8 years, 4 days ago

A Vision for the Future Housing Association

What does the future Housing Association look like?

The housing sector is facing some its biggest challenges in memory. Changes in government policy, budget cuts, increased and more complex user demand, all running on systems developed to manage life in the 1990s. It’s an overwhelming challenge – where do you even start? And what will the future look like?

Well, one reaction has been to start merging them. Often driven by geographical and cultural synergies, Housing Associations are pooling resources to share skillsets, systems, and processes will make groups of organisations greater than the sum of its parts. In 2015, Circle, Affinity Sutton, East Thames, Network, Hyde, L&Q, etc are all in the process. It’s an interesting strategy – but inherently risky: the Harvard Business Review shows failure rates of M&A as high as 70-90%. It’s certainly no silver bullet.

But is it really a question of just getting more efficient at what we’ve always done? Perhaps the problem we’re addressing is not one of scale, but the way we are fundamentally doing things.

Is it really a question of just getting more efficient at what we’ve always done?

I believe creating bigger Housing Associations, with the same outmoded way of doing business is not the real answer. Mergers serve only to distract from the real task at hand. What we should be doing is renewing our understanding of how Housing Associations deliver value to their customers, allowing us to align how the business operates with the needs of the people it’s serving.

This re-imagined world needs a clear and coherent vision; one that puts the customer at the heart of everything whilst remaining adaptable to the constant change of our very digital world.  

Here is how I think we can do this.

True North = Customer Needs

It is no co-incidence that when an organisation puts customer needs at the heart of their business, it does not just succeed, it thrives. The future Housing Association makes life easy for the customer by keeping its processes simple for them. It does this by taking time to understand the customer journey and making sure their needs are a standard part of their decision-making process.

If you truly understand what your customers need, you can be confident about making the right changes that they will value

This means services are designed around the things that are genuinely important to them and you can focus your resources and energy on making changes you know will make the biggest positive impact.

Thinking ‘mobile-first’

Delivering great customer experience starts with being where your customers are – and most of them are on mobile, where they can interact anywhere, any time. A recent report by Ofcom showed that two thirds of adults in the UK now have a smartphone. For new generations, it’s a standard channel – as technology analyst Brian Solis explains  “generation Z is mobile first and mobile only”. Mobile isn’t the future – it’s now. Also people are now spending more time on their mobiles – in fact, in 2014 the time we all spent online using our mobile overtook desktop usage for the first time.

Delivering great customer service starts with being where your customers are – and most of them are on mobile.

The future HA identified the customer interactions that work on mobile and made sure its systems were integrated to support it. For colleagues, it identified how different roles needed to work and provided a common platform so that the decision of how, when and where to work was one dictated by people, not technology.

This same technology also allowed them to scrap manual processes that add no value, giving staff more time to support your customers. Everyone gets more from face to face interactions by having access to the right systems and information on the move. Plus, if your whole workforce is enabled to work remotely, you could rent a smaller office space, reducing a significant cost.

Open processes

The processes of yesteryear have lost their ambiguity and inconsistency. They are now are defined, transparent, accessible and visible to all stakeholders. Customers can get the information they need about the status of their request and your partners find it easy to work with you. This makes it easier to remove inefficiencies.

For example, take repairs and maintenance processes. The future HA built transparency into those processes, such as making better use of video and photos, meaning there was less waste through mis-diagnosis, variations and inspections.

If you’re clear about how things work, it makes it easier for your customers and partners to do business with you – reducing frustrations and increasing trust.

If everyone can see and understand the processes, it’s not a hard sell to make changes to improve them.

Recognising data as an asset

For the future HA, data doesn’t support decisions – it drives them. It can do this because it has invested in a Business Intelligence strategy that turns data from plain old information (something interesting) to actionable insight (something useful). In fact it’s so useful that it can help make tangible improvements to the customer experience and the future HA’s finances.

This insight could tell you, for example, ‘This type of boiler is responsible for 76% of all boiler call-outs’, ‘These houses are likely to flood if rainfall continues at the current rate’, ‘There is a 95% chance that this tenant will go into arrears within 6 months’.

