What’s MY role in Innovation?

A post for CIH Housing Festival 2017

Today, I’ll be at CIH’s Housing Festival sat in a fishbowl chatting with others about Innovation & Solutions in the context of Housing Associations.

For the past week or so I’ve been thinking about what innovation actually means to me in real terms and what I’ve been doing about it (or trying at least) for the past couple of years.

As is often the case, this post is an attempt to unpack my brain into something that passes as a cohesive thought.

Start at the Start

It was probably mid 2014 when I really started thinking about what innovation was other than a buzzword that kept popping up in conference agendas.

Around this time my organisation was running its own internal innovation effort called Agents of Change. The basic concept was to engage with front-line staff who had an idea or concept and then through a series of workshops and mentoring opportunities help bring the idea to life.

I remember passing on the opportunity at the time as it sounded like a bit of a busman’s holiday. Much of my working day was spent wrangling IT projects to completion. Adding another personal project on top of that sounded like a really bad idea.

If I’m honest, my understanding of Innovation at this time was something along the lines of… Old thing + New thing = Innovation. Job done.

Meanwhile, I was getting really interested in the concept of Working Out Loud after teaming up with a colleague to roll Yammer out to our staff.

Working Out Loud appealed to me because I saw it as a way of hurdling the organisational silos that stop people from talking and learning from one another. If staff were willing to share a little bit about what they’re working on and the challenges they’re facing, perhaps they could make connections with others who could help them?

Suddenly, something clicked between the desire to give people closest to the problems a voice and a mechanism for experimenting with solutions to those very same problems.

Aha! Innovation suddenly looked like something I should be involved with.

Trying to innovate

I really have to credit Bromford Lab and @theSatoriLab for setting me on the path to discovery. They opened my eyes to a whole other world of possibilities in the public/social sector.

I eagerly consumed anything they put out into the public domain regarding innovation, experimentation and failing fast. The more I read, the more it seemed like common sense.

Why wouldn’t you start doing smaller, frequent, safe experiments rather than embarking on huge, long running, high stakes change projects?

Why wouldn’t you test early versions of things *with* the people who are going to use them rather than hoping & praying you’ve captured everything they’d want at the outset?

This totally flew in the face of everything I’d been taught early on in my IT career, but I KNEW this was the right path to be on.

By mid-2015 I was trying to figure out how to implement these ideas in practice. I started writing a proposal for an innovation framework that would potentially give all of our staff a way to flesh out and experiment with ideas. But quickly realised that without a meaningful way to feed into the main business plan, it would run the risk of becoming tokenistic.

The dead end and the ball of twine

Feeling I’d hit a bit of a dead end, I decided to refocus on matters in my own back yard and started looking at why some technology seemed to work really well for people whilst other bits of technology got in the way.

It was like picking at a ball of twine. Once I’d starting asking questions and being curious about the work I did, it just seemed like I came away with another set of questions that took me in new and interesting directions.

Before long I’d started reading up on why it was important to understand what your users need before you do anything else.

I became fascinated by how we organise the workplace and how our old industrial mental models are hampering us.

I started to realise what role culture plays in setting the boundaries for work and enabling different kinds of thinking.

Twitter and blogging played a huge role in not only my early Working Out Loud efforts, but also in terms of finding other people who had similar interests or were asking the same sort of questions.

The Unconference that made it all click

It was a rainy November 16th in Newbridge when I finally realised I’d found my tribe.

Housing Camp Cymru is a unconference about Housing. An unconference is an event where the people attending decide what the agenda is. It’s a grass roots effort, run by volunteers who give up their time on the weekend to bring people together to talk about whatever they want.

As I spent the day wandering around chatting with people it suddenly it clicked. These were my people! They were interested in asking questions too! In some cases they were asking the very same questions! Brilliant!!

2016 — the year of meeting people in person

I was pretty much hooked on finding new and interesting things to learn about. Twitter provided me with the means to make all sorts of connections to people in different sectors doing different work, but who were often pursuing similar goals.

Whilst swapping ideas in 140 characters is good, it’s no substitute for a real life conversation.

