Lessons Learned From Five Years of Failure

Sometimes the execution of the idea doesn’t need to be the best to succeed.

In 1989 a video game designer called Gunpei Yokoi changed the world with the launch of the original Nintendo Game Boy. It took gaming out of the hands of geeks and paved the way for the industry to become the most profitable and popular form of entertainment.

However the Game Boy was far from best in class. Its black and white display was made up from old technologies well past their sell by date. Gunpei called his philosophy Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology. 

Withered: mature technology which is cheap and well understood.

Lateral thinking: combining these ideas and technologies in creative new ways

Innovation doesn’t actually need to be cutting edge. Rather it needs to be simple, useful and to make someone’s day that little bit easier. 

This week I was invited by Ian Wright of the Disruptive Innovators’ Network to outline the lessons learned from five years of Bromford Lab about making innovation simple and accessible for colleagues.

I was speaking to L&Q Futures which has been put together by Tom Way to provide people with the digital mindset and skills of modern businesses while also looking for creative ways to solve the housing crisis. The 25 people selected via a competitive process are spending 1 day per month away from their day job to learn and apply the tools and techniques being taught.

The key things I wanted to put across were:

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Think big. Start small.

Most of our organisations avoid doing things because we let them get too complicated. It’s easy to talk yourself out of doing anything. If you wait for perfection before you put an idea to work, it will stall before it gets off the ground. The key for us is to assemble small teams with limited resources who are prepared to get their hands dirty.

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The idea is the driver

Most corporate structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table. Structures that support hierarchical decision making limit opportunities for people to have influence and innovate.

We often don’t have a choice in the path our ideas take. They don’t fit within our structure charts or management meetings. You’ve got to develop a space and process that works around them and allows them to flourish. Let the idea go where it needs to go, and when.

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Don’t get distracted by Intergalactic Space Cats

Not all ideas are good ones. Some are very bad indeed. But even bad ones can prove worthwhile to look at, if only by helping to shape better alternatives.

Innovation is all about getting better at being wrong. However it must be founded in a deep understanding of the problem we are seeking to solve.

Everyone thinks that their idea is the one worthy of most attention.

Try and get the organisation to fall in love with problems rather than solutions.

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Everything is connected

People are working on the same things as us all over the world. We won’t solve things on our own. We are desperately inward looking. There will always be more talented people outside your organisation than within it – so lets seek them out. Collaboration is a central theme to innovation because of speed , connections, energy and the ability to fast track implementation.

The talent in our organisations is siloed. Our first task is to connect and leverage that talent and combine it with the creativity in our communities.

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Learning from failure is the measure to obsess about

Nielsen research suggests that “about two out of every three products are destined to fail.” However 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.

Failure is only bad if we are doomed to repeat it. Breaking our organisations out of cyclical failure is a huge challenge.

At Bromford as part of our Lab Planning we meet to talk about failure every single week. We tweak our processes to learn from it and limit it. The real learning is in our stalled concepts, not the one’s that have been successful. 

Ultimately the message I tried to give was not to overthink things, keep a wide field of vision and try to think laterally.

In many ways I think an effective innovation approach is to encourage organisations to be more childlike. As kids we learned through exploration and experimentation, not through people talking at us from a PowerPoint presentation at a team meeting.

Our organisations need to relearn how to learn, rapidly and efficiently.

Learning and innovation go hand in hand, but learning always comes first.


 

This is a brief extract of the original talk – the full presentation can be seen here 

 

 

The Social Sector Must Rebuild Trust Through Equal Partnerships


This is a edited version of an article originally written for Inside Housing


There is a growing realisation that many of our social institutions and public services have run their course.

Communities need something different from what’s currently on offer.

We could be at the tipping point, the moment when future relationships between citizens and institutions become placed in a wholly different context.

There are a number of factors that seem to be converging. There’s the post-Grenfell concerns about safety and cost cutting, there’s the global decline of trust in institutions, and there’s an increasingly vocal public discourse emerging that highlights individual social sector service failures.

