Moving From ‘Big Change That Rarely Happens’ To ‘Small Change That Always Does’

We’re obsessed with big change, but what if we’re underestimating the power of the small changes that lie more easily within our reach?

In 2002 the UK Government announced the beginning of a £12.7 billion NHS National Programme for IT . The aim was seemingly simple: to replace paper medical records with a centralised national electronic database, allowing a patient from Manchester to walk into a hospital in London and find all their details readily available online in one place.

At the time, this transformation was meant to constitute the most extensive, and expensive, IT healthcare development of its kind in the world. “The possibilities are enormous if we can get this right,” Tony Blair promised whilst clearly overlooking the possibility of getting it wrong. Nine years later, in September 2011 the government announced that the scheme would be scrapped.

That £12.7 billion investment into nothing is now dwarfed by the UK Test and Trace System that has so far cost £37 Billion, which is significantly more costly than getting a sustainable human presence on the Moon.

All over the world our organisations are experiencing profound change. The most common way to react to that is some kind of transformational change programme.

The hallmarks of these programmes are big, 2-5 year initiatives with a number of drops and a greater number of consultants. The first release is usually many months, sometimes years away.


According to Barry O’Reilly, the growth of investment in digital transformation is compounding at 18% year-on-year. By 2023, an estimated $7 trillion will be spent on these initiatives annually. To put that in perspective, total US expenditure on healthcare for 2020 was about $4 trillion—during a pandemic.

70% of these programmes will fail.

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Why? Well, generally organisations don’t change. People don’t like it and don’t see why they should.

They adopt a culture – a unique blend of practices , beliefs and customs – that takes a long time to form and an age to break down.

Think how hard is to is to make a significant change to your personal life: quitting smoking , losing weight , ending a relationship. Multiply that difficulty by the number of employees you have and the hundreds and thousands of inter-relationships.

Just as your body is designed to fight a common cold, many of our cultures protect the organisational DNA from any irritant antibodies. Add something new and it’s likely to get rejected.

The challenge then is not to embark upon another change programme , but to hack your culture. To deliberately set out to mutate your organisational DNA and make it more receptive.

This isn’t easy and will be resisted. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new introductions – a “hierarchy of no”.

It’s going to be difficult for any of us to abandon our organisational structures – but there are ways you can create a “hierarchy of yes.”

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As Tony Hsieh said – one of the biggest organisational barriers to change can be managers themselves. Hierarchies simply aren’t built to accommodate change. If change is going to happen, it often has to be project managed a year in advance.

We need a more democratic work environment. One where employees’ input is sought into areas once reserved for a select few.

It’s more than seeking inputs, though. If we are serious about hacking culture it means employees co-creating solutions with managers, not just feeding into meetings.

One of the mistakes ‘big change’ programmes often make is starting from the top. It’s almost impossible to innovate from the centre of the business. It’s easier to start at the outer edge and work your way in towards decision makers.

At Bromford Lab we’ve had to distinguish between wicked problems which might require widespread organisational change – and the smaller changes and innovations we can introduce from the edges of the organisation.

It’s why Jeff DeGraff argues for the creation of a “20/80 rule” to innovation: “It’s easier to change 20 percent of your organization 80 percent than it is to change 80 percent of your firm 20 percent,” he notes. Work your change from the outside in.

Keeping change locked up into a Lab or Hub type arrangement will only get you so far. You are going to need to infect emergent leaders if you want to bring about widespread change.

Leadership development programmes are a great way to make creativity part of everyone’s role. However they can often instill too much adherence to past organisational behaviour rather than a more disruptive future model.

Instead we need to develop more curiosity in our organisations. Socially curious employees are better than others at resolving conflicts with colleagues, more likely to receive social support, and more effective at building connections, trust, and commitment on their teams.

Giving people permission to be curious and to create new rules is the quickest way to eliminate fear , the biggest enemy of change.

There are big, bold ways to hack your culture – but there are lots of mini-hacks you can do that will make a huge difference. Most colleagues are annoyed with a limited number of things which breed mediocrity.

