Solutions don’t scale, questions do.

Soon after I joined Orange, in the dotcom dog days of 2000, I found myself in a series of meetings about “multimedia marketing” or somesuch. Looking back, those meetings were a fascinating front in the struggle between the free-as-in-speech-and-beer vision of the Internet and the fat margin, consumer protection nightmare of premium rate phone lines and SMS subscriptions. At the time, we naively believed those two world views might coexist.

We were chewing over the gnarly details of some billing system integration when a keen young marketing director ventured a suggestion that, even by the loose standards of the day, would have taken us to the more hucksterish end of the spectrum.

A hitherto silent software engineer looked up from his laptop and asked, “is that an Orange thing to do?”

Orange was then only 6 years old. It had already become the youngest company ever to enter the FTSE100, and twice been the subject of multi-billion pound takeovers. Next to its near contemporary New Labour, it must have a claim to have been the last great British brand of the 20th Century.

Staff numbers were increasing rapidly, customer numbers and revenues even faster. And the only way Hans Snook and his management team could handle such explosive growth was to trust their people, every last one of us.

The brand gave us permission to ask ourselves, and each other, that question: Is it Orange? Is it optimistic? Is it straightforward, honest, friendly, dynamic and refreshing? Frequently our answers fell short, but regardless of rank we all had the licence to ask and to answer. We knew intuitively what was and was not an Orange thing to do. The question forced us to imagine anew so many of the things that older, more ossified organisations tended to do unthinkingly.

Recently I’ve had conversations with several senior managers about their organisations’ nascent experiences with service design and design thinking. They’ve seen promising pilots and pockets of success around individual projects. In  these pockets, staff have been more engaged than ever before, formed new more collaborative relationships with groups of customers, and come up with new solutions to previously intractable problems. But what worries the bosses, they tell me, is how this stuff will scale.

I’m coming round to the view that many of the most effective solutions should never scale – because the moment we start prescribing policies and freezing repeatable business processes, we limit the capacity of those involved to add the human value that comes from being, well, people-centred in the first place.

We’ve trusted our alpha users and pilot project staff to think on their feet, to question everything, to learn by doing. Why wouldn’t we extend the same trust to all users, all service workers? Just think how many more, even better things all the other teams will be able to achieve when they’re given the same critical tools and permission to be curious.

In my experience, there’s much truth in the Hawthorne Effect:

The term was coined in 1950 by Henry A. Landsberger when analysing earlier experiments from 1924–32 at the Hawthorne Works (a Western Electric factory outside Chicago). The Hawthorne Works had commissioned a study to see if their workers would become more productive in higher or lower levels of light. The workers’ productivity seemed to improve when changes were made, and slumped when the study ended. It was suggested that the productivity gain occurred as a result of the motivational effect on the workers of the interest being shown in them.

It’s time we came to accept the Hawthorne Effect as a feature, not a bug in the social scientific method.

Solutions don’t scale, questions do. The trick is in inculcating the right questions.

I’ve been making an inventory of the powerful questions that form the bricolage of my service design practice:

My advice to leaders of organisations in early stage service design adoption: worry less about making the results of your pilots repeatable, and more about making those questions second nature. More people, asking more of those questions more often than before. That’s when we’ll know we’re really scaling up.

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