Treating data as an asset, can turn information from something interesting into something useful

A single platform for Housing

The future HA has a technology platform that supports all its core activities. It provides a single view of the its properties and customers, so everyone in the HA team has the information they need in one place. The platform also helps find and collate the right resources and people needed to complete a task – making it easier to collaborate.

A single platform gives your team more useful customer information, helps them to collaborate more easily and deliver a better customer experience

The platform is central to how the business delivers value to its customers. It improves customer service by allowing the HA to communicate with its customers digitally (including via mobile) as standard. It also helps the HA team deliver a better customer experience as they can access the information they need at the right time during a customer enquiry.

The Virtual Association

In response to tighter budgets, the future HA undertakes only those activities that are core to them. For everything else, it created stronger partnerships with other HAs, local authorities and other social enterprises, sustaining an ecosystem of organisations, who can deliver complementary but non-core activities

Collaborating more with others, gives you more time to focus on your core business

They are able to work in a more open collaborative way, through Enterprise social networking, voice and video conferencing, plus document collaboration & management, no matter which team they work in and wherever they are.

When can this vision become reality?

The truth is, there’s nothing here that can’t be done today. The building blocks already exist, or are within a HA’s capability to set up. The world may have changed around Housing Associations but the seemingly insurmountable challenges can be met right now. This ‘future’ isn’t a distant vision – it’s here today.

8 years, 2 months ago

Test Driven Strategy


Most strategies are crap. Most business plans are crap. I have read lots of them. I’ve also developed my fair share (which are obviously much much less crap than the norm :).

Its tempting to think in ‘this ever-changing world in which we live in’ that strategy and the process of strategy development is dead, that there is only tactics. I don’t think that is true, but i think the method of developing strategy needs a kick up the arse.

What is strategy today?:

– Group-think

– Ego-massage (We pay X a lot of money and X wants to do Y)

– Meme copying (hat-tip Simon Wardley)

– Baseless ‘We will’ statements

– Financial cases that prize cost over value

– Complete lack of context

– Little bearing on day to day activity that is undertaken

What should strategy be?:

– Visceral

– Exciting and Scary

– a compelling story

– Contextual

– Lived

– Ironic (in the ‘liberal ironist’ sense) 

– Testable

I think this last point is where the first kick in the arse can focus. I think there are things we can learn from ‘Lean startup’, that still aren’t applied to the majority of strategy development. Once i’ve got my thoughts developed on this i’ll share more.

8 years, 6 months ago

The Business of Fun!

I wrote in an email to a colleague today that the work we had just completed had been fun. I meant it, yet as i wrote the words i felt a jarring semi-cringe that this isn’t the sort of word i should use when communicating about er grown up stuff, like, you know, strategy and transformation and other grown up words.

But i ignored the semi-cringe of dissonant colloquialism and sent the email anyway. However, it did make me think. 

We spend 90,000 hours at work. Why is our work not more fun? Why did i feel for a split-second that the use of the word may not be appropriate.

For me, if myself and the people i work with have found the work we are doing fun, then surely there can be no greater plaudit. The Business of Fun for me is about thinking the following things at the end of a project:

  • I have enjoyed working with the team
  • its been hard work
  • We worked on something that we thought was worthwhile
  • We had some challenges but overcame them
  • We feel like we’ve learnt something
  • We’ve been really engaged in the work
  • We feel please with what i’ve produced

None of the above is frivolous, all the bullet points above are aspects of doing good work!

So Fun = Good work.

My aim is to continue having fun at work and to make sure those that i work with have fun to. because i know if its fun then its good work.

The next question is, how can you put in place an environment to increase the ratio of Fun:Not fun work? I’ll probably explore this in future posts. 

8 years, 8 months ago

Supporters not Customers

The limits of my language means the limits of my world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

What if your business didn’t have customers? What if it just had supporters? How would that shift in language change the way in which you viewed the relationship? How much more value would you want to deliver to your supporters over your customers?

