What Effect Does Environment Have On Our Ability To Think Creatively?

When you think of the “space to innovate” what immediately springs to mind? Is it the physical space , the mental space, the calendar space? All three?

I’ve been thinking a lot about spaces and environments this week: specifically what are the best creative spaces to boost collaboration?

Few companies measure whether the design of their workspaces helps or hurts performance, but they should. The physical space for innovation or even peak performance may look very different for each of us. For some of us it will be fresh air. For others it will be a whiteboard and post-it notes.

The term ‘innovation theatre‘ was coined by Steve Blank to describe those innovation activities (hackathons, design thinking classes, innovation workshops) that give the illusion of a creative culture but can lack substance. As Steve says, these activities shape and build culture, but they don’t win wars, and they rarely deliver shippable/deployable product.

Michael Hendrix of Ideo recalls seeing a door near a client’s boardroom labeled with a sign reading, “creative thinking room/DVD storage.” It’s a perfect metaphor. Without the strategy and the discipline all the fancy tools, like having a dedicated brainstorming room–ultimately won’t work.

During my time at Bromford Lab I’ve seen many organisations try and emulate the approach, but few have succeeded. This is the myth of the Innovation Lab – the belief that by creating a space your organisation will become more creative. Innovation will come from the strategies you deploy around that space – not within it. As Tendayi Viki says – it is very rare that you find a leadership team that has thought through the implications of opening a lab. The first symptom of this is the lack of a clear innovation strategy. 

That said – I think innovation spaces can be important. The biologist Jonas Salk claimed his discovery of the polio vaccine only came when he swapped his basement lab for an Italian monastery. There are some simple things we can do to our physical surroundings to help boost our creativity, and there appears to be plenty of evidence that suggests that personal creativity can be improved and not just reserved for certain people.

Of course, the place for creativity is everywhere. However small innovation units with dedicated investment can be useful because they can provide training, networks, and other resources to help colleagues think differently. Ideally though, there should be cells of innovation driven by colleagues dispersed across the organisation. 

Back in 2014 when we launched Bromford Lab – we needed to start somewhere. Establishing a creative space is a creative process in itself. We needed a space where the physical environment signalled collaboration and connection as well as high expectations. We needed an inspiring place that signalled to colleagues this wasn’t normal work. Innovation theatre? Maybe to begin with. But theatre can be good if it gets attention and starts to build a culture of experimentation – however small.

We used the space to swarm colleagues around problems and think creatively, to have a safe space where anything and anyone could be questioned, to host visits and to collaborate with different sectors.

We created it on the cheap, begging, blagging and borrowing to create somewhere different. Things like space and lighting matter in innovation as they affect mood which in turn affects outcomes, especially when chosen and designed consciously.

In March 2020 as the pandemic hit Covid seemed to kill the office. It certainly killed Bromford Lab as a space. It was mothballed – and filled with junk as we prepared to close down excess office space and refurb others to be fit for the future.

RIP Bromford Lab.

Long Live Bromford Lab.

This week as I walked into the newly reopened Bromford office – I saw that the way we imagined truly collaborative open spaces has been levelled up. We now have the perfect stage to begin to rewire the organisation and democratise innovation. The upcoming launch of the Ideas Hub – in which colleagues will be taught the skills to begin grassroots innovation using frugal jugaad principles at the same time as we develop the problem definition and experimentation skills of senior leaders promises some exciting times to come.

Not all organisations with creative spaces are engaged in innovation theatre, but all organisations engaged in innovation theatre have creative spaces.

Ultimately it’s great to have a space in your organisation for innovation.

However it’s even better if your organisation IS a space for innovation.


Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Moving Beyond Command And Control

The natural reaction of the rule maker when people start breaking the rules is not to redesign them, or seek to understand why, but to issue yet more rules.

Political language. . .is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind

George Orwell

2020 on reflection, was a great year for hierarchy.

In the early stages of the pandemic the ability shown by organisations to mobilise emergency health care, communicate messages, shift people to remote work, was a testament to the power of decisive command systems.

Following that we saw a new era of community innovation begin, reminding us of the power of social connection. People began supporting and caring for one another locally, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways many organisations simply couldn’t. ‘Let communities adopt a common sense approach’ was the defining narrative.

