‘We don’t have time for innovation, we’re too busy!’

I have been having a lot of conversations lately with housing people about business transformation

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Creating new futures is my stock in trade nowadays and I find it both stimulating and energising to talk with Chief Executives, Corporate Services and Resources executives, HR directors and heads of learning and development, transformation and innovation specialists; they are all on the Superhighway signposted “The Future”.

There’s lots to discuss here.

Whether it’s about the potential impact of “no deal” Brexit, the prospects for housing supply in an ever tighter spending climate or the growing clamour for stronger consumer regulation, boards and executive teams of social landlords have had plenty to chew over, even while they have been sunning themselves on Mediterranean beaches or dodging rain showers while firing up their barbeques at home.

Internally there has been lots happening as well.

Many housing associations are either talking about or negotiating a merger, or recovering from one that has happened recently.

Some housing groups who have carried out mergers in the recent past, promising residents and staff that their former identities will be maintained and services unaffected, have gradually been discovering that in today’s digitally connected world loosely bound group structures don’t really work.

Thanks to social media, in particular Facebook and Twitter, tenants in one group company – say HA1 – can talk directly with their counterparts in HA2 and discover that the deal they are getting on maintenance and other customer services is not up to the standards enjoyed by their counterparts.

This realisation has resulted in a rash of group consolidation activity and all the necessary disruption this entails in the back office, in some cases years after the Chief Executives of the formerly independent organisations declared the new group structure to be a done deal.

Meanwhile, some housing providers have been getting on with innovation.

These organisations are actively promoting ways for their residents to have a real stake in how their landlord is governed and managed.

They are the ones tearing down traditional hierarchical barriers and workspaces to appeal to today’s diverse, adaptable and inter-generational talent pools.

They are the ones experimenting with AI technology, eg chatbots to undertake routine interactions with residents and robotic process automation (RPA) for volume back-office tasks such as rent collection, universal credit claims, handling repairs orders and processing supplier invoices.

These are the organisations that are marching boldly towards a future that no one can predict with any certainty.

They have embraced “The Future is Now” as a maxim, recognising that if they do not invest their innovation capital while they have it their talented, mobile workforce will read on Glassdoor about the organisations that are really pushing the frontiers for change and transfer over taking their skills and motivation with them.

So I find it odd to hear from some of the senior housing executives I speak with, who are also the people most invested in making change happen, that their organisations are too busy with merger integration or group consolidation programmes to “do innovation” at the same time.

In 2010, Kevin Kelly, co-founder and self-styled Senior Maverick at Wired magazine, coined the “Shirky Principle” after internet technology guru, Clay Shirky who wrote: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

Kelly explained the phenomenon in the following way: “In a strong sense we are defined by the problems we are solving.

“Because of the Shirky Principle, which says that every entity tends to prolong the problem it is solving, progress sometimes demands that we let go of problems.

“We can then look to marginal solutions and ask ourselves, what marginal problem is this solving that might be a more appreciated problem later on?”

Now I, as a futures catalyst, am no longer responsible for change management in an organisational context.

I totally get that executive teams have priorities and tasks that they must fulfil.

And yet there seems to be a blind spot lurking inside housing providers that are undergoing structural change, with impacts which run all the way through their service delivery and management operations and upwards to their governance, constitutional and financing arrangements, which prevents them from recognising that investment in agile working, diverse leadership and disruptive technologies can simultaneously boost their re-structuring programmes and get them more quickly on to that Innovation Superhighway that their colleagues and counterparts in neighbouring organisations are already travelling.

So the next time someone says to me when talking about business transformation, “We like the sound of the future you are showing us, but we’re too busy to do anything about it”, I might be inclined to challenge them, politely but a little more firmly.

The Future is Now!

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