Our track record of introducing big change programmes is abysmal and yet your organisation is almost certainly about to embark on one right now.

The challenge is to think big about everything you want to change, but always to start small.

We’re obsessed with big change, but what if we’re underestimating the power of the small changes that lie more easily within our reach?

Why The Employee Idea Scheme Doesn’t Work

The concept of asking employees to share their ideas to drive innovation is always a good one. Unfortunately, the traditional suggestion scheme is, in my opinion, not the way to go about it.

Staff suggestion schemes are where innovation goes to die

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The origin of the staff suggestion box is somewhat hazy – but is believed to be at least 300 years old.

Yoshimune Tokugawa was a shōgun warrior who ruled the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan during the 18th century. He is often credited as the first person to introduce a suggestion scheme. A meyasubako (complaints box) was placed outside Edo Castle which encouraged locals to place ideas about how the province could rid itself of debt. Only Yoshimune himself had the key to the box.

The concept of asking employees to share their ideas to drive innovation is always a good one. Unfortunately, the traditional suggestion scheme is, in my opinion, not the way to go about it.

You’re asking people to literally put their ideas into a box. You’re shutting their ideas away in the dark, and storing them indefinitely. Suggestion schemes have become a joke, the perfect illustration of hands-off, out of touch management tipping the nod at innovation without wanting to put in any hard work.

So why are Bromford Lab in the process of re-introducing one?

Well, as Simon Penny wrote – for innovation and design activity to be sustainable at Bromford, we believe that we must democratise it; supporting colleagues and teams with a super light to medium touch in order to undertake their own innovation activity, freeing up our limited resources to concentrate on higher risk, higher yield, transformative and radically different activity.

To do this we believe we need to hand over the management of new ideas to our fifty most senior leaders -what we call Leadership50. Through developing a much wider group of colleagues we can diversify our innovation approach. Innovation thrives on diversity – it’s a team game. It comes from having a culture where everybody can openly challenge and question one another.  

People like to think that innovation happens because of a genius working alone – but that’s almost never the case. For instance, Steve Jobs insisted he would never allow Apple to make a phone. After his team finally persuaded him to reconsider, he banned outside apps and it took another year to get him to reverse that stance. Much of Apple’s success came from his teams pushing him to rethink his positions. If he hadn’t surrounded himself with people who knew how to change his mind, he might not have changed the world. 

One of the first subjects we tackled as part of Leadership50 was about being bold and daring to disagree with each other. How could we, as leaders, become more receptive and open to challenge, welcoming new ideas from our teams and from across the business? 

Well, working with my LD50 colleagues we made a pitch for what we are calling an Ideas Hub, a central place we can all raise bright ideas that save us money or improve customer or colleague experience. It’s high risk.

As Chris Bolton has written – post COVID the suggestion scheme has had something of a renaissance. All of them have a high chance of failure, indeed several reports have attempted to outline the reasons why many schemes fail . The literature, while extolling the many virtues of suggestion programs, makes it clear that achieving the expected results from these programmes is quite challenging. Suggestion schemes will not yield results without the active involvement of everyone in the organisation together with the required
resources and support from top management. It is also evident that sustaining a suggestion scheme is not easy, it’s hard work.

As Chris says over on his blog , it may be beneficial to take a ‘meta view’ of all the small bright ideas schemes which could identify opportunities that don’t work for the individual schemes, but could work elsewhere. And I agree that having lots of ideas is like spreading your bets at a horse race. The more ideas you have increase the chances of winning.

The problem is most of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having.  It’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem.

Perversely, the answer to unlocking creativity isn’t to go looking for ideas – but to go looking for really good problems. That’s the way to select the ideas that matter.

Having the idea itself is the easy part. Suggestion schemes on their own won’t tackle a culture of no. Even where organisations purposely attempt to generate creative ideas, such as through brainstorming events, hacks or idea boxes they often kill ideas off too early. Sometimes they even kill ideas during the idea-generation activities.