That seems a long time ago.

How have we have moved so quickly from celebrating the power and ingenuity of communities to blaming those same communities for recklessness and not following rules?

Some of the very same people (I’m talking social entrepreneurs and activists) who rightly attack the disempowering effects of command and control in organisations have begun to support, and even applaud, the politicians and the media in what has essentially become a behaviour of victim blaming.

An element of hierarchical control is necessary in an emergency. It’s what gets things done and keeps us safe. There are people who are naturally good at creating systems, protocols and rules rather than building relationships based on trust. These people are necessary for a functioning society, as without them we wouldn’t enjoy the health, safety, food, construction and consumer standards that we have.

However, what we have begun to see is people , not just politicians, who like rule making a little bit too much.

And the natural reaction of the rule maker when people start breaking the rules is not to redesign them, or seek to understand why, but to issue yet more rules.

We know from the basics of design thinking that if the rules don’t match up with people’s experience and desires they create another way. Humans are endlessly resourceful and can always find a loophole.

Why do people break the rules?

Firstly, there are those who do not know what the rules are or who haven’t paid attention. These are the kind of people who get caught doing 35mph in a 30 zone. Importantly, when guidance changes over time and in different areas they are likely to get more confused and break the rules without even knowing.

Then there are those that don’t think the rules are important. This group are unlikely to experience a negative impact for breaking the rules. They aren’t necessarily selfish, it’s just if you don’t have personal experience of something, you minimise its importance. If I was 20 and still thought I’d live forever, I’d probably have been partying in Ibiza over the summer too.

The third group, and I’d suggest these are a tiny minority, are the active rule breakers. The kind of people who won’t wear a mask to a make a demonstrable social point. Have a tiny bit of sympathy though, they are merely trying to exert some personal control in a world where they feel they have none.

The vast majority of us are in the first camp. We might have broken the occasional rule but it’s because we are confused, we forgot or we’ve interpreted them to suit our personal circumstances.

Design thinking is all about understanding how people actually behave rather than how they say they do. It’s this that all the Government(s) in the UK seem to have been completely blindsided by.

And this is the weak point of command and control systems – they can never be user focussed and understand life at street level. At no point since March has there been any input from the public. At no point has there been a democratic conversation about what COVID means for our communities and what a proportionate local response should be.

I think one of the big challenges of 2021/22 will be renewing faith in grassroots innovation after a prolonged period of control and risk management. Some of us will resist loosening our grip.

As Simon Penny said on Twitter the necessary task for 2021 is to take forward the belief in the power of communities to look out for each other and get stuff done. Only by delegating resources and decision making to them will we kickstart the economy again and solve problems at a local level.

We need to thank the people who put the rules in place that kept us safe and healthy. But as soon as the pandemic is over we need them to step back. Rules tend to stick around for a long time after they have ceased being useful. Control systems are never easy to dismantle and their proponents never give up power easily.

Thwarting other people’s control is bad for us and society – as ultimately, it limits our own control.

  • Communities are decisive, creative, aware, caring and trusting. They’ll make mistakes but they’ll get along OK in the end.
  • Communities are self motivated, often reckless and need a high degree of control. Left to their own devices they can become a danger to themselves.

Which is it?

In 2021 we all need to get off the fence and state which one we truly believe in, and make that world a reality.


Image by sin won jang from Pixabay

Reshaping Organisations Around What’s Strong – Not What’s Wrong

“ECONOMICS ARE THE METHOD: THE OBJECT IS TO CHANGE THE SOUL”

This (pretty chilling) quote comes from Margaret Thatcher in 1981 – and ushered in an era that promoted the belief that social progress is achieved through the accumulation of wealth or status.

Earn more, consume more, and you’ll be happy. 

The legacy of this is still with us today, with our value to society often seen in purely economic terms.

In the social sector, many of our organisations have been unwittingly shaped by this philosophy.

The less you own the more likely you are to be a problem. The lower your educational attainment, your income, the more insecure your background, the more likely you are to be a drain on services.

