Our job is to the mind the gap between the bureaucracy of our systems and the opportunities in our communities – Cormac Russell
The first step is realisation. Accepting that most of us in the social sector are employed because of failure.
As Matthew Manos has written – it’s a field of business that profits from past societal failure – rather than the contemplation of the signals of failures that have yet to exist.
The entire premise relies on reaction.
The challenge – as we discussed this week at the Festival of Strengths – is how to switch your organisation to be pre-emptive. And that requires a whole system change.
A move from telling to listening.
A move from managing to coaching.
A move from filling the gaps with services to closing the gaps through connections.
It also means taking a position. Believing in what people can do rather than what they can’t. That’s a philosophy that doesn’t sit easily on a business plan. Predicting what your services look like when the ultimate aim could be less service is difficult.
However running a business where you admit you don’t have the answers boosts your capacity for innovation. It immediately places you in a collaborative state. Willing to seek advice from others , open to new partnerships.
The bureaucracy of our systems would be solved if we stepped back and only did what we can do best. At Bromford we are focussing on the ‘irreducible core’ of service that our communities must receive from us.
The services we currently have that replace, control or overwhelm the power of community will become obsolete. The second of our organisational design principles is that we should think community first, services last.
It’s not easy to change people’s mindsets from doing to connecting. It’s not easy to remove the scripts, policies and rules we have built around our institutions that suffocate creativity.
As Philippa Jones writes here, Bromford have been exploring this way of working for nearly five years. The launch of our new localities approach will see Neighbourhood Coaches with patches of around 175 households replacing traditional Housing Managers who each look after 500 households. Last year we invested £1.1m in testing it, and following successful pilots we’re rolling it out at a cost of £3.5m.
At the Festival of Strengths I was lucky enough to share a platform with the people from Wigan Council. Their work shows that Adult Social Care doesn’t need to be in a permanent state of crisis.
There is an approach that both Wigan and Bromford share:
- They refused the urge to panic when their environment changed – instead investing in people and giving them the space to think differently.
- They gave people permission to challenge preconceived practices and ‘rules’.
- They refused the rush to technology as a solution, recognising the vital role of people as a differentiator of service.
- They took a different attitude to risk and learning from failure
And both are at the early stages of seeing the rewards from their investment.
Seemingly – what’s good for communities is also good for business.
The full slide deck from the talk is available here
In many ways the events of 2016 are less a surprise and more the logical outcome of what we already knew.
As I wrote early last year – we are in an era of ‘trust deficit’ – where more people distrust institutions than believe in them.
When belief in government, business, media and nonprofits dips below 50%, you are bound to see mavericks emerge to challenge the incumbents.
At opposing ends of the spectrum Farage, Trump and Corbyn have used digital and physical networks to leverage the untapped potential in these communities.
Question is – will this mood of anti-establishment dissent sweep across the social sector?
Let’s be challenging:
- Housing talks to housing.
- Care talks to care.
- Health talks to health
I could go on. It’s not so much an echo chamber as an entire galaxy of echo chambers – each their own solar system of professional bodies, conferences and award ceremonies.
If a malcontented public has taken a swipe at the political establishment for being out of touch and bureaucratic – we surely have to consider ourselves fair game too.
The only difference being we can’t be voted out.
But what if Uber really did do health, housing and social care? It seems impossible to imagine our failure to adapt and change is not being carefully watched by leaner, smarter start-ups.
As consumers we are well-informed and volatile as never before. Through pervasive social media and connectivity we are inundated with information which magnifies any grievance – real or imagined.
The point Grant made was clear – in an age of storytelling you need to take a position. If you have no position you won’t keep attention. And most communications fail as we don’t have the balls to take a position.
Conversely there’s huge opportunity here for organisations:
- Mediocrity doesn’t happen by accident. It’s a choice you get to make everyday. You can take a position tomorrow.
- Trust is built through engagement and integrity -we can consider whether every action we take is a trust builder or trust killer.
