Faster horses?

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of not only attending the CIH conference in Manchester, but also speaking at one of the seminar sessions alongside Boris Worrall. The focus of the seminar was Transformational Change and Innovation Culture and in case you missed it, here’s a summary of what I said.

I started with my top tips for transformation and innovation, based on my experiences of being on the receiving end of transformation and also being right in the middle of innovation work

  1. Many organisations claim to put customers at the heart of everything they do, but I don’t see this reflected in many KPIs. If customers were truly at the heart, surely we’d be measuring if our customers have enough money to live on rather than arrears, we’d be measuring how long customers have to wait for a new home rather than re-let time and we’d be measuring if customers know their neighbours rather than ASB, you get the idea. (For more on this, see my previous post)
  2. How many of us can say hand on heart we make decisions based on evidence rather then gut feeling? Let’s be objective and consider the facts, not the anecdotal stories we hear when making a cup of tea.
  3. Digital is seen as the silver bullet to our need to do more with less, but digital isn’t really a solution at all, it’s just a method of delivery. Buying another piece of software isn’t going to transform your organisation, it’s people that do that, just look at Bromford’s neighbourhood coaches
  4. Before you transform something, please take lots of time to make sure you are fixing the right problem, it’s no good decreasing your re-let time if the problem is the demand for the property rather than how long the voids process is. To misquote Henry Ford, you’re trying to make a faster horse.
  5. Attempts at transformation will be short lived if there is an expectation that the finished product will be delivered first time. Expect to get it wrong and for solutions to develop over time through testing and experimentation, make sure everyone knows it’s ok to get it wrong and to not always know the answer and that giving it a go is sometimes the best and only way to move forward
  6. Encourage disruption, welcome those who challenge why we are still doing things the same way, sack anyone who says new things can’t be done!

Next, I shared some examples of how to think outside the box, i.e. to be creative. Creativity is crucial to innovation as innovation can be defined as the execution of creative ideas.

I have previously been involved in something called Creativity Club. This was a group of staff that had gone through some creative problem solving training provided by the Ideas Centre. The group then offered their creative problem solving skills to others in the organisations, who would approach the group with any problem they were facing and we would apply one of our techniques to it.

The first step is to agree what the problem is through a process of brainstorming each word in the defined problem and agreed a redefined problem. This helps with point 4 above to make sure you are fixing the right problem. The brainstorming process is more like a game of word association and anything goes, be as crazy as you like! Sometimes the brainstorm is all that needs to be done as the problem owner sees the problem from a different perspective and can then see the solution.

The next step is to use a creative technique to brainstorm some wacky ideas. Finally, the creative ideas are brought back down to earth and hopefully the beginnings of a solution are identified.

The techniques:

  1. Reverse brainstorming – how would you make the problem even worse? Once you’ve come up with an apocalyptic solution, reverse the ideas. If you did this for the repairs process, you might suggest: never do any repairs, don’t tell anyone you are going, take the wrong parts, make it worse, turn up whenever suits, wait for at least 3 repairs, etc. The opposite of these ideas then become your suggested solution.
  2. Use an object – take the properties of any object, such as a pair of glasses and apply them to your problem, e.g. A pair of glasses, provide vision, focus, come in different shapes, sizes, colours, bespoke to the individuals, cheap and expensive options We’ve also used the properties of a fan (needs power, different settings, sharp edges, protective cage) and crisp packet (well known brand, colourful, traffic light information, fresh) to do this.
  3. Use lego or draw your solutions – we did this with some primary school children as we are at our most creative at about the age of 5 as we are not constrained by adult ways of thinking. We asked the children to draw a house of the future for our development team and they came up with flying houses so you didn’t have to book a holiday cottage, a free pet with every home, school lessons via your TV so you don’t need to go to school and my personal favourite houses with no toilets as you don’t need them anymore!
  4. Finally, superheros – use the powers of a superhero or a villain to solve your problem, I was once asked to do this using E Man, who I’ve never heard of, one of his characteristics was that he lives in a toaster, so my solution was free toast for everyone!

We had a really interesting discussion following the presentations on what has and hasn’t worked well for people in creating a transformation and innovation culture, and what’s stopping them from doing more. What’s stopping you from innovating?


Young people wanted

In this week’s Inside Housing, there is an article on the HR challenges currently facing the sector, it highlights that there are skills shortages in certain specialisms, as well as difficulties recruiting to senior roles. In certain areas, recruitment is made difficult due a small population and poor transport links.

This echoes several conversations that I have had at East Midlands Chamber of Commerce meetings as businesses of all shapes and sizes are also facing this problem during this time of near full employment.