All your customers are (either potential, actual or turned off) supporters. Your customers are your supporters whether you like it or not, its up to you whether you want to treat them as they deserve to be treated.

8 years, 9 months ago

Housing Technology Manifesto

Last year I was involved in some good conversations facilitated by Hact around the current state of the technology tools that are used within Housing Associations (short blog about it here), this was partly sparked by a couple of blog posts I wrote here and here. The thing that was evident for me from the discussions, which included around 10 Heads of IT/IT Directors from various housing associations was the pent up demand to think and act differently in terms of tools we use to enable our organisations to achieve their goals.

So, what happened? not much for a number of reasons, but looking on a year or so from those conversations there is more need than ever for us to revisit the thinking behind these meetings and do something:

  • Incumbent suppliers still not delivering to the needs of the sector
  • Business ambitions curtailed or impeded through an inability to provide the right tools for the job
  • Market and government forces putting even greater pressure on the sector to think and act differently and requiring an even greater flexibility and agility from the technology that should enable the organisations.
  • Larger Housing associations are moving into largescale CRM and/or ERP implementations
  • Housing associations still buying ‘all in one’ or ‘best of breed’ solutions that simply don’t fit their businesses
  • OJEU compliant procurements that may be successful in-spite of rather than because of the process
We can and should do better. Where do we start? I think there are two simple steps:

  1. Manifesto, Principles, 10 commandments, whatever you want to call it, lets create a statement of intent, a banner under which we can congregate that set out very clearly what we expect from the technology that supports out organisations (potential e.g. mobile first, API, open standards, etc).
  2. Once we have this manifesto we can use it to drive change, change in how we behave as informed and strong customers, change in how our incumbent and future suppliers think about and develop the software tools that we use

get in touch via Twitter and we’ll get things moving.

8 years, 10 months ago

An Ode to Laziness


How are you?

Busy? oh thats a shame.

That thing you are working on thats really really important? i’m sorry, its probably not.

That deadline that is causing you stress, its an arbitrary deadline and it isn’t important.

That last big project you worked on, think about all the things you did as part of it, How many of the things you worked so hard on was actually useful? hardly any.

Look back at the last year, count the number of things you did that were really important, be honest, did you have to use the fingers on your second hand?

Laziness isn’t a negative thing, laziness in its purest form is honesty, honesty with yourself about what is really important and what doesn’t matter.

“There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all” – Drucker (Management guru and aphorism rich Philospher King of Laziness)

Busy is self-deception, protecting your ego and your self-importance.

Unless your job involves something akin to hacking coal out of a mine you don’t need to be busy, you need to be creative and for that you need focus and space and for that you need Lazy.

8 years, 10 months ago

What does mapping affordable housing teach us?

Although i no longer work for a housing association, I still often work with them now as clients and its an area that still interests me and obviously its something thats very current with ‘interesting’ government policy picking up post-election where IDS’s pre-election Oveton windowing left off.

So I thought i’d try using the wonderful Wardley map technique to help me think about affordable housing. The model below is just a sketch, i go by the E.P. Box quote of ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful’ as a motto. My intention is to develop this model over time, but even this sketch sparks some interesting thoughts.


The map is a value chain (starting with user need at the top and then moving down the Y axis to its dependent parts. The X axis moves from Genesis->Customer Built->Product->Commodity, the phases of which each of the components will go through over time. I’ll leave the explanation of Wardley maps there, Simon’s blog has some great material doing a much better job than i could.

So looking at the limited number of components that i’ve mapped so far we have:

The user need for affordable housing, I’ve placed that within Product on the X axis as its a reasonably well-defined Product category.

Flowing from that need is the need for accommodation, the actual dwelling that would be occupied. I’ve placed this further to the left on the Product phase to denote the myriad of ‘product’ that could be classed as accommodation.

Next is Construction, the actual creation of the accommodation, i’ve placed this in Custom Built, ok there are plenty of building companies (even a conglomerate of housing associations) that are developing/have developed off-the-peg house products and factories, but this isn’t standard construction (in the UK) yet.