Most hierarchical structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table. Any idea that emerges closest to the customer has to work its way up through a series of managers, any one of whom is likely to veto it. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new, innovative ideas – a “hierarchy of no”.

What do managers do? Typically, managerial work. Not creative work. Not radical, reshaping work. Involving management in the cultivation and protection of early stage ideas changes how managers do what they do.

And that’s why I think our latest approach could work. If it’s the leaders themselves that are publicly taxed with the development of bright ideas then they live or die by that particular sword.

More ideas certainly. Better problems, definitely. However – if we are to shift our innovation efforts across the whole enterprise, we need more management experiments.

How To Kill Ideas

We were asked a really good question last week with the visit to Bromford of the Disruptive Innovators Network.

How long should you spend on an idea?

In the early days of Bromford Lab we had a 12 WEEKS MAX rule. If we couldn’t get an idea up and running within that time – it should be killed.

We soon realised the error of our ways. Some ideas need to be timed exactly right. Now we don’t so much kill ideas as leave them languishing in the pits of our Exploration Pipeline – waiting for the stars to align.

The Premature Death of Ideas

Many organisations , without realising it , act as inhibitors of innovation.

Our colleagues generate ideas every single day about how their job could be done more efficiently or how customers could be better served. These ideas – hundreds of thousands over the course of a year – mostly disappear , never to be harvested.

Organisations have developed numerous tools to kill off ideas.

1: Have A Meeting About It

The best way to assassinate an idea.

Meetings can crush ideas. People want to look like they are adding something in meetings and being hypercritical is highly valued. Putting your freshly hatched idea in that scenario is asking for trouble.

It’s only a matter of time before someone says “That sounds good in theory, but what’s the business benefit?” or even…“We’ve already tried that.”

Meetings are the best place to shoot down an unsuspecting victim who is trying to generate new ideas.

2: Take It To Your Manager

The middle layers of organisations are trapped between management (keeping wheels turning and not rocking the boat) and leadership (inspiring and taking risk).

People here are often scared to take risks because they’re responsible for so much. The bright spark on the team is often seeing as someone who is trying to mess with success.

There is evidence too that managers can undermine employee creativity through interference – changing goals and getting over involved when they should just steer clear.

3: Suggest The Idea Is “Escalated”

Most hierarchical structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table.

Any idea that emerges closest to the customer has to work its way up through a series of managers, any one of whom is likely to veto it. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is often a cognitive bias against new, innovative ideas – a “hierarchy of no”.

The higher an idea moves up the chain of command, the more likely it is to be rejected, as the people furthest from the idea’s source will have a lesser understanding of its potential value.

4: Ask For A Report On It

Once you’ve written a report about an idea – it’s no longer an idea. It’s a project.

That will attract all sorts of project management attention, far too early. As soon as the Gaant chart appears it’s time to pack up and go home.

5: Ask To See The Data On It

“Data fixation” is an innovation killer. The trend towards having an evidence base for absolutely everything removes the gut instinct from your idea.  Measuring things too early means you constrain experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, the high probability even, of failure.

It’s not necessary, or even possible, to completely remove these idea killers. But knowing your enemy , and developing strategies to avoid these pitfalls, will boost your capability for innovation.

The Four Stages of Ideation

Often we think of ideas as being single events when instead they should happen in stages:

Idea Generation

Having the idea is the easy part. What separates successful innovation approaches over ‘innovation theatre’ is the latter promotes generation over action. The successful ones know know that an idea without execution remains simply that—an idea, a paper exercise, no more impactful than a passing thought.

Idea Selection

Most of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having.  It’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem.

Perversely, the answer to unlocking creativity isn’t to go looking for ideas – but to go looking for really good problems. That’s the way to select the ideas that matter.

Idea Deployment

We need to move from reporting about things we are going to do and shift it to things we have done.

Spend less time talking about ‘What would happen?’ and start demonstrating ‘What happened’.  That means we need to make available resources for prototyping and space where we can turn ideas into reality.