Combine all this with a perception that many social sector organisations have become untethered from their roots in the community, and you have the perfect storm.

Tipping points are not reached by just one factor alone, rather a series of connected incidents that suddenly bring about widespread change.

It’s necessary to note that this is not just a crisis limited to the one individual sector. The Civil Societies Futures report outlines how the world has changed, with people becoming more unequal, more disconnected from power and more divided.

The message here is clear: if we do not respond to people and communities’ desire for power, we will lose our legitimacy and the essential foundation for everything we do.

Back in March I took part in a discussion hosted by Inside Housing with Lizzie Spring. There was a lot I took away from the conversation but it can be condensed into two main points.

Firstly, the language used by ‘professionals’ is damaging to relationships built on trust. What social media does very effectively is highlight where friction occurs. Nowhere is that friction more evident than when people in housing, health and social care cast themselves, often unintentionally, as professionals and experts to be listened to.

This behaviour can give off the impression of an exclusive club, populated by those in the know, who are using their exclusive access (and exclusive language) to solve problems and design services on behalf of citizens. It implies a them and us, and reinforces an already unequal distribution of power.

Secondly, the core problem many organisations senior staff and Boards appear to struggle with is an entrenched inability to trust citizens. As Lizzie has said “I can’t consider trusting them, when my own intelligence, experience and expertise are discounted.”

We need to move away from focussing on what’s wrong, and seek to solve problems with communities not for communities

Let’s not underestimate the extent of the change that the social sector must embark on to address this. To be trusted means being trustworthy – and to achieve that you can’t dodge the question about power.

As Simon Penny writes for Bromford Lab, there are important issues to discuss about the redistribution of power including greater transparency, collaboration, participation and accountability.

If we don’t talk about power we’ll just continue to address the symptoms, rather than tackle the root causes of mistrust. We risk encourage providers to seek comfortable solutions to things they should be doing anyway rather than address deep institutional dysfunction.

Hierarchical and status-obsessed cultures necessarily militate against relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration. These organisations don’t share power, they accumulate it.

There’s often no way for citizens to contribute or influence organisations other than ways set out by the organisation itself. When only one partner sets out the rules of engagement the game is set for a very unequal relationship.

The most important thing all organisations could do right now is simply demonstrate they see themselves as equal partners. Importantly that demonstration should only be through actions, not through a carefully coordinated communications campaign.  

There will be no silver bullet to these problems.

The answers may include exploring alternative models of management. They may include more radical models user involvement – perhaps using emergent technology to move to complete transparency, with people able to shape decisions at both local and strategic levels.

We are seeing change though. A conversation is beginning to happen on equal terms in shared spaces like social media. We need to take that conversation further into our communities and into our offices, not hidden away with one party excluded.

Traditional participation methods have failed us.

Involvement on the terms set out by the NHS, by social landlords, or even by Government, is no longer the only game in town.

 

Creating The Right Culture For Innovation and Change

I’m not sure I buy into the concept of organisations having a culture of innovation.

After all, innovation is a process consisting of four things:

  • Having an idea that solves a problem
  • Doing something with that idea
  • Proving that it delivers new value for people
  • Translating it into reality and making it part of the everyday

The idea then that innovation is everyone’s job is naive at best.  Successful organisations need to be boringly reliable and radically disruptive at the same time, living with two competing sets of values.

However I do believe in creating the right culture for innovation.

Indeed, for an organisation to support innovation the culture must accommodate the risk and uncertainty that accompanies it.

What kind of culture are we looking for?

For me there are four elements to this:

Just enough friction: the most effective teams have regular, intense debates. As leaders, we need to help our teams disagree more. Discord has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

The practice of high standards: innovation requires a set of crosscutting practices and processes to structure, organise, and encourage it. This requires a steady supply of high performing people who are committed. And if you create an environment of energy and high performance it will attract other high performers.

