Sowing the seeds of innovation in 2021

Get all the latest about innovation from our innovation manager, Michelle Dawson.

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The first nine months of leading the innovation team at Thirteen has been an exciting, and at times, challenging journey. As we approach the end of the year, I feel now is a good time to reflect on what we have learned from being a newly formed innovation team in a large, fast-moving housing association.

If your work is about design, innovation or just trying to make new things happen in a large, diverse organisation, you can probably relate to some of this learning.

1. The word innovation isn’t that useful

This isn’t a new revelation to most people in this industry, but everyone defines Innovation a bit differently in real life. We like to describe innovation at Thirteen as using design methodology to define and explore the problem and facilitate collaborative activity to help solve the problem. Preferably based on a solid foundation of customer and front-line staff engagement, with a big dose of data and using evidence led approaches. If we can get this right, the growth and efficiencies will naturally follow.

2. Don’t be scared to spend the most time properly understanding the problem that needs solving

It’s annoying when someone with a job title you don’t really understand comes into the project halfway through and asks everyone to go back and check we understand the problem we are trying to solve, but it is so important. We all really like quick wins and fixing things with new systems or products, but sometimes spending the extra month or two at the beginning checking with the key stakeholders that we properly understand the problem from everyone’s perspective, saves lots of time and money later.

3. The golden nuggets of insight come from customers and front-line staff

What our customers and front-line staff have are the real-life nuggets of gold that hold the answers to some of the most challenging questions. It’s been so valuable to go out and spend time with them to make sure we can get behind and underneath what the policy says. We can learn about how people are experiencing our organisation on a day-to-day basis. This is the best bit of any design process for us.

4. New technology is great, but if you haven’t done number two right, all the technology in the world won’t make any difference

Just because we can do something with new technology, doesn’t mean we should. We love the potential for technology to significantly improve how the organisation operates, but we’ve learned this year, that doing number two right, and spending time understanding what we want the technology to do and why, must come first.

5. There’s never enough data

It’s really boring to keep coming back to having robust data, especially for a team that prides itself on being creative. But having good data that can tell you things about the customers, processes, outputs, and outcomes is just so important for innovation. We are working on improving our data as an organisation and finding new ways to use the software we have, to tell us more interesting things about the data we collect. It’s an ongoing battle and we know that however good we get at this, there will always be something we need that we haven’t collected.


We are all in this together. The housing world can feel quite competitive, but underneath that are a bunch of people really happy to share and support each other. As housing associations, we are all currently trying to solve the same problems, big things like how do we retrofit our diverse portfolios of housing stock in an affordable way, while measuring the impact and supporting our customers? How do we re-design our model of supported accommodation to better use technology to help keep people safe, while supporting them to live well for longer? How can we pull together the millions of systems we use so that we can use the data they hold to support us to do better? And what we have learned is, that reaching out and talking to peers and colleagues in other organisations has been mega helpful and very useful. Turns out we are all facing similar challenges and have lots of common ground.  

We are really excited for what's to come in 2022 and we intend to keep building on what we learn and remembering to stay brave, curious and creative as we try and solve some of the big challenges facing the organisation, and our customers over the coming year.