Idea Extermination

Your ideas might be wrong, even when your instincts are right. Knowing when to let go is vital.

Innovation is all about discipline in the creation and implementation of new ideas that create value. If ideas are allowed to live too long they can become zombie projects.

To support innovation , we need to create a climate that protects early stage ideas and become comfortable existing with ambiguity.

Rather than just being highly efficient killers our organisations need to become better at idea generation, selection, deployment AND extermination.

And if you’re really struggling to get traction for your idea why don’t you follow this advice from Helen Reynolds? Don’t tell anyone about and just do it anyway.

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Photo by Jason Abdilla on Unsplash

Nine Ways To Unlock Creativity In Your Organisation

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Some organisations are obsessive about finding the silver bullet—the one-shot wonder that solves everything. In an effort to strengthen performance, we’ll often make disproportionate investments in a single initiative to invoke change.

Others are fixed on generating ideas – jumping towards uncontrolled creativity as the solution.

However most of our organisations don’t suffer from a lack of ideas, they suffer from a lack of process that identifies the ideas worth having. 

As David Burkus has said – it’s not an idea problem; it’s a recognition problem. And it’s not always about creativity either.

Creativity is not innovation. Creativity is a prerequisite for sure. Innovation, however, is the practical application of creativity.

Perversely, the answer to unlocking creativity isn’t to go looking for ideas – but to go looking for really good problems.

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance at work is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

When you’ve nailed the right problems – that’s the time to go looking for ideas.

This on its own though – isn’t enough.

Many of our organisations , without realising it, act as inhibitors of innovation.

Rules and protocols are put in place — often for very good reasons — that preserve the status quo. Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms — ‘the way we do things around here’ designed to protect the business from failure.

The discipline of innovation, and it is a discipline, takes commitment, resources, and the right skills set to challenge these norms.

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Your innovation approach won’t last long unless senior leadership has a deep investment in it. Innovation dies from the top.

At Bromford we’ve tried to focus on problems — those incomprehensibly complex and messy issues that need to be understood and defined before they can be incorporated into organisational strategy.

Once we’ve done that we involve colleagues formed from a horizontal slice of people from around the business – and grouped around non-siloed themesThey are a way of seeding innovation throughout the organisation and beginning a wider cultural transformation.

We also link up with our Data and Insight colleagues to make sure every concept is supported by sound evidence. One of the big challenges of fostering an evidence-based culture is that it requires a shift in thinking. It’s not easy for people who are used to making instinctive gut decisions to transition to a world in which the smart decisions are data-driven.

How do you unlock creativity?

  1. You find space – mentally and physically to translate thinking into practical applications – and to ensure that any ideas that are pursued connect with the organisations overall strategy
  2. You bring people together to conceive, champion, and carefully develop new approaches that have not been tried before
  3. You nurture bright ideas and protect them from the established practices (and the people) they threaten
  4. You open up internal and external channels and become a conduit with organisations, individuals, and ideas outside
  5. You act as a pressure chamber that allows these external influences into your organisation in a safe and controlled way
  6. You use a mix of methodologies including design thinking and prototyping to help visualise solutions
  7. You don’t talk yourselves out of change where it appears too difficult or complex
  8. You build a culture around evidence and inquiry
  9. You constantly strive to ask better questions

Do that and you’ll always get better answers


This is an extract from a talk I’m doing on 29th October on Unlocking Creativity

Photos from Pexels by Jonas Svidras  David McEachan 

Three Ways Organisations Kill Ideas (And How You Can Remove Them)

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 Many organisations , without realising it , act as inhibitors of innovation.

Rules and protocols are put in place – often for very good reasons – that preserve the status quo.  Over time, organisations develop a set of social norms – ‘the way we do things around here’ – that either promote creativity or quell it.

Our employees generate ideas every single day about how their job could be done more efficiently. These ideas – thousands over the course of a year – mostly disappear , never to be harvested.

