Now that’s what I call doing not talking

Doteveryone CEO Rachel Coldicutt’s Medium post, ‘What if tech conferences don’t matter that much?’ landed just as we were wrapping up Leeds GovJam 2017. Here’s me posing awkwardly with the awesome volunteer team who made this year’s event happen…

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Leeds GovJam volunteer team: Sharon, Tim, Emma, Kathryn, Tero, Lisa, Matt, Angela, Marie and Si

Every one of these people could, and should, stand on a platform and drop pearls of wisdom to an attentive audience. I would definitely pay to go to that conference.

But what the volunteer team did this week was more valuable than that: they modelled, coached, and mentored. They created a platform for others to perform.

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Leeds GovJam 2017 teams at work

Our jammers made many things:

  • 7 prototypes, tested and iterated multiple times within 48 hours
  • new connections across the public, private and third sectors
  • commitments to keep on working differently…

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At the jams, we have a hashtag for that — #doingnottalking.

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What are you doing? 10 years of continuous partial attention

Today, for me, marks a decade of 140 character updates, 10 years of paying continuous partial attention to hundreds of wonderful people around the world. So I downloaded my Twitter archive and munged it in an Excel pivot table. Here’s what I learned…

2006-2008: what are you doing?

2006 to 2008.png

Following just a handful of people, I first experienced Twitter as a text messaging service. SMS, remember that? Every message was an answer to a single, simple question: “What are you doing?”

Within a week I think I understood the archival potential…

And before the year was out, I had an inkling of Twitter’s fragility…

“the places whose main or only selling point is unspoiltness – places we go to witness or take part in something special, but just by being there we destroy whatever that quality was. The perfect village? The perfect bar? Twitter?” – blog post: Polperro

Along the way, I picked up on the emerging conventions of the platform…

My first @ message…

2009: a tipping point

2006 to 2016.png

My first proper use of a hashtag…

… and some reckons about what made this platform so compelling…

“Maybe it’s this merging of monologue and dialogue in one service that makes microblogging (or whatever you call it) so powerful a communications tool? One for those of us who, most of the time, are not very good at listening?” – Twitter: where monologues collide

Up to that point, I’d used Twitter to keep up with a particular group of remote friends and colleagues. In 2009, as I recall, the number of users in Leeds hit some kind of critical mass – it became a useful place for conversation about my home city.

In November that year, after a chance Twitter exchange, I lured the author Steven Johnson to Leeds to talk about a personal hero of mine, Joseph Priestley. It rained, and not that many people made it to the talk, but even so…

In fact, almost every fun thing I’ve been involved in since around that time, from Leeds Walkshops to the Global GovJam has been enabled and enriched by this platform…

2011-12: Re-de-centralisation

It’s far from perfect. Nervous of Twitter’s long-term future, quite a few of us tried to find more open alternatives. I managed 246 identi.ca updates before getting sucked back into the Twitter ecosystem. This single point of control in our communications infrastructure still makes me uneasy.

2012: Unfollowing all the brands and bots

“A few days ago I ran a critical index finger down my Twitter “friends” list, unfollowing a few dozen accounts that did not belong to real people… I’m delighted with the results: my Twitter feed suddenly feels so much more human.” – All brands must die (after a long and happy life)

Since then I’ve kept this rule. Sorry, brands and bots, if you have something interesting to say, I’m sure one of my real friends will pass it on.

In 2012, I left a well-paid, permanent job to freelance in the world of digital service design. I’m pretty sure those people, the people I follow, and who follow me back, made that possible.

Being myself, most of the time

Part of the privilege that comes with playing life on the lowest difficulty setting is being able to be myself on social media, without the need to compartmentalise or anonymise for fear of context collapse.  I’ve never felt the need to separate personal and professional identities or to create a closed account for family and friends. I am painfully aware that many others do not enjoy this freedom.

At the same time, Twitter’s liberal approach to multiple accounts and usernames has allowed me to play with the medium. I once spent a few months impersonating the revolutionary journalist Camille Desmoulins, mainly to improve my French language skills…

And I created a mute account so I could share my wonder at living in the future with someone who I knew would appreciate it: @my7yearoldself …

2016: Meet my awesome filter bubble

Over the years the number of people I follow has grown. There are just so many interesting people in the world. But analysing my tweets I found a core of about 30 people whose words I retweet time and again.

I made them into a list, and for the past few days I’ve been consulting this instead of checking my timeline. So far I’m liking the result. By sticking just to this list, I can have a sense of completion, without getting drawn into the endless duration of the infinite scroll.

