Why Collaboration Does Not Equal Innovation

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Photo credit: Jonatan Pie

Transformation can’t happen without discovery and discovery can’t happen without experimentation.

It’s a new year and at Bromford we are planning a reboot of our approach to innovation (actually we are planning a reboot of everything).

My emerging thoughts are we need less talk of accelerated fast fail innovation and more a systemic and systematic approach to experiments.

Why?

Because innovation is almost never a single event.

As Greg Satell has written it can take decades for new solutions to be adopted widely. People cling to old models out of habit and convenience. Systemwide change doesn’t come easy.

The idea of putting a few people together in a room and expecting them to have some eureka moment about complex problems is , at best, naive.

Corporate away days, brainstorming, hackathons, conferences, unconferences,  all promote the myth that bringing a few random people together solves problems.

It’s good to talk for sure – but let’s stop conflating collaboration with innovation.

Most hacks and conferences do not solve problems – and certainly not big problems. Problems are there for a reason. People are working to solve these problems constantly, spending much more energy and resources than a single group of people ever can.

As part of the programme I’m working on at the moment potential solutions often only emerge weeks, or even months, after the initial creative session.

The reality is that innovation is an ongoing process. A process that requires problem definition, research, creativity and testing. Lots and lots of testing.

Currently only a small proportion of organisations in the social sector incorporate this process alongside the introduction of a wide range of new knowledge, new process and new technology.

Organisations are jumping to the latter. However technology cannot magically mend broken systems or solve intractable problems.

The real opportunity in 2017 is combining experiments with larger scale transformation.

I’m no longer interested in the cheerleading of innovation and transformation as an end in itself. My interest lies in the practical examples of learning and exploration that organisations are able to evidence.

Smart organisations will:

  • Build a portfolio of many different types of experiments from new customer offerings to new business models.
  • View small experiments as a natural constraint to bloated and expensive ‘projects’.
  • Conduct multiple experiments at the same time and be able to evidence their impact and share the learning.
  • Use the governance, scale and resources of transformation programmes to ensure the adoption of proven experiments.

Our job is to set the stage and create the right environment for those experiments.

We need a safe space for exploration. We need permission to cross organisational silos and assemble diverse co-creators. We need to move out of our ivory towers and shift innovation as close as we can to the colleagues and customers who know the jobs that need doing.

Organisational change doesn’t come easily.

A joined-up process of collaboration, research, experimentation and transformation would certainly make it a lot faster.

Is Your Organisation Making The Impossible Possible?

2016 was the year the social media bubble burst. The year we woke up to the fact that – despite what Twitter and Facebook tell us – a lot of people think exactly the opposite to what we do. It was us, not them, who were in a bubble.

I spent New Year travelling – so only read a few of the “2016 sucked” type posts that swamped my feeds. My view is that 2016 wasn’t the end of days – but rather the necessary conclusion of a cycle that’s been playing out for years.  The new cycle is beginning and is open for us to shape.

I began writing this post on the early morning ferry from Tagbilaran to Lamu Lamu City in the Philippines – after a conversation with some Filipino commuters.

The Filipinos are blessed with breathtaking landscapes , astonishing waterworlds and true Asian megacities.  It’s also situated smack in the middle of the typhoon belt and the Pacific Ring of Fire. Storms and earthquakes are part of everyday life.

It’s one of the most beautiful countries I’ve been too – and it’s in an almost constant cycle of peril.

People have to continually rebuild, reuse and readapt.

There’s no time for navel gazing about change management programmes and cultural readiness for transformation. It’s transform or die. 

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 cooperative effort involving a community of members.

In 2017 many of us have to rebuild our organisations to face challenges that may seem impossible. And we can’t do it alone.

Saving the NHS from implosion seems impossible, but 1.5 million people work for the health service. If that were a country it would the 150th most populous in the world – ahead of Estonia, Cyprus and Iceland. That’s a huge amount of skills and knowledge that if harnessed correctly could surely transform any system.