From construction the value chain splits off into 3 prongs:

Prong 1: Land, is placed in the commodity space, Assuming i have the money i can just buy land, its not infinite, but then neither are other commodities e.g. gold.

From Land flows Planning, i’ve placed this in Custom Built on the X axis, I can’t just buy some planning (although some conspiracy theorist-type people might say you can :)), its a ritualistic and prevaricatory process.

Prong 2:

Construction also flows to Architecture, the generic term i’ve given to the design of the accommodation. I’ve placed this to the right edge of Custom Built as its rarely an off the peg process (see my description of Construction).

From Architecture flows Labour, the actual implementation of the design and the creation of the accommodation. I’ve placed this within Product, construction is performed by defined trades, brickie, chippie, plumber, etc, for the purposes of this analysis they are defined products that you can buy (hire).

 From Labour flows the Materials needed to construct the house, these are Commodities, wood, slate, etc etc.

Prong 3

(This prong i’m not too sure about the placement, maybe those with a better understanding of housing finance can help me improve this bit?)

Construction also flows to Finance, the Money to pay for the development of new accommodation. I’ve put Finance in the commodity phase.

Finance flows to two forms of money that Housing associations traditionally use to get capital to build homes 1) Grants (although not so much now) and 2) Bonds (and similar vehicles) secured against existing housing stock. I’ve placed grants in Customer Built because of their often tailored (and elusive) nature. I’ve placed Bonds within the Product phase (although maybe they should be a commodity?) as whilst the actual issued bonds themselves may be bought/sold as commodities the actual issuance of bonds is a process more akin to a product development (or maybe its even custom built?)

So thats my explanation of this intial sketch of a map. but the interesting and important question is, ok so we’ve mapped the value chain but…

Where are the opportunities?

Starting at the bottom of the value chain and working up we have Grants and Bonds occupying the Customer Built and Product phases. Assuming these positions are correct it highlights two things to me:

1) that there are probably other sources of finance that could be accessed

2) There is no commodity form of Finance, maybe there is an opportunity here to explore around re-thinking how HAs finance house-building

Similarly near the bottom of the value chain Materials are commodity, but Labour and Architecture are not. As mentioned above many small scale house builders are building what you might call commodity housing (factory built components, prefabricated compents etc), but this isn’t how the majority of new HA stock is built. Why not? I don’t know the answer to this question (maybe its to do with the commercial relationships we have with developers, something i should map on the next iteration of this map), but surely this must be a huge area of focus. It seems obvious (because it is) that if we move Architecture and Labour towards commodity then we can build more, cheaper and faster. It will be interesting to see if the HA house factory metioned above is a success and becomes a model adopted by more HAs.

Further up the value chain is Planning and Land. Land is a commodity, but depends on Planning which i’ve put in Customer Built. The focus for HAs should be to move Planning towards a commodity. The current government have made moves in this area but i think its for HAs to push/lobby further in this area.

So this is my initial and no doubt naive initial analysis using Wardley maps. I’d really appreciate any feedback, suggestions on improvements, particularly:

1) Additional components of the value chain

2) Placement of components on the X and Y axes.

Feel free to comment on this post and/or contact me on twitter

8 years, 10 months ago

Business as Art


Have we reached a period of capitalist decadence where for some, Business has become an Art form?

How does this happen?

  • When strategic patent acquisitions are a Mathematical joke
  • When a $138 million dollar loss making company is acquired for $21 Billion
  • When that acquisition equates to $381 million per employee
  • When the barrier of entry for digital businesses falls to as near to zero as possible
  • When a self-sustaining cycle of Angel->VC->IPO exists in a hermetic market
  • When people become part of the artwork
  • When the office you put people in becomes the artwork

Is this what happens when you are free to move beyond profit?

1) Subsistance-> 2) Profit-> 3) Beyond Profit = Art

Maybe this is just the logical next step towards decadence, as over time the focus on value for organisations has shifted like so:

1) Value to customers -> 2) Value to business owner -> 3) Value to Shareholders -> 4) Decadence

As the point of focus moves further away from the point of real value creation to a place place of decadent abstraction, so the decisions that are made can become freer and artful.

it enables you to, for example, acquire a loss making organisation with a hockey stick growth curve but no plan for monetising user adoption and no hope of profit.

