Back in the Box

Barry Marlow writes:

Back in 2002 I was looking at a set of presentation slides that Roy Irwin had sent me for a conference I was hosting. Roy had just been appointed as head of the housing inspectorate and was about to invent a KLOE.

One of Roy’s slides contained the phrase “Out of the Box” and its context was that housing organisations were being encouraged to think and behave in a more non-conformist way and design services that were creative and innovative. This was the first time I’d come across it. That’s the phrase, not Roy Irwin.

In The Box

In my work as a Critical Friend (@FriendsCritical) I’m often referred, rather politely, as an ‘out of the box’ thinker. Really? I just thought I was strange.

Here’s something strange though. I quite like boxes. I liked boxes when I was young. Didn’t matter what was in it or had been in it, that box had potential. And potential had imagination – a radical combination.

I could find fascinating uses for boxes. Boxes could be forts, sledges, hiding places. They could just be there – you know, there – in the bedroom waiting for that spark of creative inspiration that would turn the box into a game, something fun. As a grown-up I would now call this something ‘challenging’ or ‘searching for an outcome’.

Don’t Ditch the Box

Critical Friends review what you do, what you’ve done and how you did it. A critical friend is a rather powerful idea. Friends bring degrees of unconditional, non-judgemental regard. Critics, however, are seen as conditional, often negative and always noticing the failings.

So perhaps a critical friend comes close to what might be regarded as ‘true friendship’ – a blend of unconditional support and unconditional critique.

Which means, if you have a pile of boxes in your organisation, we don’t always suggest you ditch them. They could be used for other things. Boxes are ‘handy’.

Put the Boxes Somewhere Else

So – move the boxes and see what happens. Here’s a couple of Income Management de-cluttering suggestions:

ISSUE: Sign-ups aren’t fun anymore. It’s a box.
ANSWER: Get rid of them. Ditch the box.

CRITICAL FRIEND: Use the problem to create a financially inclusive pre-tenancy service. Pre-tenancy gives you an opportunity to assess risk, establish different relationships, carry out credit profiling, collect crucial segmentation data and coach new or inexperienced people in the joys and responsibilities of tenancy.

OUTCOME: You’ve changed boxes.

ISSUE: Standard letters are rubbish and are ignored.
ANSWER: Get rid of them. Go paper-free! Ditch the box.

CRITICAL FRIEND: Slow down. What do your competitors do? Have they ditched the box or just combined paper services with paper-less offerings – or a blend of both? Letters or statements? Remember, rent is a bill. Send an invoice? Bills are repetitive so it must be continually interesting. Does your statement have colour? Is it personalised? Does it have competitions? Does it say ‘thank you’ for paying? Does it direct the reader to special offer services?

OUTCOME: You’ve painted the box a different colour.

Where do you keep your nicest Ideas?

Critical Friends won’t judge you for hoarding boxes. What we will do is, with your permission and your help, take a look inside them. We’ll make sure they are not beyond the ability of some kind of benefit.

I don’t know about you but I keep things in boxes. My best shoes are in a box. I keep all my best cuff-links in a box that is in another box. Boxes can be the best container for the best things. They can also hide stuff away.

Sometimes, like the files of former tenants’ arrears, the box is a form of denial.

Like the box in my childhood bedroom, the box can be the stimulus for innovation. It can be the vehicle for sledging downstairs or breathing new life into service delivery as welfare reform draws ever closer.

Christmas Presence

And, as Christmas gets closer, too, the nervous income management teams will be eyeing up the performance graphs near the photo-copier and predicting how high those lines will get in January and February.

That’s all you need. Christmas boxes.

And then it’ll be 2015. That’s another year closer to the impending storm clouds of universal credit. Whether you see this as an opportunity or a threat, the whole money/rent thing is appearing very real now.

We all know it won’t be easy. We all know there’ll be transition, headaches and heartache. We all know that implementation and delivery will be cumbersome, uncertain and challenging.

And like most large deliveries – it’ll probably come in a box.

Handle very carefully.

Barry Marlow and Cath Davies are FriendsCritical

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