Permission to be different: a culture where it’s allowable, even encouraged, to push back. Everyone should be OK with questioning assumptions,  calling out inconsistent behavior and challenging old business models.

The ability to think and act experimentally: a tolerance for failure through practical experiments that show whether the fundamental assumptions about innovation are correct and what they mean for the business.

These traits only happen through a commitment to creating the right conditions. These are cultures that are reinforced every day, not just by the leadership , but with active collaboration from people at every tier of the organisation.

Let’s face it – most Mission Statements and Company Values are a complete waste of time. They exist as tacked up bits of paper on a wall rather than something that sits in the hearts and minds of people.

Here are three organisations from very different industries whose values are conducive to supporting innovation:

Zappos

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Zappos , the online shoe and clothing store, are known for their unique culture and values. Their CEO Tony Hsieh has said his company’s number one priority is the company culture. “Our whole belief is that if we get the culture right, then most of the other stuff, like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand or business, will just be a natural by-product of that.”

Here are the Zappos core values that are designed to be different:

  • Deliver WOW Through Service
  • Embrace and Drive Change
  • Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  •  Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  •  Pursue Growth and Learning
  • Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  • Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  • Do More With Less
  • Be Passionate and Determined
  • Be Humble

With the call to “create fun and a little weirdness”, Zappos are making it a place that supports innovation.

Buffer

I love the culture of Buffer, a service that helps you share to social networks.  You can feel the genuine enthusiasm for the organisation from the people who work there and what they tweet and blog about.

The Buffer team has jointly decided which words define the culture and put together this list of the 10 Buffer Values and how they live them.

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What’s impressive here is that they are a continual work in progress, with all members developing them in the open.

Having dealt with Buffer on a number of occasions I can say their values are displayed both in 1:1 dealings and in their online social presence: Listen First , Then Listen More.

Bromford

(Disclosure:  I work for Bromford and have a hand in developing the DNA – but I think it’s worth sharing the story)

Imagine screwing up your mission statement , vision and values and handing it over to three colleagues to start all over again and pitch it direct to the CEO. That’s what Bromford did and it’s how they came up with their original Bromford DNA.

The latest version of the DNA though, developed under new CEO Robert Nettleton, had a completely different genesis – focusing on collaboration. Bromford held more than 30 workshops with over 500 colleagues attending and sharing their views.  After these sessions a smaller group of colleagues took part in a fusion session with Bromford Lab – and from this the final definitions of our DNA emerged.

DNA Slides

 

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The fact so many people have co-developed the DNA gives Bromford a head start in embedding the culture. When you’ve energised the early adopters, you have given the framework for the culture added impetus and traction.

Bromford have even provided colleagues with a personalised notebook for them to record their actions and barriers to consistently living the DNA.

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Supporting ideas from fruition, selecting the best ones, experimenting and growing them is a very fragile process.

All we can really do as leaders is to create a climate that supports innovation –  a climate that will help to sustain a future ready organisation over the years to come.

The Fruitless Quest For Inbox Zero: Eight Tips To Protect Your Time

You can seek to impose order on your inbox all you like – but eventually you’ll need to confront the fact that the deluge of messages, and the urge you feel to get them all dealt with, aren’t really about technology.

They’re manifestations of larger, more personal dilemmas – Oliver Burkeman

At the back-end of 2018, I did an experiment, I exported nearly two years worth of email and meeting data into an analytics tool.

The results were unsurprising to me , but still alarming.

Time spent in meetings , especially meetings arranged by others, was increasing exponentially.  The amount of email was increasing too.

Four years earlier I wrote a post called Six Ways To Kill Email , which set out a discipline for drastic email reduction.

This regime worked for a long time, my inbox never contained more than half a dozen items. So what failed and why?

We don’t have a technology problem, we have a boundary problem

We’ve never had more productivity tools than we’ve had today, and yet we’ve rarely felt less productive.

Part of the problem is that our new tools have given people unparalleled powers to intruding into one anothers time.

