John Montague spent twenty years in the world of construction before realizing he viewed people purely as numbers. So he made a radical change to his professional life and set about launching a social business for his industry. This first foray into social enterprise was one which would change the course of his career and see him become a leading proponent of social enterprise.
Now the Managing Director of The Big Issue, a UK social business that helps people who are facing poverty take control of their lives and earn a legitimate income, John has overseen the latest transformation of an organization that bucked publishing industry trends last year by reporting a 5% rise in the circulation of The Big Issue Magazine. It was the second consecutive year of such growth.
In the following interview, John looks at how a business-wide application of innovative thinking has driven the social enterprise from its humble beginnings on the streets of London to last year celebrating the milestone achievement of 200 million copies of the magazine sold since its inception 25 years ago. The key to success, John argues, lies in adjusting the approach just enough to make that positive change.
Innovation to me means not doing the same thing and expecting a different result. So many people do the same thing, redo it, and expect a different result. Innovation, to me, is standing back and saying, “We want a change. We want to move forward. How do we do it differently? What can we use to innovate, to do something that hasn’t been done before?”
The Big Issue was, 25 years ago, an innovation. Who comes up with the idea of creating a street paper sold by a chaotic workforce with all sorts of issues and actually (successfully) create a business out of it? Despite this, our mission statement is clear: we want to dismantle poverty by helping people who need a hand-up, not a handout. We’re about business solutions to social issues.
The day people stop talking about CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and actually talk about CSV—Corporate Social Value or what value have we created—that’s when we really get somewhere. Businesses have a choice. They can come in with a traditional CSR agenda, paint three village walls, and plant reed beds for the pond. They might have a nice day, but there’s no sustainable value that they will leave behind.
I think we’re trying to figure out how to engage partners and ask them, ”How do we create sustainable value through people working together?” This question is the driving innovation at The Big Issue: we should not be focusing on responsibility, but value.
There are a couple of moments where The Big Issue changed direction based upon innovation. One standout instance occurred with the realization that we need to do more than the magazine. People regarded the Big Issue as “that magazine that homeless people sell on the street.” We needed to be more than that. One of the things changing this is the power of data, data that can actually drive our business forward.
Innovation,to The Big Issue Foundation, means taking an existing system and “turning the dial a bit” to make a positive change.
For example, we want to tackle the question, “Why do the poorest pay most?” The answer? Because they’ve got a very thin credit file, they have to pay for everything up front as they go. There’s a barrier in place because data is making a decision for them and it’s not due to bad data, but rather the lack of data. For the last four years, we’ve been working on the basis of getting rent data to be accepted in credit scoring ratings in the same way that mortgage data currently is.
There are four and a half million social housing tenants and five million private renters. I pay a mortgage; I get all the benefit. Someone else pays rent, they get no benefit. With this data-driven change and working in partnership with Experian, 30% of all social housing rent data will become shareable by September.
That’s innovation – taking an existing system and applying small but meaningful changes to influence a better outcome. I think that what we’re good at actually doing is asking, “How do we just turn the dial a bit?” We’re never going to change the credit reference agency world. But how can we move the needle to render the system fairer and more inclusive?
We tried to implement Salesforce a couple years ago without buy-in from staff and it didn’t go anywhere because we did it top-down, not bottom-up. The breakthrough came in convincing that they are supported, they have influence, that the software would change their lives. By doing this, we will save two hours a day for each member of the team. That’s ten hours a week for over 50 people. Suddenly, it’s creating time to do other things.
It sounds stupid. But our innovation lies in how our organization delivers. It’s innovation how other external organizations are supporting us to grow from the bottom up. And that’s why it will be successful. It won’t be successful because the business leaders said, “Let’s do something.” It will be successful because the team itself wants to deliver something of which they are proud.
Innovation is business strategy de jour. But large sums of money are wasted because of poor planning, buy-in, and alignment. In the latest edition of Beyond The Buzz we examine how innovation, properly managed and applied can yield superior outcomes, and reduce waste and frustration.