There’s been a lot of talk over the past weeks and months about whether filter bubbles are a Bad Thing, the cause of mutual mistrust across seemingly unbridgeable divides. My take: everyone needs a filter bubble. How awful would life be without like-minded people to share and reinforce beliefs and interests? Twitter’s asymmetrical follower model and untampered timeline have afforded the possibility of curating my filter bubble in a more controlled and transparent way than other social media platforms. I hope they keep those features. The risk arises when we mistake that bubble for the whole world, with everyone outside it as the Other.

This is my personal filter bubble. Sometimes I need to step outside it, but it’s an awesome bubble to be in. Thank you all…

Many others, not on this list, have also contributed to making Twitter great for me – thank you too.

In fact, in 10 years of following fairly liberally, only twice have I unfollowed someone because their ragey tweets were polluting my timeline. Again, I am aware that others have far worse online experiences. Some of the people whose tweets I have most enjoyed are no longer on Twitter. That’s a terrible shame. The platform’s owners and users must work harder to make it a safe place.

Some facts and figures

  • 9188 tweets
  • 6871 with an @
  • 3247 retweets
  • 2661 replies
  • 2570 accounts mentioned
  • 2313 with a #
  • 1210 uses of the pronoun “I”
  • 93 accounts mentioned more than 20 times each
  • 23 clients and connected apps used to tweet

My tweets

Here’s a word cloud of my tweets – 2006-2016…

Screenshot 2016-11-18 21.15.17.png

… and finally the 14 times I tweeted just a single word…

  • Annotating
  • Walking
  • Docked
  • roflysst
  • Haircut!
  • CDG3
  • LBIA
  • Snow!
  • Asleep
  • Awake
  • Wrapped
  • Wrapping
  • North
  • Baclava!

The experiment continues.

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An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768

In shared light: why making thing visible makes things better

“In Elizabethan amphitheatres, like the 1599 Globe Theatre, performances took place in ‘shared light’. Under such conditions, actors and audiences would be able to see each other… This attention to a key original playing condition of Shakespeare’s theatre enables the actors to play ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ or ‘at’ audiences. Actors therefore develop their ability to give and take focus using voice, gesture and movement.” — Emma Rice to Step Down From London’s Shakespeare’s Globe, Playbill, Oct 25, 2016

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Phil Glockner, the Original Starbucks

Early, too early, one morning I blunder into a railway station Starbucks for a coffee and croissant to take onto the train. I’m the only customer. I place my order and shuffle along to the end of the counter where the barista will hand down my drink.

What happens next in the customer experience is critically important. We know that Starbucks knows this too, because of a leaked 2007 memo from chairman Howard Schultz, in which he bemoaned the commoditisation of his brand:

“For example, when we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocca machines. This specific decision became even more damaging when the height of the machines, which are now in thousands of stores, blocked the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista.”

As I said, it was early, much too early for an intimate experience with a barista. And in any case, the barista was still learning the ropes. I guess first thing on a shift, when there’s one customer and no queue, is a great time for some coaching from the supervisor. This is what I heard him say:

“You have 23 seconds for the milk… Oh, and relax. You can’t concentrate when you’re stressed.”

23 seconds! That’s what removed the romance from my coffee.

“You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanise them.” John Ruskin, The Nature of Gothic

Some things in this carefully commodified service experience were never meant to be seen by the customer. When they do burst into view, it feels wrong, uncanny.

In this post I want to explore the reasons for that uncanniness, and how we might play with it to develop new service opportunities. Is it really so obvious what should and should not be visible to the user? What’s the impact on users when a component slips out of sight? And how might we make service better by keeping more things, more visible for longer?

The line of visibility

Some rights reserved - JP Swizzlespokes
JP Swizzlespokes, Experience Design wk05 #whiteboard

The line of visibility is a well-known concept in the fields of customer experience management and service design. To use, like Howard Schultz, a theatrical metaphor, it divides the service blueprint into front-stage activities seen by the customer, and back-stage ones unseen by the customer but nonetheless essential to the delivery of the service.

In the coffee shop:

  • Front-stage: the theatre and romance of taking the order, writing the customer’s name on a cup, grinding the beans, making the coffee, presenting the coffee to the customer
  • Back-stage: the operational efficiency of managing rosters, training staff, timing operations, replenishing stock, and so on.

At first glance, the allocation of activities to front or back-stage appears uncontroversial. In reality, it is much murkier, and deserves more critical attention:

  • A restaurant might make a show of fresh food preparation with an open kitchen on full view to the diners, but still have a room behind the scenes for the freezers and dishwashers.
  • Recently, after returning a hire car, I was given a lift by a new member of staff. The conversation we had about the rental company’s graduate scheme made me warm to the company and more likely to return.
  • Much has been written about the 8 simple words on the underside of the machine on which I’m typing this now: ‘Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China‘.