  • Want a meeting? Spot some free time in their calendar and grab it.
  • Need them at the weekend? Message them from your phone.
  • Can’t get hold of them? DM them via their preferred social network

As Jason Fried and David Heinemeir Hansson write in their book It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work companies are failing to protect their most precious resource – their employees time and attention.

It’s now perfectly acceptable to have a culture of back to back meetings, and even double or triple booked meetings.

As they write “the shared calendar is one of the most destructive inventions of modern times. People’s calendars are not only completely transparent, they are optimized to be filled in by anyone who simply feels like it”.

It was this realisation , that most things in my calendar had been put there by other people, that led me to create some new rules at the beginning of the year.

It was a silent new years resolution to myself to do something to address the overload. As a third of the year has gone – this is how I’ve gotten on.


1: Ignore the quest for Inbox Zero

Inbox Zero (the idea that every time you visit your inbox, you should systematically “process to zero”) was quite the thing a few years ago but in my experience it doesn’t work – as it actually focuses on email as the cause of the problem rather than the symptom.

Even when you do successfully reach Inbox Zero, it doesn’t reliably bring calm if you’re still being invited to lots of meetings and assaulted by instant messaging.

2: Give yourself permission to walk out of meetings

Last year Elon Musk sent a memo to his staff advising them to ‘just walk out of bad meetings’.  Funnily enough it was a rule we had at Bromford many years ago instigated by then CEO Mick Kent.

Walking out of meetings, or not turning up to ones that you’ve previously accepted may seem like bad manners. However if we are serious about valuing peoples time we have to develop new codes that allow people to maximise their productivity and creativity rather than just be polite and wasteful.

3: Don’t send any emails

This is by far the most effective thing you can do. Every email you send begs a reply – sometimes several. By pressing send you are literally making work for yourself. Copying people in to every email is not effective information sharing. Email in 2019 is still effective, but it’s best used sparingly.

4: Divert long chat threads to Chat Apps 

At the formation of Bromford Lab , we turned off in-team email and moved to Whatsapp. Along with Trello and Google Docs, it’s the tool that’s survived five years of uninterrupted use. WhatsApp is great for creating groups and promoting a more social place to chat and interact without the annoyance of email threads. It doesn’t beg you to respond.

4: Delete emails that are three days old 

This takes some bravery – but trust me it works. If you haven’t looked at something for three days it simply can’t be very important. Delete it. If anyone is bothered they will chase you up on it. 90% of the time they don’t – it was low value work that never really needed doing.

5: Unsubscribe from everything 

Make it part of your day to unsubscribe from at least five email lists. Email marketeers breed like rabbits but you can stem the flow by turning off their constant distractions. Don’t just delete them and hope they will go away – they won’t. Also go into the notification settings of any work networks like Yammer you are part of. Turn them off – you’ll see a huge difference instantly.

6: Use Pomodoro for manageable periods of focus

It might sound easy to work on one task for 25 minutes with no interruptions, but it actually isn’t. Pomodoro is a cyclical system where you work in short sprints , which makes sure you’re consistently productive. You also get to take regular breaks that boost your motivation. Use a Pomodoro app on your phone and put it into flight mode to kill other distractions. It’s the best way I’ve found of powering through the work you need to do, but don’t always want to. There’s a more extreme 50 minute  version of it called Focusmate, where your concentration is remotely observed by a total stranger. Try it if you dare.

7: Try Trello for transparent work sharing and delegation across teams

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We are big Trello fans at Bromford Lab with our work shared openly for all. We also keep a private board as well to prioritize work across the team. Making it visible this way means we can call for help when we are blocked or delegate work when people have capacity. It shifts the focus completely away from your inbox.

8: Set visible boundaries

The way you work has to be the way that works for you, not for everyone else. That might mean setting an email out of office communicating you only check in once a day. It might turning your phone off and saying you are concentrating on deep work. It might be wearing headphones in the office to signal you don’t want interruptions.

Whatever it is – set your own boundaries and make them known.