It also highlights familiar solutions: attract younger people to the sector, grow your own, recruit for attitude from outside the sector, improve remote working options, etc.

Attracting younger people to the sector has been a hot topic for a while now, but for all the discussion of the problem, there seems to be little in the way of solutions discussed.

And the problem always seems to be discussed in terms of ‘how do we make social housing a career of choice?; we seem to regret the fact that so many housing professionals ‘fall’ into the sector. But maybe we are thinking about the problem in the wrong way? Does it matter if someone’s passion is to work for any ethical employer, rather than specifically to work in social housing?

Rather than obsess over promoting the brand and image of social housing in the jobs market, why not focus on selling ourselves using language that is already well understood? Language like charity, not for profit, property management, lettings, sales, rather than intensive housing manager, sheltered housing coordinator, welfare reform officer, etc; we criticise the sector for talking to itself and then use terms that only those in the sector can understand!

There’s plenty of research around the career aspirations and motivations of younger people, so let’s focus on these in our job adverts: work for a charity, make a difference, an employer that values and rewards you, attractive packages, a supportive environment, etc. As I mentioned in my last blog, we always focus on what we need as businesses, rather than what our customers/potential employees need.

But attracting people to the sector is only half the battle; retaining them is the other. My personal experience of housing is that whilst there’s lots of personal development opportunities, opportunities to climb the ladder are few and far between, particularly if you work in an area where few housing providers are headquartered (despite Sheffield being England’s 4th largest city, there’s only really two providers based here so I’ve spent the last 7 years commuting between 2 – 3 hours a day to the East Midlands).

To retain younger employees, it’s crucial they can see when and where there next step or two on the ladder will be, maybe there is an opportunity for providers to work together to facilitate this through secondments, ringfenced roles, project based roles, job swaps, better remote working options, etc. Charity Works and the GEM graduate programmes are good examples bringing and supporting young people into the sector that could be expanded upon.

There’s only so much longer we can continue to debate this problem without making some serious progress towards a solution if we are to continue delivering excellent service to improve our communities.



Red Nose Housing

I often watch programmes like Comic Relief, Children in Need, Sports Relief, etc, when they are on, but for some reason watching Comic Relief this year had a bigger impact on me.

Maybe it’s the cumulative effect of all the negative stuff going on in the world: Brexit, Trump, Farage’s constant TV appearances, the Westminster terror attack, public sector cuts, increasing homelessness, this list goes on as you know.

Watching the footage of the UK projects tackling dementia, loneliness, self-harm, domestic abuse, homelessness, I asked myself what more can I do to tackle these issues, donating £10 by text just didn’t seem enough.

I feel very strongly that housing  is the cornerstone to everything else in life so I’m fortunate to work in a sector that has an opportunity to make a real difference to all these issues. And watching Comic Relief reminded me that we must never lose focus on our work to help as many people as possible have really great lives; with so many distractions out there (see above), that can be easy to do.

So that got me thinking, how do we maintain this focus? Our focus is often driven by business plans, KPIs and other targets, but these concentrate almost entirely on what the business needs to succeed, rather than what our customers need.

There’s a lot of talk of customer experience in the sector at the moment, if we’re really serious about putting customers at the heart of everything we do, shouldn’t this be reflected in our KPIs?

So rather than measuring rent collected, re-let time, ASB cases closed, number of evictions, repairs cost per unit, etc, maybe we could measure if our customers have enough money to live on, how many families we house from temporary accommodation, how long they had to wait for their new home, the cost of moving in, if customers know their neighbours, how many days it is since our older customers have seen another person, how many customers move out due to dissatisfaction or because there was a better offer with another landlord, you get the idea.

The housing sector already does fantastic work to offer much more than just a roof over someone’s head, and it’s vital that we never lose our focus as the number of people needing our help only ever seems to increase.


Opportunity in uncertain times

On behalf of the CIH East Midlands, I recently organised a leaders round table event on the subject of opportunity in uncertain times

It goes without saying, the pace and scale of change is out of this world in recent months and it’s easy to get lost in it all. So it’s more important than ever that we take time to look for the opportunities, the silver linings, in all this uncertainty.

The event featured three brilliant speakers, who provided thought-provoking insight at the start of the event to kick start the discussion.

Julie Fadden, Chief Executive of SLH Group and the current CIH President. Julie spoke very passionately about the role of housing providers, housing professionals and the CIH to bring about the change our customers and communities need and deserve. Julie challenged everyone to leave the world a better place every single day, to do something new, as leaders to bring out the best in those we work with and to focus on our response to the uncertainty, rather than getting wrapped up in the detail of it all.

