168 – A series: Managers as designers in local government. Part 1.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              800 words

empathy hand holding

This is the first in a series of four posts on managers as designers in local government. It might seem like an esoteric topic and hardly relevant, however, every day managers make design decisions, often in ignorance. There is now a body of work on how managers can use design-thinking to improve the customer experience and organisational decision making. I challenge you to say it is irrelevant to your council.

Some years ago I read a book called ‘Managers as Designers in the Public Services’ by David Wastell (Professor of Information Systems at Nottingham University Business School). It made a lasting impression on me.

managers as designers wastellOn the cover it says that the author has drawn on the work of systems thinkers like Peter Senge and John Seddon to show that policy is not ‘delivered’, and that “putting it into operation is a matter of design not of delivery”. He cites Richard Farson in saying that mangers design ‘offices, meetings, procedures, workflows and systems’. It is a book worth reading for its treatment of systems thinking in public service management.

More recently, I read two articles from the September 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review; ‘Design Thinking Comes of Age’ by Jon Kolko and ‘Design for Action’ by Tim Brown and Roger Martin. Each article extends the idea of the manager as designer with specific application to improve corporate processes and culture. These articles form the basis for this series of posts.

Jon Kolko discusses the application of design to the way people work. He says that people need help to make sense out of the complexity that exists in their interactions with technologies and complex systems, and that design-thinking can make this ‘simple, intuitive and pleasurable’.

“ … design thinking principles have the potential to be … powerful when applied to managing the intangible challenges involved in getting people to engage with and adapt innovative new ideas and experiences.”

The principles he is referring to are empathy with users, the discipline of prototyping and tolerance of failure.

In local government we deal with high levels of complexity (read the earlier post Local government and complexity. Is there a simple explanation?). This often results in the ‘complexity handpass’, in which one part of the organisation sends the complexity to another rather than dealing with it.

An example is risk management. Frequently, thr risk managers in Corporate Services identify obscure risks with low likelihood but extreme consequence and notify operational managers. What happens next? The operational manager is burdened by the problem and must live with the risk (and the potential for an ‘I told you so’ episode) or they must attempt to assess and mitigate it – often without Corporate Services providing a useful risk management framework! Designing out risk is a commonplace activity for operational managers.

The first principle of design-thinking, empathy with users, involves focusing on the user experience, especially their emotional response. Kolko suggests doing this by empowering workers to observe user behaviour to understand what they need and then expressing those needs using emotional language describing ‘desires, aspirations, and engagement ‘.

Imagine describing local government services using this type of language. Instead of internally-generated service descriptions, such as ‘maternal child health nursing’ it could be the ‘parental reassurance and baby well-being’.

Kolko describes the creation of an ‘emotional value proposition’ promising a feeling instead of the traditional value proposition promising utility. He uses the example of a Lexus car. The traditional value proposition is that you will get ‘safe and comfortable transportation in a well designed high-performance vehicle. The emotional value proposition is that you will feel pampered, luxurious and affluent.

“In a design-centric organisation, strategic discussions focus on how a business decision will positively influence users’ experiences.”

He says that it is ‘implicitly acknowledged’ that well designed offerings contribute to financial success. Again, imagine this in local government. Most councils making strategic decisions are thinking about saving money or getting better value from it. They might be solving a problem.

Seldom are they thinking deeply about the customer experience. They are certainly not taking risks to create value by enhancing the experience.

The focus on customer experience needs to ‘infuse’ every customer-facing function. Kolko uses the example of the finance function. Normally they only have contact with customers through invoicing or accounts payable. These systems have usually been designed for internal efficiency, yet they are ‘touch points’ that shape a customer’s impression of the organisation.

“In a culture focussed on customer experience, financial touch points are designed around users’ needs rather than internal operational efficiencies.”

I would argue that both internal and external customers’ experiences are shaped by the way internal or corporate services are delivered. In the case of internal customers, the way you experience the organisation’s services can affect how you deliver them; the ‘satisfaction mirror’ effect  is often evident when council staff treat members of the community (i.e. customers) the way they are treated themselves.

The next post deals with the second principle – prototyping.

Brown, Tim and Martin, Roger 2015. ‘Design for Action’, Harvard Business Review, September.

Kolko, Jon 2015. ‘Design Thinking Comes of Age’, Harvard Business Review, September.

Wastell, David 2011. ‘Managers as Designers in the Public Services’, Triarchy Press, UK.