Housing Festival: Fishbowls, failure and complexity
Recently, I’ve been working with the Chartered Institute of Housing to share learning from their Frontline Futures work with wider public services. This led to me being invited to moderate a Fishbowl discussion to share stories about solutions and innovations at the Housing Festival, which was being held in the Depot in Cardiff.
What the hell is a Fishbowl?
Good question. I had to undertake a bit of research beforehand to get my head around what it was I was being asked to do. Essentially, it’s a chance to discuss a topic in a loosely structured format.
A number of chairs surround a smaller group of chairs. A few participants are selected to fill the fishbowl, while the rest of the group sit on the chairs outside the fishbowl. The moderator introduces the topic and the participants start discussing it. The audience outside the fishbowl listen in on the discussion and can take part by sitting in an empty chair in the middle, and then one of the speakers in the middle must make their way to the chairs on the outside.
Iteration is key
Esko Reinikainen spoke about the importance of iteration in his presentation at the start of the day. We got the opportunity to iterate our Fishbowl by gathering feedback from participants. We started off a bit slowly in the first fishbowl because I wanted to try and ease everyone into the process by focusing on questions. By the end of the first session though, we’d built up a real head of steam and participants were really engaged in challenging what they were hearing and how services could be improved. So the second time around we dashed through the initial discussions and encouraged people to contribute in the centre of the circle. If anyone’s planning on moderating a fishbowl, this meant that everything flowed a bit better and we had more of an opportunity to share good practice.
Learning from failure
Esko also mentioned Amy C. Edmondson’s concept of Teaming during this presentation, which starts with helping people to become curious, passionate, and empathic. I referenced another of Edmondson’s concepts, her Spectrum of Reasons for Failure. I think that this is a really handy tool for looking at failure and identifying subsequent action. We spoke about Trust a fair bit during our chats (and I’ve previously written this post about why trust is important to innovation), and I think that her dissection of what warrants blame is a really helpful tool for us as public sector staff. There are of course times where failure is not an option in public services, but too often we apportion blame for failure in inappropriate circumstances.
Ian from The Wallich shared a gut-wrenching story from the stage about how he became homeless. He could have appeared on the radar of any one of a variety of public services (health, social services, housing or the third sector), but it was The Wallich who helped him in his time of need. The complexity of his circumstance means that in this type of situation we should be looking to share lessons about what we can do better, yet too often a fear of blame is a barrier to learning, sharing and innovating within public services.
Working in complex environments
I shared The Cynefin Framework during the discussions, which we have used at the Good Practice Exchange to help us think about how we share practice. In simple circumstances where we can predict everything that’s going to happen, there is one right way of doing things that we can clearly apply to what we do, for instance in controlled environments like manufacturing. Yet in complex environments in which housing and other public services often operate, there is no one size fits all approach. This is when many of the approaches that Esko spoke about are most appropriate – we need to test, prototype and iterate.
We also need to think about how we can minimise our own organisational complexity so that we reduce our potential pitfalls. Do we need to create more policies for every conceivable circumstance? Can we move from process to productivity in order to empower staff to make better decisions instead? Paul Taylor has written a great post on this, and Owain Israel from Charter Housing gave a really good example of putting this into practice as they’re scaling back their formal surveying work to look at more flexible ways of checking properties. Neil Tamplin pointed out that this was a rare case of someone looking to make themselves obsolete, and Paul has written another good post that’s worth checking out on planned obsolescence as a driver for innovation.
Neil spoke about working out load on the panel, and I haven’t come across anyone in any public service who does this better than him. His Braindumps are a brilliant example of working in the open as they’re incredible roundups of his working week and interesting resources. This is so important because whilst there may not be a one size fits all approach that works for us in complex environments, there’s nothing stopping us from learning from others and adapting what other people are doing. Quite aptly, Neil has already written a great post on the event, and I couldn’t say this better than him:
“If your purpose has something to do with improving the lives of people who need housing then I would argue you are morally obligated to share anything that advances that cause, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.”
Having talked so much about taking risks and learning from failure in this post, I wanted to finish by saying how great it was that the Chartered Institute of Housing took a chance on a different format and a different type of venue. It was certainly very different from a traditional public service event, which certainly provoked a few discussions and gave me a few talking points when meeting new people. Hopefully you all took as much away from the event as I did so that we can all make a practical difference into making people’s lives better.