Chan Kataria, Chief Executive, emh group, who focused on opportunities for unity among the increasing diversity and opposition that we see, such as haves vs have nots, cities vs counties vs regions, housing associations vs local authorities, renters vs home owners, etc. What I took away from Chan’s speech was that we need to recognise the gulf between the views of housing sector employees and board directors (a load of lefty liberals if you believe the stereotype) and those of our customers/tenants/residents (delete as preferred, who voted for Brexit in their droves). For the sector to have customers at their heart, it is vital that we take some time to understand and respect their views and tackle the underlying issues where possible. Chan highlighted some useful research that details the contrasts between the have and the have nots, see here

Lucy Pedrick, Policy Officer (Brexit Specialist), National Housing Federation very kindly joined us on the day of the Supreme Court judgement regarding Article 50 and kept us up to date with the latest announcements. Lucy has an exceptional understanding of her subject and its importance to housing. She explained to us that Brexit is not a risk, it is a certainty, that brings both risks and opportunities with it. It is also a really interesting lens through which to view the world, focusing our attention on things that until now have been on the periphery and which we ignore at our peril. It is also a catalyst, enhancing existing problems, such as the skills gap in care and construction, but also creating increased pressure to tackle them.

A really interesting debate followed the opening remarks by our speakers, and some of the highlights for me were:
– the enthusiasm of all parts of the sector to work together to make sure there are enough homes for everyone
– the recognition that after a few difficult years, our relationship with the Government seems to have turned a corner. Many in the room agreed that doors are open for us to push against and ideas/proposals are welcome. To continue on this path with Government though, it is vital we deliver on the promises we have made in terms of housebuilding
– that we are not as powerless as we sometimes think we are
– don’t get distracted by everything that is going on and some of the digital fads, the important thing will always be humans helping fellow humans, providing homes that people can have really great lives in.

Influencing Academy

The first National Housing Federation Influencing Academy took place a few days ago.

I am very pleased to have been selected to join the Academy as one of the East Midlands representatives. The Academy is part of the Fed’s Owning Our Future work and is the next step in the journey to transform how the housing association sector is perceived and build the relationships we need with policy-makers. A big part of this work is telling our story, if you haven’t seen the video telling this story, you can check it out here:

The Academy was a three day residential, with a fantastic programme to give us the tools we need to become great influencers, it included:

Citizens UK, who discussed power with us (and to remember power is a neutral word meaning the ability to do something). It’s important to understand the balance of power in any relationship, but also not to underestimate the ‘weaker’party’s power, especially their potential power; this is crucial if you are the weaker party. If you want change, you need power, and power can be built through relationships, but these need to be built on trust, connection and mutual respect. Who do housing associations need to build power with?

Conservative Home Editor, Mark Wallace, who gave us his insights of the Conservative Party, some of the key national players and Theresa’s approach to the Premiership compared to others.We discussed the impact of Brexit on the Government’s resources and how predecessors define the work of their successors. Mark highlighted some of the PM’s areas of interest and the importance of framing any influencing work in these terms, such as the Industrial Strategy, Just about Managing families, etc.

Storytelling with Weber Shandwick, who are the PR firm behind the Fed’s perception research and sector story video. This session highlighted the importance of simple, authentic messages told through stories that are based on a human connection between the storyteller and listener.
In prep for this session, we were asked to watch this video:
We then were asked to introduce ourselves via a 60 second story that grabbed attention, included interest and intrigue, and told something personal and professional. This was an incredibly inspiring exercise and reminded all of us of our passion for the work we do in housing. If you can do this with your team, I definitely recommend it.
The framework for telling a great story is this: set an objective, identify barriers to telling the story, identify the point of connection, agree the message, tell it through story in these 6 steps: grab attention, establish the setting, humanise, identify tension, identify Eureka moment, communicate outcome. We were shown videos of Richard Branson and Ronald Reagan to demonstrate the 6 steps in action: (start at 6 minutes in for Virgin Airlines story)

Alison McGovern, Labour MP for Wirrall South, gave fantastic insight into the practicalities of getting an MP’s attention and support. She talked us through 4 challenging campaigns and her view of what worked well and what didn’t: the smoking ban, foreign aid spending, assisted suicide and same sex marriage.
She reminded us that MPs work only for their constituents and they are the key to gaining their support. Also, that they have crazy diaries and cannot support every issue, looked for shared priorities, bring solutions and be action focused. The big take away message from Alison for the group was that politics is 10% ideas and 90% logistics, meaning the Academy has a lot of work ahead of us!

