Snook has a long history of working in housing. From helping to design purpose-built homes for at-risk young people, to recent work exploring the ways to help identify people who might need extra support. 

The story we hear again and again is the importance of developing a relationship with residents that goes beyond merely putting a roof over their heads. 

We first worked with John Baldwin when he asked Snook to come and help him develop the service design practice at Thames Valley Housing – (now Metropolitan Thames Valley). We worked together on projects that built the team’s capabilities in designing user-centred services at the same time as getting things done. 

Having seen the difference a customer-centred approach makes to colleagues and customers alike, John is even more committed to this way of working and has continued to advocate in the industry – and work with us to develop our practice together. 

In the wake of the Housing White paper, he writes here about how Social Housing organisations approach change – and how we can help them see their services through the eyes of their customers.

Taking stock in the face of new regulation

Over the course of a few weeks in Spring this year, I had conversations with a range of Housing Associations all grappling with how to improve their services.  I already knew from my own experience that delivering fundamental change to long-standing organisations is hard. There are many books out there on culture and change management that testify to this. 

Of course, at the time, there was also the small issue of a worldwide pandemic, plus the additional challenges brought about by Grenfell and its aftermath, part of which is a new raft of regulation.  

As the new consumer regulations coming out of the white paper and the new regulator for building safety are firmed up, it seemed like a good time to find out how we are faring in terms of listening to residents. 

Change at pace is possible. So, what next?

Given the context, it wasn’t surprising that I found staff at housing associations are under a lot of strain. In often very challenging circumstances, customers were escalating issues “over and above what is normal” with increased backlogs and complaints. Trying to deliver change programmes against this background understandably has its own difficulties.

I want to acknowledge this because I know only too well, just keeping services going sometimes takes every last ounce of stamina.  

And yet, despite everything, the pivot towards delivering services in lockdown that we all somehow managed to pull off, demonstrates that we can deliver fundamental change at pace. 

So if a leap of faith is required to let go of some long-standing assumptions about how we deliver services, have these recent experiences allowed us to make that leap, and if so, where do residents fit in?

Two different approaches to change 

Managing change in a time of crisis (like a pandemic) is different from managing long term transformation. But whilst the latter is designed to produce sustainable change, the former can also produce outcomes that stick.  

Despite some of the lessons learnt from rapid change, what I found when I spoke to people was that they were still reliant on more traditional thinking and behaviours.  So things like siloed working, hierarchies and a mechanistic approach to services were still alive and well within many of the organisations I spoke to.

There was, however, at least a desire to fix stuff.  

Service problems were still prevalent and often looked at in the same way as before the pandemic. There were just more of them.  So the pressure was on to not only fix these issues but to reduce costs.  This means most sought to fix internal processes and systems, make them more efficient and drive down cost to serve.

The starting point for this was the organisation itself and what wasn’t working internally.  Not surprising really, I mean why wouldn’t this be the case? After all, people in most organisations are faced with operational challenges day in, day out.  If only these could be sorted, everyone would benefit including the customer – right?  So with this mindset (which I have called the Business Mindset), those needs come first.

Conversely, I was also looking for signs of an outside-in approach i.e. understanding the needs of the end-user – the customer, and using that to design services that are easy to use and create a positive experience. This was also why I partnered with Snook to do this work as it’s how they would approach any piece of work.

In truth, I found a lot less of this type of thinking.  

In an industry that prides itself on resident engagement, I found this surprising. Given that costs are driven up by failing to meet needs (and instead, managing that failure) and that the best way of reducing cost is to design the service around the customer, it also feels like a missed opportunity in terms of increasing both efficiency and satisfaction.

Using a Maturity Matrix to map mindsets

The more I listened the more I sensed that some underlying themes were not going away and I began to understand better why people were doubling down on their usual ways of working.

I began to form a ‘maturity matrix’ which helped me understand the differences and connections and I started to codify how an organisation’s mindset influenced how it approached change.  

On one side we have the Business as Usual mindset – reactive and short term. On the other end of the spectrum, the Customer mindset where customer experience drives outcomes. In between, we have a sliding scale covering various approaches ranging from ad hoc projects and business-driven transformation through some adoption of UX and the beginnings of using service design to drive change. 

It looks like this:

a diagram of a table which maps organisations' approaches to change. From Business as Usual on the right, which involves silo-ed, short term approaches to fixing things to Customer mindset on the right which involves networked, customer-centric approach to change


When I shared my research with a group of Housing associations, I was blown away by the extent to which these findings also resonated. It was definitely a sector-wide phenomenon.  

Many organisations described themselves as ‘quite hierarchical’ and investment into service improvement was defined by siloed projects which didn’t really consider the customer.  I didn’t find any organisations for example which fitted the ‘Customer Mindset’ category as defined by this matrix.


Start with culture

Most people will agree that an organisation’s culture will determine to a large extent how well a transformation programme delivers on its goals.  And yet I rarely see culture as a specific workstream in transformation. 

This is a missed opportunity.  When you step back and look at how culture works across the different levels in the maturity matrix, there is an immediate and strong connection in how culture determines the outcome.

a graphic showing an axis with a scale of BAU to Customer centric on one axis, and Hierarchical to Networked on the other. The more networked and customer-centric

The organisations I spoke to which were more hierarchical also tended to have a more BAU mindset. See a problem, try to fix it, move on. Solutions were siloed and top-down, with neither customers nor front line staff being involved in the process. 

The more an organisation opened up in terms of who was involved in identifying the problem and finding the right solution across teams and departments, the more open, networked and devolved the organisation was in terms of its culture. 

For this to work, however, the culture must come first.

When you think about it, it’s obvious.  If an organisation isn’t built around upward communication, developing solutions from across the organisation and understanding the pain points of front line colleagues, why would it be good at listening to customers?

The new benchmark for customer satisfaction

In looking at all of the hard work people are doing in very challenging times, it is good to see that organisations are transforming. Part of that will always be about improving the way an organisation functions. 

You can either do this with or without listening to your customers, however only one of these routes will have a positive impact on that elusive uplift in customer satisfaction, which of course will be measured and benchmarked by the Regulator as part of the new consumer standards.

Given the Regulator’s emphasis on listening to residents, not just to tick a box, but in a way that makes them actually heard, can we really afford not to adopt this approach?  We already know what the traditional methods deliver, we’ve been using them long enough. 

Now’s the time to try something different, something that really allows us to work in partnership with our residents and to avoid the traps of the past.  

In adopting this approach, you can also make whatever requirements are coming down the line a useful tool, rather than an ‘extra’ thing we need to do on top of everything else.

So, at the end of the day, it is only through understanding the problems from a customer perspective that you can design solutions for people who have to use the things you design.  It really is that simple – you just need the right mindset.

If you recognise these findings in your organisation and you would like to do something about it, talk to us at Snook.  We can help.

Written by John Baldwyn, in August 2021. Also on Medium