- We can enshrine transparency as part of our values – with less talk of innovation and more demonstration of our impact.
In the US election only one voter in 50 viewed both candidates as trustworthy; nearly one in three voters said neither was.
Without trust, institutions just stop working. The incumbents get disrupted.
Many organisations have chosen to ignore the warnings about public expectations of more openness, transparency & accountability.
Any leadership team or board who are not actively building trust right now are in peril.
Innovation in the digital sphere can be complex and risky and there are not sufficient opportunities to share learning from failure. One year on from the Practical Strategies For Learning From Failure Workshops we asked the organising team:
Is the social sector getting better at learning from failure?
I see few examples of organisations openly sharing where things haven’t gone as planned.
There’s a fascinating contradiction in behaviour. Whilst there are virtually no leaders who would argue against the importance of failure as a source of learning, our actions show a preoccupation with sharing success.
This cultural bias towards success runs deep. Projects are largely funded on the basis that they will all work – something that we all know to be entirely false.
Within organisations we still reward and promote based on results and past performance targets- not experimentation and deviation.
Destigmatising failure and capturing the learning will happen by organisations taking overt action rather than through inspirational leadership quotes shared happily on Twitter.
It will take establishing new teams and protocols – breaking the chains of targets with perverse incentives to guarantee “success”.
If the social sector is getting better at learning from failure – it’s doing so behind closed doors.
Acknowledging failure is a risky endeavour which has been unhelpfully constrained by risk management processes.
The formula used by public sector and business leaders is simple: admit what went wrong, apologise and move on with a promise to learn lessons. Unfortunately this usually happens in the face of mistakes which are too obvious to ignore. Dealing with this kind of crisis in public is more likely to traumatise a team than support the kind of reflective learning we introduced in #LFFdigital.
Another failure management process which seems easier to learn from is low risk – ‘fail fast, cheap, small’. The uncomfortable implication is that we can never get things right enough in the first place. Failing fast requires a shift in the way we do things, threatens our credibility and our own sense of ever being able to do a really good job.
Perhaps we are not seeing an open culture of learning from failure when this is a frightening prospect for even the best social sector organisations.
What is changing are public expectations of more openness, transparency and accountability in the social sector. What may have been hidden in a report a few years ago is much more likely to be subject to scrutiny and comment through social media. Trust in organisations whose stated mission is social good can be seriously damaged when there is a reluctance to admit they have not achieved what they set out to do.
Whilst there seems to be consensus about the need to share learning from failure many organisations are working in a competitive funding environment which does not encourage this to happen.
Funders and commissioners have an important role in sharing the learning and also quantifying the real costs of failure in terms of missed opportunities, bad investments and continuing to make the same mistakes.
It is time to use the digital tools now available to provide real time data and analysis about whether projects have achieved their anticipated and desired outcomes and impact.
Moving from a long standing public service culture of not dealing failure as an inevitable consequence of working in complex situations, is a huge shift in human behaviour.
Pervasive ‘social practice’ is generally one of; minimise the risk and ‘don’t talk about it’.
We behave to fit in with social practices in an unconscious, automatic manner. Shifting the burden of dealing with failure off the individual and making it part of the social practice is something you could argue the aircraft industry has achieved.
Over the last 18 months however, I’ve observed more people talking about failure as something we should recognise and work with. While this is a long way of a large scale behaviour change it is helpful in changing the ‘meaning’ around failure. If the ‘meaning’ (the unwritten rules, social taboos etc) start to shift, there is a chance we can start to change the ‘social practice’ around failure.
Are we getting better at learning from failure?
Please add your comments
Digital transformation to me is about the transformation of organisations from silos, outsourced capability and murky strategic goals, to being an organisation that understands the vision, that knows where it delivers the most value and how to focus on it – Michael Brunton-Spall
Right now – if my backchannel Twitter conversations are to be believed – there are more people working on transformation programmes than doing any actual work.
Transformation is a nebulous term that no normal person would ever use in conversation.
