Like most housing associations, we build new homes at Futures. It’s one of our favourite things to do. We use architects, builders, craftsmen, contractors, project managers and countless components to get the job done. Most of the time it goes well and the result is a lovely place for our customers to move into. But given how much we love building, are we investing the same amount of energy and resources into building our own organisations?

I’m not talking about making our businesses bigger – because sometimes doing the opposite will be the right thing to do. I’m talking about building our capacity to do more, be better and smarter, and changing and adapting to deal with what life throws at us and our customers. We may think this is just a nice to have – but I think as times get ever more challenging for us and crucially for our customers, this is something we truly need to invest in.

Think about the last few years and what has come down the tracks: Brexit; a global pandemic; economic turmoil and soaring prices; war in Europe. Those are just the headlines. Then think about how they have each affected organisations, the people within them and those they serve. On top of that, every single one of us will be dealing with the everyday turbulence in our own lives that is a side effect of simply living. How, against that kind of background, can staying still be enough?

This isn’t going to be another of those blogs that waffles on about how wonderful change is though. Most of them have a point but what can we actually do to deliver the right kind of change, when we need it?

In my industry our customer is king – and if he, she or they aren’t, then they need to be. The whole world of social housing is mostly founded on good intentions. That’s not enough though. In fact, misplaced good intentions can end up causing harm if you’re not careful. The time for us as a sector to think that we ‘know best’ has long gone. Talking to our customers and, more importantly looking and listening are absolutely essential.  

While digital communication is giving many customers more choice in how they communicate with us, we should remember that there is still a vital place for human connection, a topic my colleague Dead set out his thoughts on recently. Meeting customers, hearing about their lived experiences and seeing the homes we provide for them up-close might feel old fashioned, but these are all opportunities to connect and learn that we discard at our peril. A one-dimensional connection might not give you the whole picture and allow you to see an underlying issue that you need to address.

So what do you do with all the information and perspective that this kind of engagement can bring? Well doing the ‘same old thing’ or setting rigid boundaries surely can’t be the way to make sure that we meet our customers’ changing needs. That’s where agility comes into the mix. And I’m not talking about giving all our employees laptops and allowing them to work from Costa if they want to. I’m talking about a different mindset together with true flexibility and empowerment to allow our people to use their skills and their brains to make life better for those we are here to help.

I recently attended a hackathon, hosted by Amazon, run by the Disruptive Innovators Network and sponsored by Switchee. The aim was to look at how we can tackle the rising costs of energy. Amazon shared how they tackled problems. One of the key components for them was defining the customer problem you are trying to solve. I entered the room thinking we needed to lower the cost of fuel for customers. I came away realising that the problem is actually that we just don’t know our customers well enough!!

We also need to be agile in working with others. We have to accept that we can’t do everything and find the right partners who share our vision and our approach to deliver the best results. We need to be brave and bold too and not rely on old habits and thinking – something that our sector has tended to do all too often. One of the areas that I look after, sustainability, is a good example of where a conservative approach (small ‘c’ intentional) simply isn’t going to get us to carbon-zero as quickly as we’d like to. We have to be focused on where we need to get to, and determined, creative and open in how we approach it.

So as managers our challenge has to be leading the way in building a new kind of housing organisation. We have strong foundations built on years of great work. Perhaps now is the time to learn from some of our visionary architects moving forward and create striking new constructions that are structurally sound but surprise, delight and enrich the lives of our customers too.