Managers as designers in local government.

Posted by Lancing Farrell                                                                              3000 words

design thinking wordle

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.

On 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 organisations sends the complexity to another rather than dealing with it.

An example is risk management. 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 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 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 ‘mother and baby well-being check’.

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 and enhance 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 evident when council staff start to treat members of the community or customers the way they are treated.

Models can be used to examine complex problems. In this context, the ‘model’ is an artefact of the design process that is used to ‘explore, define and communicate’. Typically this will include diagrams and sketches instead of (or in addition to) the spreadsheets and specifications usually used to analyse and resolve problems. According to Kolko, they ‘add a fluid dimensions to the exploration of complexity, allowing for non-linear thought when tackling non-linear problems”.

There are a number of local government services that routinely use models or design artefacts in their work. It is not a new idea for councils but it is a new application of the idea. For example, engineers and architects create sketches and drawings as two-dimensional models of the object they plan to build. These are used to test the functionality and constructability of the object and enable input and control from supervisors as part of risk management. The same thinking can be applied to corporate thinking about new services.

The work of landscape architects in local government particularly lends itself to cooption for corporate design-thinking because it is much more consultative with users of the ‘object’. Unlike roads and buildings, parks have less technical design elements and can be much more tailored to the needs of users. Typically this happens with ‘butter paper’ sketches and meetings with users, then refinement of the design through success rounds of consultation until the resolved design is displayed for final comments.

Some councils are creating ‘customer journey maps’ as design artefacts telling the story of their customers’ experiences. It is a useful tool for understanding. Kolko sees it as presenting an alternative way to look at a problem.

“ … it (customer journey map) helped us develop a strategic way to think about changing the entire organisation and to communicate the emergent strategy.”

rapid prototypingPrototyping is a way to use evolving models to communicate ideas and involve users. A prototype is simply an early sample built to test a concept or process as a thing to be replicated or learned from. It is intended to test and try a new design and serves to provide specifications for a real, working system.

Prototypes are used to explore potential solutions. Kolko describes them as existing in the ‘solution space’, as compared to customer journey maps that exist in the ‘problem space’. This is an interesting way to think about the progression of ideas in problem solving. Prototypes can be digital (e.g. the alpha or beta version of computer software), physical (e.g. the maquette made to show how a public artwork could look) or diagrammatic (e.g. a plan or scale model produced by architects).

In an ‘open minded’ culture, Kolko says that prototypes will be displayed everywhere and demonstrate a focus on exploration and experimentation rather than ‘rule following’. He cites innovation expert Michael Schrage in calling it ‘serious play’.

“ … only the act of prototyping can transform an idea into something truly valuable – on their own, ideas are a dime a dozen.”

The third principle of design thinking is that in a design culture there is a tolerance of failure. There is a recognition that it is ‘rare to get things right the first time’. That is not to say that failure is encouraged, rather it is tolerated as part of the process of learning.

Kolko says that people at all levels of the organisation need to be able to take ‘social risks’ in putting forward their ‘half baked’ ideas without ‘losing face or experiencing punitive repercussions’. People learn what to do in the process of doing it right.

Finally, Kolko discusses the need for ‘thoughtful restraint’. He says that many products or services built on an emotional value proposition are simpler. This is the result of deliberate decisions about what the product or service should and should not do. He describes this simplicity as being the simple that exists on the ‘far side of complexity’.

“By removing features, a company offers a clear, simple experience.”

This approach is the opposite of much of what you see happening in local government. We tend to think that if something works, let’s do more. A timeless example is the park seat with each seat slat painted a different colour. As Robin Boyd pointed out in the ‘The Australian Ugliness’, Australian’s, particularly in government, don’t have a strong design sense. As a result, the cluttering of the user experience with non-value adding ‘features’ is commonplace. The old saying ‘more is less’ is seldom heard in local government.

“Design thinking is an essential tool for simplifying and humanising. It can’t be extra; it needs to be a core competence.”

design and thinkingSo, what are the challenges in using design-thinking? Jon Kolko has identified several. The first challenge is accepting that you will be dealing with more ambiguity.

“It is difficult if not impossible to understand how much value will be delivered through a better experience or to calculate the return on investment in creativity.”

He says that ambiguity doesn’t fit well with organisations that value ‘repeatable, predictable operational efficiency’. This will be an issue for councils seeking to use design-thinking. For councils, there is an expectation that value will be created through efficient use of resources without any waste. The strong risk aversion of local government reinforces elimination of uncertainty, or at least pretending it has been eliminated. Embracing a culture or experimentation, customer value creation and risk taking will be very challenging.

Even proponents of customer choice in local government want this choice to be provided efficiently. In some respects they are mutually exclusive ideas if the choice can only exist because there is surplus capacity available. For example, the choice of restaurants available when walking down a busy street only exists because some of them will have empty tables. If every restaurant was flexibly planned to be full at all times, there would be no choice. These businesses charge higher prices to cover the cost of wasted capacity when tables are not full. In the public sector the costs of choice are often seen as waste.

The second challenge is related – transformative innovation is inherently risky. It requires leaps of faith when something that hasn’t been done before is attempted. There is no guarantee of the outcome.

In local government this has a link to contemporary community development practice where mobilising community-led transformation is being contemplated. Starting such a process in the community risks the council losing control and becoming the servant of the community in responding to numerous and unplanned pressures.

