Can service design deliver organisational change?

Can service design deliver organisational change?

When anthropologist David Graeber was asked about the continuity of Occupy Wall Street, he said the most important thing had been done: they'd changed the terms of the discussion. So, even if the movement dissolved, inequality was now part of the conversation.

Strategic designer Marco Steinberg, previously at Sitra, The Finnish Innovation Fund, refers to the strategic role of design in ‘changing the conversation’. In his essay Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary, Dan Hill reminds us that ‘increasingly, effective design means engaging with the messy politics — the “dark matter” — taking place above the designer’s head. And that may mean redesigning the organisation that hires you’.

Strategic design consultancies are typically thrown into service design projects with limited time to interrogate context and broader organisational realities.

Service designers strive to be human-centered, co-creative, collaborative, reframing, experimental and structured. However, these principles are typically applied to project content, but not always to surrounding context. For instance, the organisational landscape around the design canvas and which, inevitably, will determine the outcomes.

Service designers tackling capability building work, which weighs heavily on organisational matters, need the right mindset and tools to interrogate the organisational landscape beyond the capability building work itself.

Equally, there’s a need to critically examine and handle the way service design projects are bought and sold. Corporate procurement has little regard for the intangibles involved in understanding routines and rituals, yet these are key elements of design in capability building work.

A language that allows us to move between content and context

Given the above, there is a dilemma in project conception: trying to find a vocabulary for the things that need to be interrogated and which seem to fall outside the language used between designers and their clients (regardless of whether they are internal Service Design or CX teams or external consultancies).

Given this conundrum, how might we find the language and approaches to deal with the ‘dark matter’ that we’ll inevitably need to work with to make capability building viable and sustainable? How do we create the time and budget to spend on designing the context / org, in a way that our clients find compelling?

Before we move on, I’d like to say that I was trained as an anthropologist, and have spent my career in business transformation and operations before becoming a service designer. This journey shapes my views.

I believe service design practitioners need to be more deliberate in designing the terms of the conversation. How far should the remit of design research expand towards organisational inquiry? How might service design interplay with academic disciplines like Routine Dynamics, which looks at how organisational processes change? Is there a case for organisational design ethnography inside the discipline of Service Design?

As I emerge from a year long project in capability building, I believe there’s more to be done, about:

  • Building spaces, such as regular reflection sessions, in which to explore how we learn, as an external team, about the broader client organisation. In a recent project we created such a space, which we branded ‘Ethnographer’s Corner’, which was used as a platform to collectivise and structure learnings
  • Articulating hypotheses about the organisation as a subject of research. This is about the organisational context around, but not strictly perceived as part of the project stakeholder scope
  • Deriving experiments to test our understanding of the organisation’s routines and rituals
  • Testing observed organisational insights in our design work (e.g. budget cycles, decision making rituals, governance practices…)
  • Attuning ourselves to be surprised and capturing our surprise as insight
  • Reflecting on the organisational reactions to our work and experiments and structuring those insights to further explore organisational futures

The above are but a small selection of things we can do to maximise our collective intelligence (as a project team, among capability projects) to deal with new problems better. As professor Tony Watson suggests, there is a vital need for studies of ‘how things work’ in organisations and management. Perhaps service design practitioners, with extensive experience being ‘thrown in’ and having to quickly grasp the situation, are in a privileged place to lead on this? It can be done by situating the design work in the bigger context and expanding the practice through organisational learning and inquiry. Service design consultants, outside the messy politics of client organisations, can bring a new perspective and dare to make the right conversations start.



For the last few months, Industrial Design Engineering TU Delft and Livework studio have been co-explorers on the emergent practice of organisational design. We’ve been working closely with PhD researcher Frithjof Wegener, who is embedded in some of our capability projects as part of his fieldwork. This close collaboration between academia and practice is delivering new insights on the potential role of service design in organisational change, some of which are reflected in this post.


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