Did the earth move for you? When design meets business, at scale
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Did the earth move for you? When design meets business, at scale

That sound of rock scraping against rock? That’s the sound of design finally shouldering itself into the boardroom. It’s the sound of tectonic plates shifting.

Service design’s reach is extending

The past months have given us a few ‘quakes. Accenture pledging to recruit its way to becoming a design powerhouse; the surge of concern as Mike Bracken left his role as CTO at the UK’s prestigious Government Digital Service; and then the acquisition of design firm Lunar by McKinsey, and Seren by EY. These events suggest design is penetrating ever further into the cerebral cortex of modern business. More and more leaders are realising something many service designers have been saying for a while: “you can’t do good digital without good design”.

Cross pollination leads to new ways of working

With traditional management consultancies buying design agencies, designers now find themselves working alongside people with different backgrounds, with often urgent demands to develop new ways of working. Before we say anything else, let’s make one thing clear – this is great. It’s exactly the sort of cross-pollination that’s essential if we’re to design and deliver sustained impact. At Livework we’ve been experiencing the positives and negatives of this change for some time, and so thought we’d share our own impressions of what’s going on.

Convergence vs divergence

Many traditional transformation programmes are aimed at solving productivity challenges. Solutions usually focus on the two main areas of cost in a service business: people and technology – and suggestions range from offshoring to cheaper locations internationally, TUPE transferring staff to new terms, downsizing through redundancies, outsourcing technology to providers who could bring to bear efficiencies of scale, or rationalising IT estates. You can pretty much guarantee that whenever anyone asks, ‘how should we transform?’ 90% of people in the room are thinking of these solutions.

Design asks more questions

A design approach can positively impact those off-the-shelf solutions. Designers love questioning or re-framing the challenge. The divergent design discipline is often talked about and at Livework we’re confident that it’s the new critical discipline. We’re asked to help solve ever-more dense, impenetrable and wicked challenges, in both business and society, and we always begin by questioning the starting assumptions and reframing the challenge.

This is why design has become transformation’s ‘special sauce’. Designers loiter in uncertainty and flirt with lots of possible answers, often at the very edge of the problem, before they select a route. But, that flirtatiousness can disrupt the early stages of a transformation programme. People in boardrooms understandably want fast answers. And alas, somewhat inevitably, people look to yesterday’s solutions for answers. As designers we are seeing an increased demand to have people in the room who first look up into the corners of the room and ask big questions.

Expert-led vs. user-led

The crux of the traditional approach is in the name, management consultancy. Management consultants promise to consult on the management of your business, and then provide their expert advice based on their individual and corporate experience. But we live in a time of quick change and rapid technological development, which begs for a disruption to this approach. No-one is an expert in a business environment where everything is in flux.

Yet how often have large businesses bought the ‘expert’ advice of confident well-suited ‘expert’ consultants, only to come unstuck further down the road when that expertise comes into contact with reality.

There is a large degree of ‘consultant fatigue’ in the world as a result. Design isn’t a perfect antidote to this, but it has one advantage in the digital era: it is user-led, not expert-led. The only expertise designers promote is their user-centred approach. In fact, being naive is a bonus, as it allows the designer to ask stupid questions of customers, of managers and of frontline staff. More often than not, these are the questions everyone has been harbouring, but been too shy of voicing in front of the experts. Beware the expert in times of change. If in doubt, follow your customer.

Dense vs. lucid

We’ve seen it so many times: designers emerging from meetings with their consultant counterparts, mystified by the 100-slide PowerPoint deck. Much of the value a design approach brings is in how it’s communicated. It uses visualisation and focuses on simplicity and brevity. This is nothing new, Edward Tufte, a leader in the field of information design, has been preaching it for years. However, we still see acres of chart junk that people can’t penetrate and don’t want to have to penetrate.

We suspect consultants produce these dense powerpoint decks for two reasons. Firstly, the established logic goes: if an area is complex, then the communication needs to reflect that complexity. And secondly, experts need to prove their expert understanding of the situation. We’ve met many consultants who, in whispered conversation, also hate producing these, but it’s become a sort of lore that powerpoint is the mechanism, and density is the measure.

Designers often start out being taught the basics of visual design, so they tend to approach information design in a different way, and that pays dividends when you get into areas of complexity like service transformation, when shared understanding is so crucial. Powerpoint can still be the mechanism, but simplicity is the new measure.

The friction between old and new creates a new business landscape

Today, old and new forms of service transformation are rubbing up against one another. Tectonic plates shifting under each other’s weight. At Livework we’ve been working towards this for some time. For us, working with our clients on the border of design and management is where the magic happens. Being aware of these areas has helped us navigate to success on many projects, and we hope it will help you too.

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