Ian Wright, founder and CEO of the Disruptive Innovators Network, explains why housing has a problem with innovation and how the sector can look toward today’s tech giants for inspiration
When you have an established system or process we know works and solves the problems it is intended to, then you can spend time refining it to make it even better and reduce failure. However, for a lot of the 21st century challenges – such as climate change, housing affordability, equality – we currently do not have a solution. Failure is going to be critical in helping us solve them.
Technology is one of those areas where there have been some big failures publicised. But often, the noise from one spectacular failure drowns out the many successful adoptions.
I remember a few years back taking a small group of leaders into a large social housing provider from the likes of Google, Apple, and Microsoft to see what they made of how we operate. It was a great day, and they learned loads. However their collective summary was, ‘Wow, we didn’t know social landlords did so much, we thought they just rented houses… But your tech is 10 years out of date!”
Since founding the Disruptive Innovators Network a little under three years ago, I have had the pleasure of having lots of conversations with organisations and leaders who love the concept of innovation and what it can do for their business. However, failure is an inherent component of innovation.
I love the following quote from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in a letter to shareholders six years back, where he was talking about the fact that the business was in a great place to fail:
“Failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.”
Bezos recognised that, if Amazon wanted to learn and grow, it had to become comfortable with failure. Anyone remember the Fire Phone or Amazon Auction?
You see, if we step back and look at sectors which have been subject to significant disruption (Amazon with retail, Uber with personal transportation, Deliveroo’s last-mile service), they have all had some common threads:
- Large numbers of incumbent suppliers who have been established for a long time
- Legacy IT systems which have failed to keep pace with changes in other sectors
- Little or no competition to upset the status quo
Can you see where I am going here?
I remember a time when I was working in housing that leaders did start to appear nervous when the Cameron/Osborne government of the day floated the idea of taking housing providers back into public ownership.
Of course, it never materialised, but the thought of where disruption can come from is almost never in public sight until it is too late.
So, what can housing providers learn from failure to help them improve the likelihood of their innovations being successful?
- Start small, most innovations are incremental – you are not trying to build the next Facebook
- Understand the ‘real’ problem you are trying to solve – set this out in a problem statement and understand where the customer/resident sits within this
- Do not use traditional KPIs as this will kill the innovation at the start – you cannot use traditional business metrics to solve unknown problems
- Understand what your ‘risk patience’ will be – this is how long you will give the experiment before you kill it (10-12 weeks is long enough to test to a proof-of-concept stage that something will work)
- Keep track of your failures – a lot of innovation is about timing, and just because something is not ready for deployment at the time doesn’t mean your work is wasted and won’t be of value in the future
In my next article, I will aim to explore the challenges of scaling your innovations and how you can overcome the barriers and blockers to taking it from a pilot stage to embedding it across the business.
Main image: Song_about_summer/Shutterstock
Ian Wright is a Housing Digital columnist and founder and CEO of the Disruptive Innovators Network, a membership organisation for leaders in social housing wanting to invest in innovation.
Are you a social housing professional? Sign up for a FREE MEMBERSHIP to upload news stories, post job vacancies, and connect with colleagues on our secure social feed.