Virgins and Philistines

My son started secondary school last September and he recently had his first parents evening. You could feel the anxiety levels rising as the big day approached. In the event he was reassured by hearing that he was doing well and that the standard of his work was up there with the others in his class; I was pleased to hear how teachers described his character and attitude.

What has stuck with me the most from the evening though is something one of the teachers said about year 7 as a whole. “Oh yes. In the first term they all do really well. It’s all new. They don’t know each other. They want to impress and make their mark. Then after Christmas they feel settled, more confident and lots start to ease off…get a bit complacent….”

We are all familiar with Grant Shapps’ assertion that there is a “lazy consensus in social housing”. I have written elsewhere of a supported housing sector that has become rather complacent and over reliant on repeat business from local authorities ‘spending’ their SP Gift Vouchers.

During one of our Bromford Leadership Academy sessions CEO Mick Kent stood by the window and looked out across the brown field site next to our offices. “If Richard Branson were to open a new housing association…..right there on that piece of land…….what do you think he would do differently?” It’s a great way to stimulate some really creative thinking… inject a note of healthy anxiety into the room. “Blimey. What if he did?”,  “I bet he wouldn’t do X”, “I bet he wouldn’t have taken 12 months to do Y”.

Of course Virgin hasn’t set up shop next door to Bromford…….so is it ok for us to slip into a ‘post-Christmas’ comfort zone, safe in the knowledge that we are only competing with other housing associations, who we have the measure of, after all?

Virgin may not be pitching for business in social or even supported housing (yet) but Virgin Care is one of the favourites to win a £130m contract to provide children’s health services in Devon (the announcement will be in May). Whatever the rights and wrongs of the “privatisation of the NHS” debate, what has been fascinating to see is the apoplectic rage of those who seem to feel that no one could possibly improve on the way the NHS delivers services. If you are my age you can remember British Rail, British Gas, British Telecom – state monopolies dogged by inefficiency, poor service and focused on the interests of the provider rather than the end-user. Now Virgin are not perfect (voted Britain’s top rail operator for the 3rd year running in 2011 but receiving only 57% customer satisfaction for their broadband service) but they will bring new thinking, a greater focus on the customer and new investment.

When news broke about Virgin Care’s pitch in Devon one colleague asked “Is this scary or a breath of fresh air?”

Well I think the answer is both. It can only be healthy and motivating to be kept on our toes; to try to imagine how someone like Virgin might approach doing what we do; to continually shake ourselves out of complacency and stir up our imaginations. Keeping alive the idea that tomorrow someone like Virgin just might start to do what we do……keeping that little pang of anxiety in our stomachs… what helps drive us to always want to do better….to eliminate waste and increase the social impact we can have as an organisation.

Let every day be like the first day of a new term!


4 responses to “Virgins and Philistines

  1. Great Blog, I agree we should think like virgin and keep ahead. On the other hand should be asking what other markets Bromford could venture into and make better??


    • Thanks Matt. I definitely think we need to keep asking ourselves “what is it we are really here for?”, “how can we have the biggest impact?”, “how could we do things even better?”. That means learning from the best…..from any sector or market.


  2. Love this … Been doing a radical think piece on office environments and applied some ?Whatif! Innovation techniques … Which in effect you could add the what would Richard Branson do … It’s a challenge we should make our selves every day


    • Thanks Helena. I was talking about Virgin Health with Will the other day and it prompted me to dust this off. Such an interesting brand. Looking forward to that office stuff……started looking at sofas on Pinterest earlier!


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