If you stop thinking of the NHS as an end in itself and start adding in the wider social sector you’ll have more than 5 million people – and that’s before you start untapping the skills and resources in communities.

The reality is that the health and social sector isn’t an untouchable thing of beauty.  It’s a clunky system built for another age. It’s been patched so many times that it’s astonishing it still works at all.

Whilst short term emergency funding may be necessary – it is in no way the answer.

We need to to invest in scaling up promising community based initiatives at the same time as scaling down paternalistic systems and bureaucracies that stifle innovation.

This , as Alex Fox has written, is the scaling challenge of the digital age.  Scaling down bureaucracies to be human and family sized again.

I’m lucky to be working with organisations who are actively exploring these concepts, some of which looked fanciful in 2012.

  • In 2014 they started to take shape and gather momentum. More people took interest and got involved.
  • In 2016 post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-truth it looked increasingly persuasive.
  • In 2017 amid a global implosion of trust  – moving our organisations from the reactive to the preemptive and challenging the whole system as we have known it – is now the day job.

In the Philippines it’s interesting that the spirit of bayanihan – of communities themselves doing impossible tasks – has not spread upstream into Government.

The cooperation that works so well at community or baranggay level has been stunted when it meets the inflexible institutions that supposedly serve it.

This is the big challenge for us.

Can we reshape our organisations to be more like people – or are our institutions the very things that are standing in the way of unity and cooperation?

Are we letting communities make the impossible possible – or are we the ones stopping it dead in its tracks?

 

Here’s to a challenging and productive year!

How To Fast Track Innovation

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If you speak at conferences about innovation you’ll almost always encounter some frustrated people.

They approach you at the end, or contact you a few days later. They often have one thing in common.

They, and others like them , have ideas that are being shut down because they don’t fit the system.

They tend not to be the loud ones, the self styled boat rockers and rebels at work, but just people who are quietly trying to make a difference.

They see a refusal to identify, create, embrace, explore, develop or adopt new ideas. They see missed opportunities for new products, better processes or different ways of doing business.

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This week we spoke at an event at Alder Hey Innovation Hub on the subject of fast tracked innovation.

  • The NHS is 68 years old.
  • Bromford is 53.

That means we have at least two things in common.

  1. We’re successful. Our vision and purpose has remained relevant across decades.
  2. We’re in danger. The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today.  We shouldn’t really still be here.

If you’ve been around that long you’re going to have a huge amount of organisational wisdom. You’ve become very good at what you do.

However – older companies are really bad at innovation because they’re designed to be bad at innovation.

Older companies are designed to execute on delivery — not engage in discovery.

And this is where all those frustrated people come from. They are explorers locked in a system focused on repetition.

Smart organisations know that innovation has to happen by design. They know that you have to build non-linear processes that encourage purposeful deviation.

It’s project unmanagement.

Project management as in methodologies like PRINCE2 can be anti-innovation. It’s about defined steps to make something logical and organised. PRINCE actually stands for PRojects IN Controlled Environments.

Control.

Let’s be clear – I’m not dismissing the importance of controlled projects. However my experience of talking to a lot of frustrated people is that organisations are confusing control and exploration.

As I heard this week – “I just keep getting told to take my idea to the project team, but they don’t seem to get it”.

No. They wouldn’t get it.

NEVER take an idea to a project management team unless you want it come back with a risk log, a contingency plan and a Gantt chart.

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As this diagram from Tom Hartland shows – there’s a whole fuzzy front end to deal with first.

The conundrum we face is that the very processes that drive toward a profitable, efficient operation tend to get in the way of developing innovations that can actually transform the business.

Until organisations invest in a test and learn framework to accompany their efficiency models they are doomed to disappoint a lot of employees and see ideas go nowhere.

Creating a safe place for intrapreneurs to test ideas and gain supporting evidence so they can justify requesting funds is now necessary whatever the size of your company.