 

I haven’t cracked this 100%. However as I finish writing this post at 8:15am I have nine unanswered emails and just 90 minutes of meetings today. Something is beginning to work.

Most productivity hacks fail, no doubt many of the above would fail for you personally.

The trick is finding the ones that work for you and balance your needs with those of your colleagues. My advice however would be to not sit around waiting for this, it’s a truly rare employer than places restrictions on meetings, emails and phone calls.

You need to develop your own rules and boundaries that protect your time and creativity, never mind your sanity.

If We Want Different Relationships, The Doing Must Be New And Different Too

There’s a reason some of our public services feel remote, unaccountable and uninterested.

Many of our organisations are products of failure. They only exist because things don’t work.

Fixing other people’s problems keeps you very busy. It creates vast organisational empires and complex group structures.

On the other hand actually believing in what people can do for themselves means being brave enough to admit that you won’t always be needed. It means stepping back.

There’s a familiar theme across the social sector: demand for services is rising rapidly and citizens want more of a say in what those services look and feel like.

Whilst there’s a lot of noise about the former, there’s generally little focus on the opportunity of people wanting more influence and even control of the services they receive.

Adam Lent writing about the NHS 10 Year Plan points out the fatal flaw in organisational thinking :

There’s a belief that we can solve our own problems through structural, process and technological fixes rather than realizing the starting point for change is the creation of a completely different relationship with the communities we serve.

This obsession with tinkering with structure, process and ‘digital transformation’ is fundamentally limiting – when instead we should be looking at a much more radical redesign of services.

Adam points out that’s no sense of the need for a different and potentially difficult conversation between services and citizens about communities taking on more responsibility.  Importantly “there’s no self-analysis of how a hierarchical, status-obsessed culture militates against relationships based on empowerment and collaboration”.

This theme is picked up by Tony Stacey in Inside Housing. “Why isn’t the sector squirming right now?” he asks. Faced with serious charges about remoteness and a lack of trust the professional response seems to be: we’ll publish a new charter and make some tweaks to our code of governance.

As Tony says – this on its own is not going to rebuild trust in the way we need.

We explored this in a recent Bromford Lab workshop where people spoke of a more fundamental shift being required:

  • Democratising organisational strategy; enabling communities to have their say on how money should be spent.
  • Starting to talk in terms of ‘collaboration’ rather than ‘engagement’.
  • Being openly competent and building trust through relationship building and positive action, not marketing and spin.
  • Visibly doing something with the feedback we get
  • Doing what we say we will do and being open and honest when we get it wrong.
  • Challenging how sectors work ‘as one’, and protect their own image.

Serious stuff. Which speaks more of a need of actually ceding power than it does of tinkering with policy.

Leading by Stepping Back 

If we approach public service purely as a one to one consumer transaction we view the world through the lens of efficiency, reduced contact, metrics and performance indicators.

In an economy moving towards sharing rather than just transacting we need to build a new set of behaviours based on trust and collaboration.

At Bromford we are trying to reshape our organisation around the latter.  A move away from managing to coaching and connecting.

Every individual and community has assets, talents, skills and abilities. Better to focus on helping to develop and release these, rather than treating people as a series of ‘problems’ that need to be solved.

circles of support

We recently agreed a set of principles that underpin this kind of relationship and I think they are useful in outlining the shift organisations may need to make.

It requires a change in beliefs:

  • A belief in an adult-adult relationships. We invite feedback and challenge. We are comfortable being uncomfortable.
  • A belief in the strengths and abilities of others.
  • Doing more listening than talking – asking the right questions and letting people think through their options rather than advising them.
  • We don’t judge other people’s choices.
  • We start with the individual and take an asset based approach to coaching which is personal to them
  • We don’t see people as needing to be fixed and we don’t collect problems.

Importantly this means we will always look to how existing strengths in the community can be built upon rather than providing services. We should never provide or support services that replace, control or overwhelm the skills within community.

When people opine that the ‘system is broken’, it’s a red flag that organisations have stepped too far forward. That they are becoming omnipresent in peoples lives.

