Embedding service design in a big organisation

The shift to embedded service design.


In the recent Restarting Britain report that I helped put together, we discussed different ways that organisations could bring service design to bear.

I’ve experience working in or with almost all of the models presented. But for me the embedded one is the most interesting as it’s where I believe most organisations are maturing to. In many cases we’re seeing organisation leave the agency-led era, where external facilitators have proved service design in small to medium-size ways, and commissioners are now seeking to scale its application in larger ways. Achieving this requires an internal design workhorse – a team of people spending dedicated time service designing within the organisation.

But what shape should this embedded team take?

Often it’s the case that many supporting elements exist – research, BI, MI, UX teams etc – but they aren’t bound into a whole. I was speaking to a client just the other day who asked me what an ideal greenfield Voice of the Customer team would look like. I love the intent of this question as it shows that design leaders are being asked about the future (significant), but the form of the question is wrong. For me it’s about binding qual and quant insight into a design led decision making function – which can apply that decision making at short, medium and long term cycles. For instance – tailoring live multichannel contact points, monthly redesigns of top tasks ‘in beta’, and annual innovations of the future operating model. We need to leave old models like VOC behind and wake up (or wake up our clients) to the opportunity of holistic, strategic service design within organisations.

So how do you best bundle them? And what steps should you take to bundling them up?

A case study.

The Government Digital Service is “a new team within Cabinet Office tasked with transforming government digital services.” I’m not that close to what they do, so I’m reading this case study from a distance via conversations, journalism and hearsay. My guess is that GDS was perhaps originally positioned as an agency, with a roving government brief – nothing too threatening, people didn’t have to buy them, and so they avoided ruffling civil service feathers (a standard critical success factor in most public sector projects). So this gave them a chance to wrestle some early projects, build credibility and thus develop a head of steam. But as the business case for design in government became clearer, they changed their footing. I’m not sure when it happened, but they became a mandated ‘fact of life’ for most departments and NDPBs. What’s remarkable is that this has happened to the extent that their design-led philosophy is now embedded in government and is becoming part of the DNA / fabric. I for one very much look forward to seeing what happens as a result. I’ve been taking a number of projects on a similar journey – from early ‘following our nose’ agency-style projects, through to tactical/guerilla change programmes, and on to setting up embedded service design teams. I see other case studies like this all around.

(Interesting aside: why is it not the Government Design Service or the Government Customer Experience Service? Most likely because digital is all about channel shift, which is all about reducing costs, which is all about everything in government right now! But I can see a point in time in the future where Digital will get dropped / replaced. Particularly if the Number 10 / Cabinet Office push on service design grows legs)

So what are the ingredients of an embedded team?

  • Dedicated resource – agencies move in and out of the organisation, being drawn on to deliver tactical work. You need a dedicated resource to run embedded work. And I don’t mean two people who basically manage agency work – I mean a team of people who live and breath the strategic challenge of the organisation
  • Diplomatic skills – agencies don’t have to be diplomatic – they are commissioned to do the work by someone who has done all the business case smoothign and chaping for them. But the embedded team need to be politically minded to survive the big corporate structures. Many technically adept serviced designers have failed to scale their offer because they overly rely on the “service design flag of intuitive brilliance”. Remember – people don’t care about service design. Work out what they care about and latch service design onto that. 
  • Clear methodology – this one is a bit yawn-y but important. Method makes most people’s eyes roll, but what I mean here is that you need a logical spine onto which you can latch your work (see previous point). Otherwise you will be dancing a different dance to every buyer. Some basic principles, a flow of work, that people can ‘buy’ in easy chunks.
  • Clear benefits / metrics – service design competes with lean, systems thinking, business process re-engineering etc. You will need a business case that is stronger than theirs. Stronger because people will buy the weaker business case they know, than the stronger business case they don’t know. Get early clarification on what the big measures are – NPS or Customer Effort? And how these trade off against more traditional sacred cow measures such as AHT? You need to fit into what is measured, as that it what is worked on.
  • Ways in – you will need to spend time networking. Usually this scares the design ponies as lots of designers do their work ‘in a corner’. But plenty of service designers are all about engaging in co-design and co-creation so this fear is removed. Good – because you need networks, conversation starters, watering holes to communicate the “bloody difficult business proposition that is service design”. This stuff takes time to land and connect into people’s brains.
  • Champions / evangelists – probably the biggest one. You need people to make the initial connections happen – people to provide air cover, people to knock heads together occasionally, people who believe in service design. At GDS it has been Martha, Mike and Francis (I don’t know these people, but their first names sound so great in a row like that!). I have had people do it for me. I look forward to doing it for others.
  • Story telling – once you get underway you need to be continually story telling – broadcasting the good work and success stories around the business to build that head of steam. The stories are the things that travel and give people reasons to seek you out. If you do your job properly these will just emerge – people will want to talk about it. That’s what service design does when it becomes embedded 

So if that’s the list, then how do you make the move to embedded?

  • Earn your stripes. Develop some case studies. Make some progress. These are the things you will want to leverage and scale
  • Create a shopping list. What do you need to become embedded? See the list above.
  • Pitch it. Find a willing buyer / corporate sponsor who will not only willingly listen to your pitch, but has the clout to do something about it

I am very keen to see more GDS stories of embedded service design from around the world, so get in touch if you have any personal experiences to share. Thanks

4 thoughts on “Embedding service design in a big organisation

  1. […] Embedding service design in a big organisation | plate and serve – […]


  2. Hi Joel,

    Great post I have shared this with several of my colleagues. The ‘Clear benefits / metrics’ point is something we have come up against a lot. Particularly within the public sector here so I started to add some thoughts about the difference in this table to try and define this: https://www.dropbox.com/s/1v3w65cmtv13h02/InnovationMethodsTable.pdf

    It’s just based on opinions and not perfect but we are looking to do some academic research into this in the next few months.

    Cheers for sharing!


  3. Thanks for posting this Joel, and thanks for sharing your table Paul! Really interesting points and one that I am starting to look at as currently working in a huge organisation where I know Service Design thinking could save them so much time and money. A huge challenge though. Also, your ‘Restarting Britain’ link doesn’t work – could you send another?


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