This is called deficit-based thinking, and it is rife.  Our organisations support it without even knowing.

  • We talk of the ‘ageing crisis’ – which is only really a crisis if you believe that people have outlived their economic usefulness.
  • The talk of a ‘housing crisis’ invariably means people being unable to get ‘on the housing ladder’. If you don’t own – you aren’t on it. You’re not progressing.

Increasingly though there’s evidence of a disparity with wealth, achievement and happiness. The UK is one of the richest countries in the world – but also one of the loneliest.

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Finland is now top of the world for happiness, according to the World Happiness Report 2018. Nordic countries take four out of the five top spots – and some of the world’s richest nations appear much further down the list.

Finland has a high GDP but also high taxes which fund social programmes. There’s less competition at work and better support for those without a job. There’s a strong culture of strengths-based thinking , and of encouraging communities to identify and mobilise existing but often unrecognised assets. The services that do exist are organised around the user.

As Andrew Humphreys has written – public services in the UK are often compartmentalised along lines that bear no relation to the needs they are supposed to meet or the value they are meant to deliver. If public services aren’t designed backwards from the value that people need from them, then they will have been designed forwards from the aims and objectives of those in charge of them.

It’s nearly seven years since Bromford began its journey from a pretty paternalistic top-down service to focus on strengths and what’s working in our communities.

When we began, one of the most common challenges we had from colleagues was “Why are we expecting our customers to contribute to communities? I don’t do anything in mine.”

Our language wasn’t very nuanced- as people saw organised ‘volunteering’ as the only way someone contributes.

Obviously, this is nonsense. If you live in any community that depends on the interaction with other human beings (that’s all of us – right?), you by definition must contribute to that community in some way.

That contribution cannot be viewed solely through categories of age, health, or wealth.

A few years ago I met an older guy in the Philippines who told me he was the most sought-after person in his village – even though he hadn’t ‘worked’ for over 20 years and lived a very frugal existence.

His strengths were his age, his experiences and his connections which could be brought together to help people. The Fili culture has a word for this mindset – “Bayanihan”. The word came from the tradition where neighbours would help a relocating family by literally carrying their house and contents to a safer location.

More generally the word has come to mean a communal spirit that makes seemingly impossible feats possible through the power of unity and cooperation.

The term bayanihan has evolved over time – being incorporated in many projects that depict the spirit of a cooperative effort involving a community of members.

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 unity and co-operation will become obsolete. One of our organisational design principles is that we should think community first, services last.

There’s a lot of talk of strengths-based thinking but I see comparatively few organisations who are having these difficult conversations and beginning to cede more power to communities.

There are things individuals need and that communities can do that are irreplaceable – that can never be done by organisations or Government.

Building our organisations around communities, around what they truly need rather than what we want them to need, is truly disruptive.

It means moving away from focussing on what’s wrong, taking a very different view of our purpose and being a lot less essential than we think we are.

 


Image via Pen Mendonca

Continuous Partial Attention: Designing A Less Distracted Future Of Work

Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better – Nicholas Carr , The Shallows

You’d have thought we’d have given up on the physical office by now.

UK workers spend a year of their lives in meetings. If you work in the public sector it’s even worse – with nearly 2 years waste clocked up for every worker.

You spend another year of your life commuting to and from work. At a total cost of about £50,000.

You spend about 60% of your time on email,  about 4 years of your life.

With all this apparent evidence you’d expect to a see a swift migration away from the office but this is exactly what’s NOT happening.

Average commuting time to work is increasing despite research showing that every extra minute spent travelling to and from work reduces job and leisure time satisfaction, increases strain and worsens mental health.

Not that all this effort is achieving much – despite our technological advancements – productivity in the last decade was the worst since the 1820’s.

The problem isn’t just the physical office anymore – our work accompanies us on a variety of screens wherever we go.

A work task can sit in the same queue as an alert about a Netflix series. What we haven’t done is considered how to reshape work in a world of digital technologies and a brutal competition for attention.

Clearly, we haven’t found the balance – we just aren’t using technology to its full potential. We are running against the machines rather than running with them.

Is Microsoft Office A Bigger Productivity Drain Than Candy Crush Saga?