I have a mistrust of anything claiming to be transformational for a few reasons:
- Most transformational change fails – focussing on systems and structure charts rather than people
- The networked era is less about time-limited change programmes and more about organisational speed-learning and living life in a perpetual beta
- And if you step behind the rhetoric of transformation you’ll see it is usually about reinforcing existing business models rather than truly challenging them
Simply put – are we clear what the drivers of transformation are and what it is we are trying to transform into?
I’ve found it useful to create design principles for us to adopt as we think about or implement change.
There are eight principles in all and they underpin how we intend to exist – a demarcation between managing the present and inventing the future.
Having a clearly articulated and understood set of principles should help us do the following:
- Get us all on the same page – or surface principles that we are unclear on and need further debate.
- Avoid silos – as everyone is working to the same set of overarching principles.
- Help us evaluate proposed work – as deviating from the principles is not acceptable, although they might develop over time.
- Establish the use of the principles as “business as usual” for the way we deliver change.
Here they are:
By embedding design principles we hope to better articulate what transformation could and should feel like. Turning it from organisational junk language into something that people can apply to their everyday work.
We’ll let you know how we get on and how the principles develop.
Credit where it’s due: The principles are not original and have been heavily influenced and in part directly lifted from GDS team, Carl Haggarty, Vijay Govindarajan and many others. If I’ve failed to credit you and you spot a phrase I swiped, let me know!
In 1943, the U.S. Airforce met with Lockheed Aircraft Corporation to express their need for a fighter plane to counter a rapidly growing Nazi jet threat. Because of the need for secrecy “Skunk Works”, as it became known, was allowed to operate undercover. No rules and no bureaucracy that could stifle innovation and hinder progress.
It built the XP-80 in only 143 days, seven less than was required, and was given a full time remit to “break the rules in a safe environment”.
I’ve given three talks this week to very different audiences – but they shared strong themes:
- How can you kickstart different behaviours within the confines of an organisational structure?
- How can we do experiments in public without falling flat on our face?
- How do we make a business case for bright ideas in cash conscious times?
My simplistic advice is Think Big, Start Small.
The evolution of the Bromford Deal, featured in the slide deck above – began with just four people in a room talking about creating a new ‘deal’. We soon took three colleagues out of their operational roles and gave them a special remit – “what would we do if we started again?”
They operated in complete isolation for 12 weeks with a couple of ‘mentors’ dropping in occasionally. It was our own Skunk Works and a forerunner of what evolved into Bromford Lab.
After a raft of tests, pilots and detailed evaluation , Bromford has scaled the proposal, changed strategy, mobilised 130 new roles and is launching a transformed service.
Small empowered teams, bold tests, pilots demonstrating increased value to customers and improved cashflows have given us persuasive data to inform the business case.
More important than that is a culture that values the lessons learned when you are bold enough to attempt something that hasn’t been done before.
This week I spent a lot of time talking about rapid experiments.
Sometimes we need to scrap the comforting safety of product planning and project management. Instead, we should learn to practice high‐speed experimentation.
The examples I give in the slides of frugal experiments are deliberately frivolous.
What happens if:
- You stick Amazon Alexa in the office?
- You put Google Glass on customers for home viewings?
- You give people access to 3D Printing?
- You install home sensors that can track the occupancy of homes?
- You make video gaming available at work?
- You get kids to redesign communities with Minecraft?
- You use Whatsapp in place of team email?
- You let your development team use drones to photograph land?
As I said to one of the groups I spoke to. We know the answer to all of these things. That puts us ahead on the learning and adoption curve of new technologies at work.
It’s these practical experiments that show whether the fundamental assumptions about radical innovation are correct and what they mean for your business.
The challenge? Shifting our learning from slow and expensive to fast and cheap.
How can you get your team to learn 10x faster than everyone else?
“Weak signals consist of emergent changes to technology, culture, markets, the economy, consumer tastes and behaviour, and demographics. Weak signals are hard to evaluate because they are incomplete, unsettled and unclear” – Vijay Govindarajan.
