In the latest episode of Futr’s vodcast series, Paul Taylor, innovation coach at Bromford Lab, spoke with Futr’s UK Housing lead Kitty Hadaway about how to foster digital innovation from within a social landlord
Challenging times open up opportunities for innovation. This has been particularly true during the pandemic, in which we saw an acceleration in digital innovation across many industries.
According to a survey by Baker and McKenzie, 58% of businesses that had not yet begun a digital transformation programme said that COVID had accelerated their digital plan. It has been no different for the UK housing sector.
Traditionally, social landlords may have approached digital transformation with hesitation and apprehension, and even the most minor elements of innovation required long approval processes. But in the last year, digital transformation had to become a priority to continue providing residents with essential services.
Paul Taylor, innovation coach at Bromford Lab, spoke to Futr’s UK housing lead, Kitty Hadaway, about how to foster digital innovation from within a social landlord.
Paul’s innovation and digital transformation experience spans both the private and public sectors, and his experience working with various organisations in both worlds has helped him foster a culture of digital change in the housing sector.
Here, we share the highlights from the vodcast and Paul’s insight on transforming housing associations.
Loosen the leash
With the pandemic and the recent Social Housing White Paper highlighting the importance of resident engagement, Paul describes how bureaucracy can often get in the way of changing the way in which we engage with residents.
However, he insists that if employees are given the freedom to experiment and test new ideas, you can effectively solve core problems and even unearth new and valuable insight into your customers.
Paul explains that, in launching Bromford Lab, he and the team had the freedom to do things that were different and quirky. To this day, the most significant change effected by the Lab was creating the role of Neighbourhood Coach.
“Rather than thinking of yourself as being a solver of problems, think about being a connector of the community”
“We had a hunch that housing managers were weighed down by too much bureaucracy,” Paul explains. “So, we did a small experiment to take two colleagues out of their day-to-day and sent them, without any technology or rules, to our customers.
“This was to help them form a better picture of the customer’s life and the kind of service you would offer them. The insights they picked up were incredible at the early stage.
“We went through different tests along the way and came up with the role of the neighbourhood coach, which was very much about stripping bureaucracy and thinking about things from the point of view of the customer. But also, not thinking of customers as people with just loads of problems.”
Paul adds: “You should look at the strengths that people have got and their skills, and rather than thinking of yourself as being a solver of problems, think about being a connector of the community.
“We’ve gone from having two tests every 10 days to over 200 full-time neighbourhood coaches now across the organisation.”
Striking the balance
Bromford Lab’s approach to innovation has changed over the years. They started with those quirky tests, but as time went on, they had to think more strategically about what this meant for the organisation’s future.
According to Paul, however, if you get too attached to the strategy, you can let yourself become defined by it. In Paul’s words, innovation is “thinking about how you match human-centred services and people with technology”.
While not getting bogged down in corporate strategy and staying focussed on resolving key issues is essential in Paul’s analysis of a good innovation plan, the timing with which new solutions are brought to the table is also paramount.
Take the humble QR code, a once mysterious mess of black and white squares, ignored by almost everyone. When Bromford Lab tested QR codes with colleagues five years ago, the tests failed as QR codes “weren’t native”.
Of course, due to developments like the NHS COVID-19 App and pubs adopting QR codes in their droves, the majority of people are now very familiar with this technology.
Ultimately, as Paul says, innovation is about solving the right problems for the right people at the right time.
Fairness and failure
Another aspect of innovation that Paul posits as critical is democratisation and psychological safety to fail, explaining that Bromford Lab tries to enable all Bromford colleagues “to solve a problem and test something out”.
Striving not to “get in the way” of colleagues innovating, Paul explains that the Lab hopes to give the tools, skills, and permission for colleagues to find their own innovative solutions to issues and to feel comfortable with the idea of failure.
“Often, we need to identify that giving people permission is all they need to try things out,” Paul says.
“When we talk about safety to fail, we mean in a way that won’t damage the reputation of your organisation, harm your customer, or cost a lot of money.
“People want to make things work, but it is allowable to let things fail. Not because they are bad ideas, but because there are better ways of solving a problem.
“There are a lot of things we could be trying if we give people permission to do so and see what happens.”
“People want to make things work, but it is allowable to let things fail – not because they are bad ideas, but because there are better ways of solving a problem”
For some organisations, employees can be hesitant about change because it’s ‘not the way things are done’ or because of a fear of disruption to the broader business. According to Paul, in terms of innovation, middle managers can often serve as a barrier level.
“This is because they are responsible for keeping the organisation going,” he explains. “So, if there’s anything which comes along that messes with how they are working, it can be a pain for them.”
However, Paul says that, in being forced to embrace digital by the pressure of the pandemic, many people have realised technology isn’t the enemy.
“We put to bed the detractors in organisations that say you can’t deliver services like that,” he concludes.
Paul dives deeper into how the housing sector can foster digital innovation to improve customer experience in Futr’s latest vodcast…
Main image: SFIO CRACHO/Shutterstock. Content collated and written by Kitty Hadaway
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