Don’t follow the HiPPO…


The Hippo. Dangerous in more ways than one…

The folks at Inside Housing asked me to write a piece for them, which was published last week here: – its behind their paywall, so am just re-posting here for posterity, and those folks who aren’t full time housing nerds with IH subscriptions!

I’m loving IH’s Innovation Index project – it’s a really interesting little tool that gives you a snapshot of how well your organisation’s culture supports innovation. In only took me a few minutes to do, but it’s kept me thinking for a good few days – but then it is one of my favourite subjects.

It’s so important for us as housing associations to keep innovating if we’re to survive and thrive. The sector has a great heritage of innovation: both in the business model – the most successful and long-lasting public-private partnership for the delivery of new homes; and in the product itself – like the introduction of shared ownership back in the 70s. And we’re still doing it today, with organisations leveraging their expertise as a landlord and extending operations into the private rented sector, and delivering more customer services online.

Recent corporate history is littered with organisations who either stopped innovating, or lost their way with leveraging that innovation. Kodak was an early digital photography pioneer (the company invented it in 1975), but didn’t grasp how it would change how we took, shared and kept our images. Blockbuster held onto its shops for too long and got trounced by Netflix and Lovefilm. And Woolworths, dear old Woolies, just lost its focus on customer needs.

So assuming no one thinks innovation is a bad thing, or an irrelevant thing, the more challenging question is how best to enable it to happen? I don’t think there’s a single ‘right’ answer to that, but I’m pretty sure there are some common ingredients, which can come together for the magic to happen. And for me, that’s more often about culture, than it is structure or process.

I try to keep an eye on what problem we’re trying to solve – and I’m often asking myself and colleagues: what problem are we trying to solve here, and is that the right problem to tackle? Could a re-framing of the problem, through the customer’s lens, make a difference? For example, we want to get customers to report repairs online. The customer wants to get the repair done right first time, at a time of their choosing. How can we bring those two together, so the customer gets to book their own repair slot online? Placing the user’s need at the centre of our thinking helps us innovate in service delivery. Netflix recognised that people wanted movies conveniently. Blockbuster assumed they’d carry on walking to the store.

Ideas are fledgling, delicate things, easily killed off by cynicism that something will never work. Sure, there are lots of ideas that won’t fly, but if a colleague’s idea is lightly dismissed as bad, chances are they’re not going to share their next one, which might be good. When we’re sharing ideas, we can set up innovation-friendly conversations by asking, ‘How could we make this concept better,’ or ‘What are the problems that mean this won’t flly?’. ‘Yes, and’ trumps ‘Yes, but’.

Don’t follow the HiPPO. That’s the ‘highest paid person’s opinion’. I’m sure the boss has some great ideas (mine certainly does), but I’m also sure they don’t have a monopoly on them, or on spotting innovation when they see it. When a group of people is in a room talking and thinking about new stuff, it’s all too easy to take the lead from the most senior person in the room. The best senior folks I’ve worked with are aware of this, and deliberately frame the conversations so they don’t ‘go first’ and have everyone agree with them. Diversity of perspective on an idea is a good thing – cherish it. Be that slightly difficult person who says, ‘Hold on a moment, I think I see that differently’ – that’s where the magic starts to happen.

We also need to beware our own comfort zones. To a man (or woman) with a hammer, everything looks like nail. Apple used to just produce great technology kit. Now it runs a massively successful retail operation. If we only look to innovation in running our organisations more efficiently, we may well be missing a more creative approach to tackling Britain’s housing crisis.


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