Get big, go deep – or go home

I’ve had an interesting run over the past few weeks. I’ve been spending more time out of the studio doing strategy stuff. Which means I’ve had the chance to speak to a whole range of people in and around service design. What I’ve picked up is a consensus that service design is reaching a tipping point – that the industry has an 18 month window to do something – to make the case, land it and grow from there – or to fade into hubris and lost potential. I’ve been feeling like this for a while, so it’s nice that the ante is being upped. But worth getting into the anatomy of this opportunity – thus a blog post.

Why a tipping point and why now?

A few things have come together recently:

  1. Government Digital Service – basically a design studio wrapped in a digital money saving business case – has demonstrated that design has a role to play in even the most traditional of organisations. Not only is there a forceful design studio in there of excitable designers seeking to change the world in a nimble/agile way, but there’s a Transformation Team of dyed-in-the-wool civil servants soberly connecting the deeper elements, and negotiating in the trenches with the grubby back end
  2. My own organisation is seeking to step up its intentions around service design. After a few years now of tactical success, we’ve proved the business case. I have clients who are asking for similar input. So people want more – more breadth and more depth. They want to talk about operational change – they want us to help them rethink how their organisations are plumbed, so they can be more customer-centred
  3. Other organisations are taking design more seriously. Barclays have just put a Chief Design Officer on the board. Accenture bought Fjord etc

What is going on?

I think senior leaders – the people who hold the big purse strings around organisational change – are finally being converted to Service Design. We’ve been in an elongated pilot phase. Every agency and lots of clients can point to game changing projects that have step changed organisations. Well – I think that finally the game has changed, the step has been taken. We’re no longer a substitute brought on for an occasional turn. We’re now on the field. This is great news, but being on the field brings its own challenges – which is what this post it really about. 

Dom Campbell at Futuregov wrote a great post called Go Big or Go Home. Go and read it. It echoes my feeling. I’d just like to extend it a bit – it’s not just about big design – ie broad application across large scale services like local government or telcos. It’s also about going deep – penetrating the innards of the organisation to make change happen. Now this is interesting, because many designers just don’t seem to see that as their job. They design, they generate ideas, they create collateral, and they pass it over – even if it’s an agile handover that is very seamless. They still hand it over. But to who? This is why we need to ‘go deep’. Let me break it out.

  1. Get out of the studio – the studio is a nice place to be. They play music there, and where flip flops. Get out of this comfort zone. You need to spend more time with the Learning and Development team understanding how to change staff behaviours. You need to understand how a commercial model for a transformation programme works. You need to sit with the IT guys and understand what data latency means. 
  2. Compromise – I wear a suit and tie every day. Only yesterday I had to explain to a senior colleague what Kickstarter was. We all need to stretch further towards those we’re trying to convert. We need to swallow our pride, be the bigger man/woman and suck up the short term “eugh, suit!’ thing. We need to be prepared to lose battles, forfeit ground, in order to win this war
  3. Challenge ourselves – we need to stop patting ourselves on the back that we’re the next big thing, riding high on the hype wave, with lovely projects and beautiful collateral. I was challenged the other day by someone that ‘service design fizzles out’. And they’re right. We are now more ‘the thing’ rather than ‘the next big thing’. Organisations are giving us the time of day – but they need to see that we can run broader and deeper. That’s the 18 month window we have.

My proposals:

  1. We need a joined up coherent campaign to tell the market that ‘this is what we do’. We’re out of pilot phase, we are prepared to go broad and deep. The campaign needs to be agile – it needs to not take 18 months to get it’s act together. Luckily the Design Council seem to be shaping this one up.
  2. We need to propose how we should fit into big organisations, splitting out the two big things we do: a) achieving multichannel customer service excellence, and b) delivering ongoing service innovation on the other. These are different skills so we should classify them as such. It’ll make it easier for others ‘to get’.
  3. And we need to reach a rapid consensus on the usual suspects – better evidence, neater proposition, improved talent market etc. Though my belief is that if we crack 1 and 2 we will be compelled to do 3. The reason 3 hasn’t happened is that we haven’t been forced to make tough decisions in the face of tough deadlines. Let’s let necessity be the mother of intent. Too many academics have spent too much time on 3 – it’s a MacGuffin. We need 1 and 2, then we’ll get 3 as a bi-product

And if we don’t do something?

Well we end up missing our boat, like Systems Thinking. Still around and doing good tactical things, but never really lived up to it’s hype and largely descended now into hubris. Service Design is not the answer – but it could be. Betamax was the answer wasn’t it? As Geoff Mulgan said at a meeting at the Design Council last week, Service Design exists in a very competitive environment. It is up to us to come together and land this opportunity in the next 18 months. We need to collectively tool up – get big, go deep or go home.

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