Visibility and the value chain

I’ve been thinking about visibility in the context of whole value chain maps. In his mapping technique, Simon Wardley arranges components from the most visible user needs at the top to the unseen at the bottom:

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A value chain – wardleymaps.com

In this interpretation, visibility is said to recede as we traverse the network – the more “hops” away from the customer, the less it needs to concern them. But is that really true?

Invisible things can have very visible effects. Amazon’s recommendation engine is deeply buried in the company’s infrastructure, yet customers experience its insights and biases every time they use the site.

Visible things may get up to all sorts of unseen activities. What if that camera or video recorder in the corner is participating in a distributed denial of service attack right now?

Invisibility and commodification

barcoded wood

Why is it that some things naturally seem to merit visibility while others have to hide themselves from view?

I think it has to do with commodification. To turn something into a commodity is to take it out of its context, to make it fungible so that it can be substituted, traded and transferred. In an example by the philosopher Andrew Feenberg:

a tree is cut down and stripped of its branches and bark to be cut into lumber. All its connections to other elements of nature except those relevant to its place in construction are eliminated.

This is what people are doing when they commit metaphorical sleights of hand such as “data is the new oil“. They take something that has deep meaning to an individual and, by aggregation, transform it into something that can be traded without further challenge or debate.

The logic of commodification prohibits the end user from interest in, or influence over, anything but the surface-level components. Before we know it, any breach of the line of visibility feels illegitimate. From Fairtrade foodstuffs to the employment rights of Uber drivers, demands to deepen visibility into the supply chain come to be seen as “political” incursions in the supposedly rational domains of technological production and economics.

Consider the much-maligned EU cookie directive.

Unregulated, the behemoths of the attention economy would place all their tracking of users below the line of visibility. “Users don’t need to know about that stuff,” they’d say. “It’s technical detail. Nothing to worry about. Move along now.” The Jobsterbedunners might even hold up web users’ continued browsing of sites in such compromised circumstances as some kind of “revealed preference” for covert tracking.

But people who care about privacy have a different opinion on where the line should be drawn. Their only option is a “political” intervention to drag the publicity-shy cookie blinking over the line of visibility. Now Europe’s internautes can take back control, every time they visit a website. Say what you like about the implementation, but we Brits will miss those privacy protections when they’re gone.

Shared light

What if there was another way to realise value? One that didn’t depend on enclosing the value chain by making it opaque to end users?

To Feenberg, decontextualisation is “primary instrumentalisation” the first part of a two-step process:

The primary instrumentalisation initiates the process of world making by de-worlding its objects in order to reveal affordances. It tears them out of their original contexts and exposes them to analysis and manipulation while positioning the technical subject for distanced control…

But the story doesn’t end there. There’s a crucial, secondary step where visibility has to be re-established:

At the secondary level, technical objects are integrated with each other as the basis of a way of life. The primary level simplifies objects for incorporation into a device, while the secondary level integrates the simplified objects to a social environment.

Through this secondary instrumentalisation, this resource integration, users tell us what they want technology to be. Think, for example, of the camera-phone as a concept worn smooth by countless buying and use decision over the course of a decade. This part of the value creation process cannot happen in strategy and planning; it can only happen in use.

Premature commodification would close down such possibilities just when we ought to be keeping our options open. Co-creation, on the other hand, places the service user, the service designer, and the service provider on the same side – and all of us play in all those positions at one time or another.

We maximise value when the interests of all the actors are aligned, when asymmetries of knowledge between them are reduced. To borrow another controversial theatrical analogy, co-creation flourishes in “shared light” when actors and audiences can see each other equally.

  • Not only do we see the coffee being made, we see the staff being trained.
  • We are no longer passive recipients of the recommendation algorithm, we can understand why and how it behaves.

Some service design patterns

Here are just some of the patterns that play with the line of visibility. By making things visible, they make things better.

Seeing over the next hill: We meet much of the most valuable service when facing a change or challenge for the first time. But unless we know what to expect, it’s hard for us to make decisions in our best interests, or to trust others seeking to support us. Deliver service so that people can always see over the next hill, so they know what to expect, what good looks like, and who they can trust to help them along the journey.

Provenance: People can take reflective pride in where their things come from – and be repulsed by a supply chain’s dirty secrets. Design like they’re watching. Document the journey and make it part of the service. My Fairphone may have been a little pricier than an equivalent smartphone, but it comes with a story of fair materials, good working conditions, reuse and recycling.

Individualisation: Service is intrinsically full of variation. When we treat its delivery like factory mass production, we make it inflexible, unresponsive, and ultimately destructive of value. Anticipate variation, embrace it and celebrate it. This will likely means fewer targets and processes, more self-organising, empowered teams. Be like homecare organisation Buurtzorg, which prioritises “humanity over bureaucracy” and “maximises patients’ independence through training in self-care and creation of networks of neighbourhood resources.”