In his latest post, Tim Harford makes an important point – that technology has made generalists of us all. General purpose devices running software such as Microsoft Office has meant anyone can have a go at anything — with “well-paid middle managers with no design skills taking far too long to produce ugly slides that nobody wants to look at”.

In my first job, I was literally not allowed to write a letter to a customer. It was deemed more efficient to be done by a typing pool comprised almost entirely of middle-aged women. Anachronistic for sure, but also error-free.

The point that Tim makes is that this drive to make us all-rounders – self-serving but ultimately average at everything – may lead to a productivity loss we haven’t even considered.

Habitually Distracted Minds

The typical smartphone user touches their phone about 2,500 times each day, meaning we are pretty susceptible to distraction. The problem is that distracted moments can quickly lead to distracted days.

Today we have a number of different sources of notifications in the workplace competing for our attention. I even had an automated reminder at 6am on Christmas Day from a particularly persistent workplace irritant. Robots don’t sleep. Or celebrate Christmas apparently.

This way of working – constant interruption by external stimuli – is termed “continuous partial attention”. Simultaneous attention is given to a number of sources of incoming information, but only at a very superficial level.

This is destructive to achieving any sort of ‘flow’ – the state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.

Steven Kotler writes that in a 10-year study,  executives reported being five times more productive in flow. This means, if you can spend Monday in flow, you’ll get as much done as everyone else does in a week.

The real issue here is how we design the future of work – rather than letting the technology dictate what that looks like through a constant series of app notifications, prompts, and email reminders.

At Bromford we’ve made a start – setting design principles for 30 different service areas, but we need to go much further. With the rise of artificial intelligence and machines that will be capable of an increasingly wide set of tasks, we need to consider the balance between generalists and specialists.

The future of work isn’t a place you go.

It’s better to think of it as a new operating system for creating value and getting things done in environments that limit constant interruption.

How To Kill Innovation In 10 Easy Steps

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.

It’s time to refresh the innovation killers list for 2017..

Standardisation

ISO9000 (and other process management systems like it, such as Six Sigma, and Lean):  are shown to increase reliability.

However, in the longer term, they can make radical innovation plummet.

Systems that are good for one thing are not always good for another and you need to create a mix of exploration and implementation.

Fear of Failure

To successfully tackle the problems we face we need to experiment more. Many of those experiments just won’t work.

If we want to see a radical improvement in our services we’ll need to be forgiven by our organisations. We need places where people feel safe to fail. Where they won’t get punished for messing up.

Hierarchy

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.

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.

Being Solution Focused

Innovation is fundamentally about solving problems, and you need to figure out what kind of problem you are trying to solve before identifying a solution.
Most organisations are solution focused. If you jump straight to answers two things happen:
  • you spend too little time on idea generation, experimenting, and thinking.
  • you miss the root cause entirely and embark on silver bullet solutions to the wrong problem.

Over-complication

What if we made it the number one objective of management to just get out of the way?

Most systems work best if they are kept simple rather than made complicated; therefore simplicity should be a key goal in management and unnecessary complexity should be avoided. Are you a simplifier or a complexifier?

Prescriptive job design

Job descriptions are like organisational treacle. They cause inertia because the moment employees are given specific responsibilities they expect them to stand still. Specialisation and compartmentalisation reduce autonomy, variety and meaning in jobs, causing people to focus on ‘just doing the job’.

Silo Working

It’s hard to innovate when people work in silos. Splitting teams into isolated units limit the ability to identify which areas could be combined to create new products and services. Silos are great for teamwork, but a barrier to external collaboration. And in a networked era – we need to adopt very different strategies.

Lack of resources

Innovation is not about doing more stuff but doing less. We need to have honest conversations about decommissioning non-value-added services. Go to your website and find five things you could stop doing today.

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.

Reports and approvals

Let’s stop writing reports and use the resources to 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 through prototyping and testing – where we can see if it solves the right problems.

It’s time for us to stop talking and to start experimenting.

Saying you’re different isn’t enough – you have to act differently. 

How Automation Helps Us Solve The Problems That Matter

“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” – Elbert Hubbard

bromford-design-principles-reworked-3-1

Automation gets a bad rap.