Luckily for us the future doesn’t arrive in an instant – but unfolds seconds at a time.
Despite our organisational 2025 strategies, our five year forward views, it’s impossible to predict what our world looks like in the years ahead.
We are making, as Jason Fried has said, business guesses rather than business plans.
Launching a service or developing a new product against this ever shifting background is fraught with difficulty. What’s good for 2016 could be surplus to requirements a year later.
Today all our new services must be iterative and capable of scaling for mergers, growth and indeed for retraction and redundancy. Designing for obsolescence is more important than ever.
At Bromford Lab we’ve worked with our Insight team to give a tentative green light to a new service – and I think there are some lessons to learn. Tom Hartland gives an overview of our thinking here with an excellent slide deck showing the design process.
The concept is simple. Switch from being a reactive service (waiting for basic repairs requests) – and move to offering proactive coaching so people can do things for themselves. It’s aiming to tackle exactly the same things as many of our public services are: reducing demand by focusing on prevention rather than cure.
Lesson One: The test has been beset by implementation problems.
As it should be.
If you are launching anything new against the background of what could be legacy services and systems – it should be plagued by problems.
Expect lots of tiny failures. The worst thing you can do is to give up. Unfortunately many of our organisations, and certainly most of the media, do not think like this. This is part of the re-education journey we need to take people on.
Lesson Two: The test hasn’t delivered tangible business benefits. Yet.
So why are we recommending that it proceeds to pilot?
The answer to that is a mix of art and science. We have some evidence of potential success but we need a more detailed and longer term evaluation.
However not all insight can be gained through evaluation alone – but by picking up what futurists term ‘weak signals’.
Generally organisations are poor at picking up these signals. Arguably the fact that we are still talking about digital transformation demonstrates that the weak signals from the 1990’s onwards were largely unheard.
There are a number of signals that we are picking up at Bromford that – if correct- means our concept could have a very positive future. With time there’s a possibility of substantial financial returns – alongside fulfilling our strategic objective of growing customer skills and aspirations.
Here are a few of the things that we do, and don’t know about the future:
- We have an ageing population with more people living on their own. We don’t know if this will have a positive or detrimental effect on future demand.
- We know that driverless cars will soon be on the roads – drastically reducing transportation costs to get parts to our residents homes. We don’t know the speed of adoption.
- We know the maker community – people using 3D printing and other self manufacture tools – is growing. We don’t know whether this will ever move beyond a niche and into the mainstream.
- We know artificial intelligence – think Siri and Amazon Alexa – is rapidly advancing. We don’t know whether AI advice and coaching delivered through technology or a robot will ever be a good enough alternative to physical delivery.
- We know housing associations are unlikely to be flooded with lots of public money in the future. We don’t know what future welfare reforms look like.
Putting all of these things together alongside the evidence we do have is persuasive enough to take the test to a next level.
None of us can predict the future – but we can attempt to second guess it. And the best way to do that is by low-cost experiments to test the unknowns, before gambling any big money.
Ultimately our organisations will succeed by exploring these weak signals – abandoning them as they fade or focussing investment when they get stronger.
The only choice is whether to be an active participant in what the future looks like or just let it relentlessly unfold around you.
I’ve just had to apply for a new passport.
It’s one of those things that you generally only do every ten years or so. It prompts you to ruminate on a few things.
Ageing: That old passport photo you were embarrassed about now looks like the ideal version of you. You shudder at the thought of what the 2026 edition will look like.
Life: Where have I been in the past decade, what experiences have I had, what have I learned?
And technology and design: Wow – the sheer hell of passport renewal has been replaced by….something quite simple.
Back in 2006 only 3% of us owned a smartphone. Today that figure is 71%. The phone is now the hub of our daily lives – transforming the way we interact with services.
It’s driven us to crave ever greater simplicity. Things we can do on the go. Complex tasks we can perform in minutes rather than hours.