Whenever the opportunity presented itself to go have a chat over a coffee or go to a meetup with people doing interesting things, I was there! Whilst not everything I learned was immediately useful, it felt like somewhere along the way I was making mental connections that helped click parts of a larger puzzle into place.

I started to understand what some of the distinguishing features of the modern workplace were.

I suddenly had opinions on what fulfilling work was and how important finding your own purpose is.

I knew with a fair degree of confidence why massive old school IT implementations fail and why user centred design was far superior, especially for the public and social sector.

Whereas before I felt I was toiling away in isolation, I now felt part of a larger network of change makers.

Having allies to refer to and bounce ideas off really started feeling like a super power. Whatever new or emerging challenge popped up, I already had an understanding of it or at least knew someone who did. (Hello Digital Transformation!)

2017 — the year of less talking and more doing

By the end of 2016 I started to feel like I was really making good headway in terms of working more openly. I was even bumping into people I’d not previously met that had read some of my stuff or knew me from Twitter (which to be honest was pretty startling to begin with!!).

I’d met loads of really interesting people doing lots of really interesting things, but I couldn’t help but feel that I hadn’t made enough progress personally.

Talking and thinking is good.. essential even! But the real tangible benefits come from trying to apply that learning to the real world.

I decided to commit myself to putting all of my new found knowledge into action for 2017 in whatever way I could.

So.. we’re just over half way through 2017. How’s that panning out?

  • I’ve managed to successfully lobby for + shape my organisations digital transformation efforts which (amongst other things) incorporate the principles of user needs first and rapid prototyping + experimentation.
  • I’ve been posting Weekly Braindumps as a mechanism for reflecting on personal progress, working more openly and sharing things I think are interesting.
  • I’ve tried out a kanban board in our office as a way to visualise our workflow to better understand it. Several other teams in our organisation are now looking at adopting a something similar (or the digital equivalent : Trello)
  • I’ve recently launched a lunchtime learning experiment to try create a space for discussion and share good practice.
  • A few people have very kindly referenced my approach of using Twitter for working in the open, sharing information and networking.

A moderately good start. Wonder what I can fill the remainder of the year with?!

So.. what is my role in innovation?

I guess when I started on this journey, I envisaged that my role in innovation would be something along the lines of setting up a well defined framework inside the organisation to draw out and explore ideas from staff.

In reality, it seems like it’s the smaller, less obvious activities outside of work that have made a big difference over time. Much of what I’ve been able to bring back and implement in my workplace have been found and repurposed from elsewhere.

I’ve heard words like ‘user needs’ and ‘working out loud’ spoken back to me by colleagues. I cannot say for sure how much influence I’ve had over that or whether they’ve found they’re own path to them, but if I even played a small part in the happening I’ll chalk that up as a win.

Working Out Loud via Twitter/Blog posts has certainly helped me discover and define the things I’m interested in and it’s opened some doors to opportunities that would’ve otherwise remained closed.

Lastly, and I know this sounds incredibly corny, but there’s definitely an element of being the change you want to see in the world. What is your mission? What is the higher purpose that drives you? Really think hard about this and don’t be afraid to live those values more openly in everything you do.

Some personal reflections to leave you with

  • Change really does start with you! Don’t wait for other people. What can you do differently right now that can make a difference?
  • Proceed until apprehended. If you can find a relatively safe way to try something without asking permission, go ahead and do it.
  • Find your tribe. Where are you allies? Go find them, share things with them, share their things, build a network.
  • Be curious. Listen. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially seemingly stupid ones. You’ll be amazed what you can learn and where it can take you.
  • Get outside of your bubble. There are great ideas to be found and repurposed in the most unlikely places. Don’t be afraid to venture far outside your job role and your own sector.
  • You don’t need money to innovate and experiment (to start with!) — but you do need to set aside some time.
  • Reflection is massively important. Trying to change or innovate can be bruising. Having a mechanism to reflect on where you are now compared to where you started is really important and will make the tough times less tough.
  • Fall in love with the problem not a solution. It’s only innovation if it addresses a need & makes things better.

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