Alistair Campbell was our final speaker, who spoke a lot about having a strategy and remaining true to your values to guide any influencing work. He shared our frustration that despite housing affecting everyone throughout their entire lives (unlike health and education), it is still not the top voter issue.

On the last day of the Academy, we started to make our influencing plans for our regions and areas of specialism such as BME, rural, disabled, homelessness, smaller housing, etc. Myself and fellow East Midlands influencers Holly Dagnall and Emma Foody will be getting together soon to progress our plans so watch this space and get in touch if you want to be involved, have an idea or would like to build/share power with us!

Channel shift or channel stop?

Hopefully this will be the  first of many posts this year to make up for my almost complete lack of blogging last year (on the bright side we’ve done a lot of decorating and been to a lot of weddings!)

I’ve been involved in many discussions in the last couple of years about channel shift and everything that comes with it, in particular creating ‘self-service portals’ so good customers will never need to pick up the phone again.

But progress throughout the sector seems to be very limited so I wonder if our efforts would be better spent trying to get ahead of the game rather than get to where others were 10 years ago?

Rather than investing hours of meeting time and spending thousands with software companies to allow customers to self-serve, why not focus on removing the need for customers to request service at all? Surely that’s the dream, that there’s no need to get in touch, not being able to check your rent account at midnight in your pajamas?

Don’t call us we’ll call you, to do a property health check to service the house rather than wait for it to breakdown, to action the message we received from the intelligent components in the property, to offer the support we know you need based on the info we hold so tenancies are never breached, you get the idea.

I wonder how many calls for service could have been prevented if we shifted our mindset to proactive rather than reactive?

Make the most of membership

Last week I attended the ONE CIH conference for the second time. The conference is an opportunity for all CIH board members from the English regions, devolved nations and central Governing board to get together. Senior CIH staff also attend and the purpose is to review the previous year and think about the year coming up. It’s a great opportunity to share ideas, network with other board members and challenge one another. Ultimately, it’s about improving the services provided to CIH members and the wider role of CIH to society.

Like many membership organisations that don’t benefit from mandatory membership (like RIBA or RICS), member numbers have fallen in recent years and it is a much debated topic about how we CIH board members can tackle this. Unsurprisingly, it was a session topic at ONE CIH and I made sure I attended the discussion in the hope of finally tackling this problem.

In summary, the session centered around how we improve our communication to current and potential members. It was agreed that the membership offer is good on the whole but better marketing is needed to ensure both professionals and employers realise its benefits.

During the session, there was a lot of discussion around using peer-to-peer communication methods as these were considered to be more powerful than others. So as a regional board member, I was challenged to share why I value my CIH membership. So here goes…

I first joined CIH as a student when completing my Level 4 Certificate in Housing. Whilst I had chosen to pursue a career in housing, I hadn’t studied housing previously and as someone who enjoys studying I was keen to do this as soon as I could. I remained a student member for about 5 years as I progressed to a BSc Housing. At this point in my career, the value of CIH membership was access to courses and related information and events.

I really value studying and promote it to anybody that I can, whilst it may not always improve your technical knowledge to do a certain job, it improves other skills such as critical analysis, understanding of the bigger picture, researching good practice, making arguments for and against, etc. It can also stir an interest in lifelong learning as you realise the benefits of removing your nose from the grindstone every once in a while. For those looking to climb the career ladder, obtaining a certain level of qualification is usually a necessity.

About 2 and half years ago, I successfully applied to the CIH East Midlands student bursary scheme and as a result became a co-opted member of the board. I’d previously considered applying to join the board as I knew another colleague who had done so, but I never quite brought myself to do it. Being a board member is now the biggest benefit of my CIH membership. Through my board role, I have developed a huge support network across the housing spectrum and not just in the East Midlands. Having this network has been hugely beneficial as I can tap into their knowledge, experience and expertise, either for practical work reasons or personal development reasons. One of the brilliant things about housing is that everyone is so willing to share and support each other, something that is more important than ever in these changing and challenging times.

Board membership has also given me some fantastic opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, such as presenting at a leaders roundtable event alongside Terrie Alafat and Boris W0rrall, speaking at CIH Manchester, organising the biggest Midlands awards and networking event, hosting a policy roundtable, contributing to the new PRS qualification, and even a job opportunity.

The other side of the board member coin is that I get to give something back to the CIH and also influence their work. For those who are dissatisfied with their CIH membership, consider getting involved to effect the changes you would like to see.

Finally, being a CIH member has given me an ego and profile boost by being eligible to apply for prestigious awards, including Student of the Year (which I won) and Rising Stars (made the final three in 2014).

CIH membership is what you make of it and will mean something different to each member. I’d love to hear what you value most about your CIH membership.