Lab. I’ve been asked about setting it up more than anything else I’ve done in my career, so that seems enough reason to warrant a post.

So what’s gone well?

The first challenge of any Lab is to get internal colleagues to accept it. On this we can report success, far from being defensive, our colleagues have used sessions to critically examine their service areas. They’ve been open about failings and honest in identifying areas where we are coming up short.

People are pitching ideas. We’ve had 37 concepts in the Lab so far and people are not slow in coming forward . Customers are pitching ideas too, most notably through a dedicated blog page set up independently.

Internal barriers and silos are being eroded. Any Lab session can contain people from 4 or 5 different parts of the organisation – as well as customers.

There are lots of improvements to make though – we’ve identified that some concepts are not progressing fast enough and we need to boost the organisational metabolism. We also feel we’ve been so tied up with getting the Lab working internally we’ve neglected our wider network, particularly those people who expressed interest through the Twitter only recruitment.

Here are our ten lessons so far:

Think big. Start small.

Some of our concepts have hit a wall because we let them get too complicated. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing anything. If people wait for perfection before they put an idea to work, it will stall before it gets off the ground.

Assemble small teams.

Smaller companies are usually faster and more innovative than their larger counterparts. The same is true for teams. We have a core team of four and we’ll never work with teams of more than seven. We built the Lab to a specific size so they simply wouldn’t fit in.

People misinterpret innovation.

Sometimes they just expect uncontrolled creativity.  Being creative is great, but innovators need to turn creativity into output. That means we’ll need data. Evidence. We’ve had to develop a disciplined process for product or service development.

You have to stop thinking like the organisation.

The first job of the Lab manager is to protect the Lab from its host. Every Lab session starts with “This is not Bromford.”  Colleagues often need to lose their emotional and cultural baggage before they can truly create something new. 

Manage expectations.

Everyone thinks their idea needs attention. Often there’s a need for a more detailed problem definition before we go off creating things. Ultimately a Lab is a waste of time if it produces lots of things that don’t solve the right problems.

Put your network to work.

Many companies continue to assume that innovation comes from the lone genius.  In fact , most innovations are created through connections, and that will include the ones outside your organisation. Having an active social network makes your job a lot easier.

Try to de-risk your ideas as much as possible.

The biggest barrier in most organisations is risk aversion – so anticipate this in advance before presenting anything. Show that you acknowledge risk and have put as much cotton wool around your idea as possible. Governance teams can be your greatest enemies or biggest friends. We went for the latter. 

Challenge everything you currently do.

I’ve got it written into my job profile.  It’s a contractual obligation of an Innovation Team to ask the really stupid questions. Would we honestly do it this way if we started again?

Know when to pull the plug

Not every idea or project is destined for success. Stopping a project is a difficult decision but in certain cases, it’s inevitable. Colleagues want to make things work but that’s not always in the best interests of the customer or the company. You need to know when to pull the plug early to avoid spending more money on well-intentioned projects.

You need to have broad shoulders.

Nobody really says it , but a minority of people are willing you to fail. It comes across occasionally in sarcastic social media messages or remarks that you should get a proper job (The latter , admittedly, was from my Mother).  You’ll get scrutinised more than you ever have before. We laugh things off but have had to work on our self-confidence. A supportive network is critical.

And one final lesson is that it’s just the most brilliant fun.

In our organisations we probably get to see about 10% of the talents that people really have. A Lab approach can begin to unlock the potential that conventional talent management programmes often fail to.

Seeing what people come up with and where they will go next is endlessly rewarding.

Here’s to 2015.

A Revolution in Care Requires a Revolution in Thinking

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It would appear that a revolution is required in our thinking of older people as a ‘demographic time bomb’,
‘burden’, ‘bed blockers’ and an economic liability all of which engender ageist attitudes. We’ need to recognise
the contribution of older people in the workplace, supporting families, friends, neighbours and society. We also
need to radically rethink how different services and sectors collaborate to identify innovative solutions.

Shirley AyresThe Long-Term Care Revolution , A Provocation Paper

Many of you will know of the famous experiment by Ellen Ranger and Judith Rodin in which a number of older people in a care home were split into two groups.

The first group were given a speech by staff which emphasised that residents should have more responsibility for their lives. To demonstrate this new choice a film night would be held twice each week, and it was up to residents to decide which night they wanted to attend. Each resident was given a gift of a small plant. It was strongly emphasised that it was up to the residents to take care of it.

The second group had exactly the same speech. Except all references of taking responsibility and making decisions were omitted. They were told which movie night to go to and that a member of staff would look after the plant.

After 18 months 15% of the first group had died compared to 30% in the second.

This small exercise in recognising the importance of individual decision making and giving people a little more control over their lives had a dramatic effect. As well as living longer , the residents in the first group became happier and more fulfilled.

One of my earliest experiences of working in housing was being asked to manage a brand new older persons scheme. They were purpose built bungalows for people who had reached the ripe old age of 55+.

“You’ve got it really easy now” a colleague told me. “You move them in , get their rent or housing benefit sorted – and you’ll never hear from them again. It’s much better than housing young people.”

They were right.  The only contact I had was because of an occasional death and the subsequent reletting of a property.  Demand wasn’t an issue as there was an endless conveyor belt of people eager to get a bungalow. As a model of business efficiency it would have made Amazon proud.

We never asked those people what their skills were. What they dreamed of. Where they were going. They were people society deemed to have served their purpose. They could now be placed in the quiet and polite customer demographic –  living out their days in peace and rarely complaining about anything.

In 2014 Morrissey , Kevin Spacey and Simon Cowell could all qualify for older persons housing and services.  Next year they’ll be joined by Nigella Lawson, Daryl Hannah and Tilda Swinton. I don’t know any of them personally but I imagine they have aspirations beyond the occasional game of bingo.

As Shirley Ayres pointed out at the launch of her paper (which I urge you to read) the default position is to view older people as an economic drain on society rather than a source of skills and potential.

Two weeks ago as part of the work of Bromford Lab we began to revisit our Older Persons offer. The first thing colleagues decided to do was to stop calling it an older persons offer. It’s ageless.

Older people do not exist as one homogenous group. They have the same skills , aspirations and dreams as the rest of us and the current lowest common denominator service provision is unfit for this generation.

At Bromford we are putting a lot of focus on how we unlock the skills and potential of all ages. There is a unique opportunity to unleash the experience and wisdom of older people across communities at time when they are needed more than ever.

This will take radical new thinking. It will involve reimagining the housing , health and care sectors that have a long history of doing things to and for people rather than promoting autonomy , connectivity and self determination.

Old age is a social construct. It essentially means a person older than yourself. Nobody stops dreaming when they hit 65, 75, 85 or 95.

Nobody dreams of ending up in a care home. And nobody dreams of being warehoused in a community where the knowledge they have built up is left to slowly dissipate.

The long term revolution we need calls for a radically different view of age and skills.