It enables you to forget about a return on an acquisition (Most of them degrade value anyway, so lets just stop pretending and buy).

I’m not saying this concept applies across the board, just as there are still subsistance farmers (and always will be), but it does appear to me that certain organisations in certain sectors have achieved a level of abstraction (from value creation) and therefore decadence to start to build business as Art.

Maybe this post doesn’t make any sense at all, How can business be art> how can it achieve decadence when every organisation has to go through the same (but maybe accelerated) growth phases?

Maybe its because, actually, depending upon the business model of the organisation, it doesn’t really matter what you do inside the organisation. The vague direction of triumph or plight is already set, like a behemoth supertanker, in a direction dictated by the business model and its market context at a point in time, the pilots of the supertanker are merely trying to steer it by flapping their arms.

In writing this post i’m not saying this is a positive or negative phenomenon, it just is. It also makes me wonder what sort of organisation a Silicon Valley dwelling Salvador Dali would have built?

Heres to the new surrealism, decadent capitalist art!

9 years, 9 months ago

The Invisible Coup


I caught up with a friend the other day and we were talking about how her work was going. She described a series of different situations where she felt dis-empowered and demoralised. 

There were things she saw that needed to change. She knew how to change them, but when she started investigating, talking to people, trying to make things better she received the equivalent of..


This manifested itself in several ways:

– Ego – why are you doing this?

– Territory – This is my thing 

– Cultural – That’s not how we do things

– Process Obsession – That doesn’t fit our process

– Poor Management – i’m not going to support you

My friend was trying to change the Status Quo and when she tried, the Status Quo in both visible and invisible ways caused her to pause and think of stopping.

As we were talking i posed the question. ‘What if you were to act as if these things didn’t exist?’

As we explored answers to this question the idea and phrase of an ‘Invisible Coup’ came into my head.

The obstacles placed in front of my friend by the status quo are caused by the entrenched, incumbent networks of power. Why not create your own, new networks of power?

  1. Lets start from the assumption that you are an intelligent, empathic, creative individual (or we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place).
  2. Lets assume therefore that the things you want to do are right
  3. If both are these assumptions are true then we can also assume that there will be others who think the same as you. 

Why not create an ‘Invisible Coup’? what would the features of it be?

  1. Start from the 3 assumptions listed above
  2. Create the new networks of power of like-minded individuals that can support the change you want to see
  3. Act as if the structures that try to constrain you don’t exist.
  4. Seek forgiveness not permission

I’d like to be able to write that after our conversation my colleague went on and achieved all the things she wanted to, that wouldn’t be true. Change isn’t really like that is it. She is however continuing to engage, continuing to push, continuing to gather support.

As for me, the Invisible Coup is a mental model i return to when i reflect on the dull thud of hitting an obstacle to the change i want to see.

Is the Invisible Coup a useful metaphor? what do you think?

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9 years, 9 months ago

The Inverted Swan


The old analogy is of a graceful Swan seemingly effortlessly gliding through the water, whilst out of sight its submerged legs are kicking furiously in unseen effort.

The ‘Inverted Swan’ is the antithesis of the traditional analogy. The swans legs are out of the water flailing and flapping ineffectively in the air, whilst underneath the water, who knows? where is the grace in the work?

I see the inverted Swan more than i’d like to. Lots of industry with little value produced. Often caused by:

  • Prizing effort instead of effectiveness
  • The need to be seen to be doing something, when inaction may be the perfect action
  • Personal enjoyment of the peculiar and personal joy of submersion in ‘flow’ to the exclusion of asking why?
  • ‘Leaders’ cultivating an environment of ‘activity anxiety’, primarily to reinforce their own ego.

There should always be room for grace.

There should always be room to progress from merely viable to loveable.

When do you see the inverted swan?

How could we make sure we see it less?