The original draft of our design principles stated “Automate everything that can be automated”. People flinched – it was seen as too harsh.

Mention automation and people make a mental jump to a transactional, robotic service devoid of warmth and humanity.

‘Going digital’ is often seen only as a move to cut costs – punishing customers with a lesser service.

It shouldn’t be that way.

Successful automation – and digital transformation –  is about freeing people up to tackle the problems they don’t normally get the time to solve.

If you’ve ever been to an Apple Store you’ll have seen this in action. Apple employ a lot of people in their in-store experience – about three or four times the number employed in a typical retail outlet.

Every employee is trained to walk a customer through five steps aimed at delivering a unique experience:

A: Approach customers with a personalised, warm welcome

P: Probe politely to understand the customer’s needs

P: Present a solution for the customer to take home today

L: Listen for and resolve issues or concerns

E: End with a farewell and an invitation to return

Their formula is simple – build relationships = sell more products.

Of course Apple can only afford to do this because of their profit – and their ceaseless focus on automating anything that gets in the way of customer experience.

We’ve been running design sessions across the whole organisation since last October. Embedding our new principles and taking people out of the here and now to imagine a 2.0 version of how we work.

One of the things that’s been most heartening is people’s honesty about the challenges of working within complex systems. One colleague explained how a team had to perform a manual task 20,000 times every year.

The creativity and sheer determination employed to resolve the problem was incredible. However, the problem didn’t need to exist. It’s capable of redesign and automation.

Across the social sector we have a lot of problems and a lot of people.

50% of day-to-day spend in the public sector is on employees.

37% of working British adults say their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world.

Only 18% of people say the jobs they spend most of their lives doing are “very fulfilling”.

An awful lot of people are doing meaningless jobs.

That speaks of poor leadership and a wholesale failure to embrace technology and new ways of working.

Imagine if we harvested all our creativity and determination and unleashed it on the problems worth solving?

At Bromford we are attempting to follow the Apple model. In our case it means putting people where the problems and the opportunities are – right in the centre of the community.  In an age where people are withdrawing personalised services we are pushing them to the fore – boosting the ratio of people to customers.

Digital transformation is absolutely not about designing out people. It’s about designing out the ordinary and reserving people for the extraordinary.

Indeed , the paradox of automation says that the more efficient the automated system, the more crucial the human contribution. People are less involved, but their involvement becomes more critical.

Automation gets a bad rap, but it shouldn’t.

It makes us all much more important, not less.

Why You Need To Selectively Forget Your Own Past

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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.

I’ve been reading the latest book from VG Govindarajan – a great thinker on innovation and leader of a global initiative to design a $300 House.

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.

12 Weeks To Change Your Online Life (or hand your iPad back…)

I’ve had a breakthrough that I want to share.

Last Week  I threw down a special challenge to some of our Board Members and Customer Stakeholders who we had struggled to get engaged in Online collaboration and Social Media.

3 Rules

  1. I’ll loan you an iPad for 12 Weeks.
  2. If it doesn’t change your life I will have it back. I will never mention Social Media to you again.
  3. But if you admit it changes your life and you prove you are tweeting , yammering and engaging with others online you get to keep it.

An hour before I gave this challenge we had debated every single reason NOT to engage in Social Media.  The usual reasons were given: Viruses; Personal Data Privacy; Abusive Language; Louise Mensch; Piers Morgan. All valid reasons that I certainly couldn’t dispute.

Instead of presenting a counter-argument – we produced the iPads. And the challenge. Accept it – and you get to play with one. Immediately

Instantly – a room full of hardened cynics are transformed as they touch , poke and turn the iPads around in their hands. Apple understand design and they understand how we first learned to play as children. When we didn’t have any cynicism towards anything or anyone.

I’ll let you know how the challenge goes.

By the way , less than 24 hours later I had  an email. From someone who just a few weeks ago told me they would NEVER engage in Social Media.

This is a bit of what it said:

Just wanted to say I’m a convert. It’s amazing. I’ve registered for Yammer. Can you send me that Beginners Guide to Twitter that you mentioned? P.S You won’t be getting your iPad back

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