In the build-up to our Innovation in Practice 2018 conference, we interviewed Sarah Mbatha from Octavia, one of the speakers at the conference.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’ve been working in social housing for over 20 years, and am very committed to it, both as a movement and as a purpose. But it feels like we’re stuck in an outmoded delivery model, and as a sector we tend to lack the drivers to make change happen. I believe operational leaders can make change happen without it having to rely on an expensive IT-led or consultant-led transformation programme.
What’s your experience of putting innovation into practice?
At East Thames, I was one of the senior management team who helped to turn the organisation around. In 2015, East Thames was expensive to run and delivered poor services to tenants. Without two years, we had transformed the organisation. It had excellent customer service, engaged staff, improved business and financial performance, and had a culture of continual improvement.
What lessons did you learn?
Change comes from people delivering the services, so you have to give the permission and skills to deliver the change themselves. You don’t have to launch a huge programme. You need to create a culture where people are free to highlight the things that don’t work and have the tools, and the permission, to change them. It’s less big bang and more constant evolution, with some great leaps forward thrown in.
Can you tell us anything about the tools you used?
One of the key tools we used at East Thames was around democratising access to information. In a lot of organisations, performance data is held by managers and the board. Staff rarely know the big picture or how what they are doing on a daily basis is contributing. When you give staff access to information, it helps them understand what the problems are, and how they can be part of providing the solution.
It’s so important not to rely too much on technology. It’s an important tool, but without changing the culture and allowing people to have some control over their workload, any investment you make in your technology will be wasted as the tech will just sit in the drawer. It has to work hand in hand with an enabling culture, in trusting staff and giving them the frameworks and freedom to make good decisions.
It’s so important from the start to be clear about what success looks like and that will vary from place to place. But if you make it all about money don’t be surprised if you’re not capturing people’s hearts and without that, lasting change is hard to achieve.
What are you looking forward to at the conference?
People often come to conferences hoping for one answer. I think you have to adapt to the environment you’re in, learn about what other people are doing, and then think about what the drivers are for you and your organisation. I’m keen to inspire people. I’m keen to encourage others to be brave about doing things differently.
It's never impossible to make change happen, but it definitely can be hard to get things moving. It’s important to remember, if you’re attending this conference you have more ability than most to make lasting change happen - use your power wisely!