It’s a chronic waste of knowledge that organisations must make it a priority to unlock.

However , simply unleashing ideas just isn’t enough.

The odds of a turtle hatchling reaching adulthood are said to be 1 in 1,000. But in most organisations the chance of an idea reaching maturity has significantly worse odds.

As I detailed in my last conference slot – getting your organisation innovation ready means facing off three of the biggest threats to the survival of ideas.

1: Meetings

Meetings are the number one idea killer in any organisation.

Meetings can crush ideas. They are all too often a corporate power play where ego runs rampant. People want to look like they are adding something in meetings and being hypercritical is highly valued. Putting your freshly hatched idea in that scenario is asking for trouble.

It might have been a bad idea. It might have changed the world. We’ll never know – because someone just beat the hell out of it.  

I’ve been in meetings where senior leaders have debated the pros and the cons of an idea (usually the cons) that hasn’t even reached proof of concept.

Solution: create a space where an idea can take its first few breaths without someone trampling all over it. Let it come to life in a nurturing environment where we can see if it solves the right problems.

And keep managers out. There is evidence that managers can undermine employee creativity through interference – changing goals and getting over involved when they should just steer clear.

Only present it to a meeting after a test has demonstrated it’s actually worth doing. Arm yourself with evidence and a working prototype.

2: Hierarchy

Most corporate structures are uniquely designed to ensure that any decent idea never goes near the top table.

Think about it. Any idea that emerges closest to the customer has to work its way up through a series of managers, any one of whom is likely to veto it. As David Burkus points out, research suggests that there is a cognitive bias against new, innovative ideas – a “hierarchy of no”.

The higher an idea moves up the chain of command, the more likely it is to be rejected, as the people furthest from the idea’s source will have a lesser understanding of its potential value.

It’s going to be difficult for any of us to abandon our organisational structures – but there are ways you can create a “hierarchy of yes.”

Ideally you’ll have the resources to establish an Innovation Lab or Intrapreneurship programme , but in truth any of us can create a virtual space that brings together innovators.

Internal social networks are great places to crowdsource ideas without being tied to the traditional corporate system.

Bypass the middle management ground and go straight to source.

Provocative ideas and posts will help identify innovators who you can work with to bring about change. It’s important that any informal group you establish is non-hierarchical. Swarming around a problem with very disparate points of view is often where the magic happens.

If that all fails just take this advice from Helen Reynolds: adopt guerilla innovation – just don’t tell anyone what you’re doing.

3: Job Descriptions

Job Descriptions are a much underrated enemy of innovation.

They encourage people to play it safe, keep their head down and do the very minimum. They are essentially a one pager on how not to be sacked – an insurance policy against someone screwing up.

However the effects of traditional JD’s are far reaching. They discourage risk taking and imagining better ways to perform the role (such as making it unnecessary in the first place.)

Job descriptions are like organisational treacle. They cause inertia because the moment employees are given specific responsibilities they expect them to stand still. Forever.

Additionally JD’s encourage organisational silos. They demand that people only think of the service from their point of view , rather than how the entire organisation impacts on the customer.

There are a number of solutions here.

The first is to abandon job descriptions altogether and move to a system of role priorities. Too radical for the public sector? Not really. Redkite Community Housing have recently done that very thing.

Secondly you could stick with JD’s but sex them up – making it clear they are actively working against the status quo. You can read more in my top five rules for job descriptions.  Disclosure: I do have a JD (although I’ve never read it to be honest).

The most achievable way of breaking away from silo thinking is to establish a way for colleagues to pitch ideas that benefit the customer. Establishing one point in your organisation that evaluates and acts upon bright ideas from stakeholders, customers and colleagues is the simplest way to make innovation part of everyone’s job.

Our environment is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and interconnected. We can’t afford to have our organisations stifled by the protocols of a very different age.

It’s not necessary, or even possible, to completely remove these three idea killers. But knowing your enemy , and developing strategies to avoid these pitfalls, will boost your capability for innovation.

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