The third challenge is that design-thinking is not a solution to all problems. Whilst it does help people and organisations to manage complexity, expectations need to be managed. Kolko says that it is not the right tool to ‘optimise, streamline or otherwise operate’ a stable business. I can only assume that this is because they already have the design right.

Kolko concludes by saying –

“An organisational focus on design offers unique opportunities for humanising technology and for developing emotionally resonant services.”

Kano model WikipediaRoger Martin and Tim Brown provide a related but different view of design in organisations. They see it as helping stakeholders and organisations work better together as a system. This is a systems-thinking approach as much as it involves design-thinking.

They describe the evolution of use of design in organisations as the ‘classic path of intellectual process’ as each design process is more sophisticated than the one before it because it was enabled by learning from that preceding stage. As designers have become more skilled in applying design to shape user experiences of products, they have turned to ‘user interfaces’ and other experiences.

“And once they learned how to redesign the user experience in a single organisation, they were more prepared to tackle the holistic experience in a system of organisations.”

They describe the adaptation of design tools from products to services and experiences as design-thinking. This correlates with the use of design thinking explained by Jon Kolko. However, it is at this point that Martin and Brown start to provide insight into the challenges in acceptance of the outcomes of design-thinking – the ‘designed artefact’. Whilst Kolko sees models as design artefacts, Martin and brown see the final product or output of design thinking as the design artefact. For example, a new process to deliver a service.

The focus of their article is the ‘intervention’ required for stakeholders to accept a new design artefact – whether ‘product, user experience, strategy or complex system’. They argue that the design of the ‘intervention’ (i.e. the way a new product or service is introduced to users and its integration into the status quo) is even more critical to success than the design of the product or service itself.

This is not news for people in local government. Change management is a key focus of many organisations as they attempt to deal with changing community expectations, new legislated requirements and rate capping. Designing the ‘intervention’ to implement a new service or re-designed service makes sense. The new information is the way Martin and Brown suggest that it can be done.

They describe the launch of a new service that is similar to an existing service as likely to be seen as a good thing by everyone involved because it is unlikely to create any meaningful changes to the organisation or the way people work. It isn’t threatening to anyone’s job or existing power structures.

In contrast, introducing something new is always worrisome. It will affect the status quo and it might fail. In this situation, Martin and Brown say that designers need to worry about this impact.

“The more complex and less tangible the designed artefact is, though, the less feasible it is for the designer to ignore it potential ripple effects.”

They say that the business model may need to change. In effect, there are two parallel design processes; the artefact (i.e. a new service) and the intervention for its implementation (i.e. the change management).

Understanding and predicting user reactions to a new service is difficult. Martin and Brown discuss the work of organisations like IDEO in using design-orientated approaches involving ethnography rather than statistical analysis. It involves frequent and rapid re-engagement with users in short repeat cycles while improving the service until it meets user expectations.

In fact, Martin and Brown talk about repeating the cycles until customers are ‘delighted’ by the service. This is not necessarily appropriate in local government and a focus on meeting customer expectations or purpose (as described by John Seddon) is more appropriate. ‘Delight’ in the context of Kano’s customer satisfaction model is not what most public services are intended to achieve. Some are, and then it is important to differentiate.

For the many council services delivered using an efficiency-based business model, the objective is to be ‘just good enough’ to provide the expected value to the customer. Reducing waste, optimising use of capacity, standardising and being reliable and consistent is the requirement.

For those services using a value-based business model the objective is to fully meet the needs and expectations of the customer. Accommodating customer variability, and being accessible and flexible in providing responsive services is the requirement. Delighting customers may be appropriate. The risk in delighting customers is that it moves the value expectation upwards (i.e. you raise the bar on yourself). It should only be done when it adds genuine value that is understood and appreciated by the customer.

The frequent and rapid re-engagement with users in short repeat cycles described by Martin and Brown is known as ‘rapid prototyping’. Low resolution prototypes are taken to stakeholders or users and through successive cycles the prototypes become more refined as the design solution is resolved.

The speed of the process and engagement with stakeholders is important to overcome the fear of the unknown that so often kills ideas, especially in the public sector. Martin and Brown propose a systematic way to engage with the key stakeholders in any organisational intervention – the decision makers – that they describe as ‘iterative interaction’. It has four steps:

  1. We think this is the problem we need to solve; to what extent does it match your view?
  2. Here are the possibilities we want to explore, given the problem definition we agreed on; to what extent are they the possibilities you imagine? Are we missing some and are any under consideration non-starters for you?
  3. We plan to do these analyses on the possibilities that we have agreed are worth exploring; to what extent are they the analyses that you would want done, and are we missing any?
  4. This is the proposed solution to the problem.

In local government this approach would work well with the Executive responsibility to approve the solution. They will have helped ‘define the problem, confirm the possibilities, and affirm the analyses’. This is particularly important if the solution is a meaningful deviation from the status quo.

Martin and Brown conclude by saying –

“Intervention is a multi-step process- consisting of many small steps, not a few big ones. Along the entire journey interactions with the users of a complex artefact are essential to weeding out bad designs and building confidence in the success of good ones.”

Boyd, Robin, 1960. ‘The Australian Ugliness’.

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.