What’s the ROI?

A better question to ask is how you measure the return for an idea that does not yet exist.


The latest Lab slide deck is below. Thanks to Tom for the awesome illustrations.

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.

Can Working Out Loud Inspire Creativity and Inclusion?


Collaboration – for all the rhetoric – is much harder , and for many of us less preferable, than working in isolation.

Today we’ve woken up to find the  UK has made a historic choice. A choice that could be interpreted as a desire to go it alone rather than working with others. To seize ‘control’ rather than work within a large and complex network.

The biggest innovation challenge we have today and in the years ahead – is that we simply stop talking to ourselves. That we value inclusion and collaboration above all.

The opportunity afforded to us by digital networks was meant to open up a new era where organisations committed to improving people’s lives (that’s most of us, right?) commit to open learning, sharing and collaboration.

It won’t happen without a lot of hard work. Most organisations and sectors thrive on insularity. It’s the way we’ve been raised. Working with others is messier, less predictable and more complex.

The issue is , right around the world , people are working on solving exactly the same problems. Huge amounts of talent seeking to address, income and health inequality, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, ageing, digital exclusion and loneliness.

Yesterday I spoke at a conference led by Suzanne Rastrick. It was organised by the NHS – the single biggest employer across Europe. It filled me with a lot of hope for the future. I like the way that Suzanne and her colleagues are reaching out to other sectors to get their ideas. Reaching out to communities to provide a less paternalistic and more human health and wellbeing service.

Most of our challenging business issues, fall into the category of Wicked Problems. These aren’t amenable to the single organisation, top down instinct to define, analyse, dissect and process.

These issues are incapable of being explored through hierarchical corporate machinery, a single sector or even a single state. They need an open network of rebels and pragmatists, doers and doubters, idealists and investors. Only through truly open innovation will we tackle them successfully.

That means working out loud – something we’ve begun to do at Bromford but needs far more development.

  • It means opening up your organisational borders to fresh thinking , new partnerships and ideas.
  • It means moving away from intranets – the death of corporate innovation – where all your knowledge is locked away from those outside your organisation. (And often from many within it too).
  • It means stopping wasting money on conferences where sectors congregate to talk to themselves. Instead we need strategies aimed at purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation.
  • It means generously sharing your knowledge , successes and failures through blogs , accessible dashboards and other digital tools.

However it feels right now, we are much better connected. Digital technology means we can share and learn in ways unimaginable even 10 years ago.

We still have the opportunity before us to connect communities, businesses and sectors – boosting our capacity and capability for innovation and change.

We still have the opportunity to connect with others across real and imagined borders and form movements and partnerships that change things for the better.

In that respect – today I’m just as hopeful as I was yesterday.

How To Kill Creativity (And How To Rebuild It)

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.

One of the biggest inhibitors of innovation is part of human nature itself — the fear of losing what we’ve got.

What if innovation isn’t about doing more stuff but just removing barriers?

What if we just become more conscious and innovation takes care of itself?

Perhaps by identifying and removing barriers we can accelerate innovation simply by leveraging the capability that’s already there.

Six things we can stop supporting:

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.

Push power down by giving each employee as much decision-making power as possible within the framework of his or her job.

Restrictive job profiles

Job descriptions are like organisational treacle. They cause inertia because the moment employees are given specific responsibilities they expect them to stand still. They cause people to focus on “just doing the job”, not “thinking outside the box”.

Huge resources lie untapped. The networked organisation of the future will utilise the skills of people regardless of where they sit or what they do.

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.

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.

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 through your website and find 10 things you could stop doing today.

Reports and approvals

We need less time in meetings and more time conducting dangerous experiments.

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 where we can see if it solves the right problems.

Too many organisations are failing to grasp how profoundly the rules of business in the digital era have changed. How we must become more networked, more social and more agile.

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.

(This article is an excerpt from “Can Innovation Labs Save The World” — a talk given to the National Housing Federation — full slides below)