Yet most of our organisations have not adapted to this.
Most of the problems we were set up to solve were relatively simple, but as organisations get larger, there’s more technology, more people, and more regulation. We put together processes, controls, reviews, and structures to deal with all these things. All of these factors together create a great amount of complexity.
For most organisations it’s easier to make a simple thing more complex than it is to make a complex thing more simple.
But our customers’ needs are not so complicated.
Making things simple for them is now a competitive advantage.
Back to the passport.
Mine came back in 8 days – 10 years ago it took about a month.
There are 6.7 million passport transactions in the UK each year – numbers most of our organisations couldn’t dream of handling. To understand how that’s happened it’s useful to look at one of the Government Digital Service (GDS) design principles:
GDS have achieved this transformation by doing less not more. They’ve not added new options – or any bells and whistles – they have ruthlessly focused on user need.
The only apparent ‘innovation’ in passport services is that there is now a beta test where you can take your own photo using a smartphone – making the process fully digital. If you’re in the business of manufacturing those little photo booths you get in supermarkets you need to move on. You’re going the way of VHS.
However this simplicity comes at a price – there’s only one way to get a passport. If you want one – you’re going to have learn how. That means acquiring basic digital skills for a start.
This is a world away from how most of our organisations , particularly in the social sector, operate.
- We bend over backwards to do more things.
- We create bespoke ways for customers to do business with us – trying to do the right thing but adding layers of complexity and cost into the process.
- Our websites – often providing an illusion of digital transformation -offer so many services it’s often unclear what organisations actually do.
Doing less not more requires a cultural rather than a digital shift. The lesson from GDS is to find your ‘irreducible core’ – and then constantly refine and innovate against it. Accept we are not always the right people to solve the problem. Do what only you can do.
How do you make your company’s services simpler? You can start by simplifying your company.
Reset All Assumptions
We must selectively forget the past. That means not accepting current practices but challenging underlying assumptions, our solutions and mindsets, and the way we tackle the problem.
We need services designed as people need them – not as we have learned to do them.
Bromford Design Principle 1 (Draft)
I’m doing some work at the moment on organisational design principles – which is as good an opportunity as any to stand back and assess our capability for radical thinking.
A lot of the conversations I’ve been party to recently have centered around the need for a strong organisational culture to promote innovation. Indeed – I took part in an innovation assessment that seemed to hold teamwork, co-operation and shared purpose up as a kind of holy grail.
My experience of working with teams is almost exactly the opposite. Innovation often thrives because of diversity and discord. “The idea that will get you fired” is often the best one to explore.
Strong cultures are a positive – but there’s a tipping point. A point where conflicting opinions can get stifled rather than being actively cultivated.
Phrases such as “That’s the way things get done around here” or “That person isn’t really a (insert your company name) sort of person” are early warning signs you’re reaching that point.
In the book VG proposes a simple test to assess the size of the challenge in forgetting the past.
Here are some of the questions:
- We primarily promote from within
- Our culture is homogeneous
- We have a strong culture
- Employees have a long tenure
- We rarely recruit from outside apart from entry level positions
- When people are recruited from outside, we have strong socialisation methods
- We have a track record of success
- We don’t mess with success
- The senior management team has a long tenure and has also worked primarily in our sector
VG asks us to answer the questions scoring 1-5, with 1 representing ‘strongly disagree’, and 5 representing ‘strongly agree’. The higher the score the bigger the challenge.
I ran my own organisation through this – I’ll be asking other leaders to do the same – and found we score pretty highly.
As VG teaches us – this is not cause to throw our heads into our hands and despair. Rather it’s about surfacing awareness of the weight of our history – and the chains we may need to break to move forward.
A crucial part of this is about resetting our assumptions about why we do what we do, how we do them, and who does them.
It means embracing misfits – not rejecting them from “your” culture.
Contained in our own personal and organisational histories are thousands of assumptions. Assumptions that we live by everyday.
To truly transform we need to question every one of them.