Perhaps the answer lies in rebuilding organisations around communities, with a modern sense of trust and compassion.

You can’t change a relationship without actual changing your behaviour.

In today’s world of rising demand and scarce resources the doing, not just the talking, needs to be new and different.

Minority Dissent: Why Intelligent People Fail To Solve Problems

At the end of November 2018 my blog posts dried up.

I’ve not published one for over seven weeks – the longest gap for a couple of years. The problem wasn’t that I had nothing to write, rather I was afraid of the reaction to what I’d say.

I have five draft posts I’ve struggled to finish because of a fear of being misinterpreted – or a fear they might upset someone.

It’s hard to believe it was only five years ago when we had huge hopes for social media – that a genuine counter-culture was disrupting our established organisations. We finally had a decentralized communication platform for knowledge sharing and idea exchange.

With hindsight that was overly optimistic.

The two seismic events of 2016 – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – were partly a reaction to that misplaced optimism. Plenty of people felt shut out and left behind from the party. The fallout has caused mayhem ever since.

  • Fake news – a term no-one really used until a couple of years ago is now seen as one of the biggest threats to democracy.
  • We seem to be getting a bit nastier to each other online –  where the lack of eye contact allows us to be particularly rude to people in ways we’d never consider in real life.
  • We’ve arguably got a bit too sensitive , with hurt feelings meaning you can be reported to the Police for upsetting someone.

Analysis of social media use shows that we tend to engage most with information that aligns to our existing beliefs and perceptions on the world.  With people spending up to two hours a day on social media that’s a significant amount of time spent in a bubble.

If you are mostly friends with people on social media who share your views,  naturally you are more likely to hear confirmation of your views than dissent.  You share your views on Brexit for example, and everyone agrees with you. This reinforces your world view rather than making you question it. When you do hear dissent it seems like an anomaly. You’re clearly on the side of the angels!

Last year I made a deliberate effort to spend more time engaging with people and content that offered completely opposing views to my own. I only drew the line at anything that was truly hateful.

I think I understand other people’s views and experiences better as a result, and I definitely acknowledge that I was more comfortable living in a bubble. It’s unsettling when you’re not so sure you are right.

Why Intelligent People Fail To Solve Problems

In 1972 a psychologist named Irving Janis published an essay explaining how a group of very clever people working together to solve a problem can sometimes arrive at the worst possible answer.

He paid particular attention to foreign policy, the US involvement in Vietnam and JFK’s disastrous intervention into Cuba.

The paper inspired the phrase ‘group-think’ – the psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses disagreement and prevents the consideration of alternatives.

As facilitators and designers at Bromford Lab, we see this all the time. Well-intentioned people can make irrational decisions when they are spurred on by the urge to conform. This can simply be because we value harmony above rational thinking.

Minority Dissent and Innovation 

It may go against a happy-clappy harmonious view of the workplace, but discord has to be allowed to take its proper place if we are to solve the problems that matter.

Agreeableness is not always the best personality trait for innovation. Agreeable people like to work in places where everyone gets along, rather than places that are competitive, or where people are openly challenged. They prefer the status quo to rocking the boat with new or controversial ideas.

Ultimately we do need to create safe team climates, but ones in which dissenting opinions are used effectively to create radical change.

  • We need to regularly seek out views that are different to our own – and create conditions where people are comfortable expressing dissenter views.
  • We need to debate more and be a lot less sure we are right. There are very few absolutes in the world today.
  • Every organisation needs a truly safe space where beliefs can be challenged and assumptions put to the test.
  • Remember that dissenting for the sake of dissenting is not useful or clever. Don’t be a dick.
  • However, authentic and sincere dissent stimulates thought and improves the quality of ideas.

Diversity is important,  but we need to embrace a diversity of perspectives too.  It’s easy to say that but not so easy to do.

It means challenging yourself on where you spend your time, and who with. Listening to voices you’d probably prefer not to hear.