A last word from actor-network theorist Michel Callon in his afterword to Feenberg’s ‘Between Reason and Experience’:

“Keeping the future open by refraining from making irrevocable decisions that one could eventually regret, requires vigilance, reflection, and sagacity at all times. Politics, as the art of preserving the possibility of choices and debate on those choices, is therefore at the heart of technological dynamics.”

Put down all behaviour hurtful to informality!

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Among my favourite times working at Orange – and there were many – was the chance to lead the UK organisation’s design and usability team, doing user-centred design across the mobile and broadband business units.

At the start of the assignment I talked with heads of all the teams whose services we worked on, to understand what was going well and what, not so well. Two divergent patterns emerged.

Managers whose services were performing highly praised our responsiveness. They liked how designers could blend into their teams without the bureaucracy that bedevilled some other parts of the organisation. These were also the services where Design and Usability made the biggest difference. We were involved early, consulted often, and tuned in to their priorities.

The not-so-happy on the other hand, expected our work to be more transactional. They would involve design late, with precise requirements and arbitrary timelines. Their instinctive reaction when things were going wrong was to impose an even tighter rein.

And therein lay the problem: far from making things better, all the added controls would drag us even further away from the conditions that correlated most highly with success.

What high-performing teams had found – and struggling ones were missing – was a magical quality I’ve come to understand as “productive informality” – spontaneous, personal, and collaborating as equals.

I wrote about this a while ago in my post about digital transformation. In productive informality we see less forward planning, more ambient awareness, and the levelling effect of information abundance.

This post is an attempt to unpack that quality, to explain to myself as much as to you, dear reader, why those two words belong together. But first I need to define what I have in mind by productivity, and how we can think about it in a service-dominant world.

Productivity

When we talk about “productivity” in a general economic sense we mean the rate of output per unit of input. Dictionary example: “workers have boosted productivity by 30 per cent.”

You probably picture productivity as identical widgets rolling smoothly off some some sort of production line, so dominant is the manufacturing metaphor in our economy. But most of what we do at work isn’t like that at all: it’s service.

Productivity in service is infinitely variable. This means that optimising for repeatable, well-known processes with narrow tolerance is actually the fastest way to leave value lying on the table.

Instead we have to tune in to the needs of customers, no two of whom are alike. Only through continuous, informal communication can we discern and meet the full, diverse, messy, constantly shifting range of customer needs. Great service demands tolerance and curiosity.

Listen to the words of Jos de Blok, of home care organisation Buurtzorg Nederland, a poster child for people-centred health and care:

“I believe in client-centered care, with nursing that is independent and collaborative. The community-based nurse should have a central role – after all they know best how they can support specific circumstances for the client.”

Recently, applying for a place on a government framework contract, we were asked to affirm that we “ensure consistent delivery of quality to our customers”. So now Stick People has a quality policy. It goes like this:

We’re a service business. We understand quality as a moving target, defined and re-defined by our customers’ changing expectations, perceptions and experiences. To succeed we’ll have to consistently question and improve the way we work:

  • focusing and framing a better understanding of customers’ capabilities and needs
  • translating that understanding into clear agreements to work with them
  • keeping our promises and earning their trust
  • making work visible and inspecting progress
  • adopting and inventing better ways of working
  • closing every engagement to our own and our customers’ satisfaction.

As someone once said, the strategy is delivery. Only when we start to deliver, do we earn the trust that enables us to deliver more.

Informality

Like the butterfly at the top of this post, informality is impossible to pin down without fatal consequences. But this much we know: informality grows from trust.

Informality has, of course, always greased the wheels of business – and more so at the highest levels – the camaraderie of the boardroom, of the golf course, of Tony Blair’s “sofa government”.

Neither is it a novel insight that great groups operate informally. Take Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman in ‘Organising Genius‘:

Great Groups tend to be less bureaucratic than ordinary ones. Terribly talented people often have little tolerance for less talented middle managers. Great Groups tend to be structured, not according to title, but according to role. The person who is best able to do some essential task does it.

No matter how much we benefit from it inside an organisation, sometimes it’s scary to allow informality into the open. Exhibit this Alphagov Github commit:

Removed para about using cuddly toys and fruit as props in meetings.
Removed this para as it deviates from the authoritative tone. Some users may not find this puts GDS in a suitable light: 

To stop your meetings from becoming repetitive, have an object that you (gently) throw to someone to signify they should speak next. Pick people at random - it keeps people on their toes and lets the person speaking to choose the person they wish to hear from next. At GDS we use cuddly toys or a piece of fruit. It’s a bit of fun. You don’t have to this - it’s just something to experiment with.

The pattern

I believe productive informality is more than nice to have: it forms a virtuous circle that we can turn to our advantage:

  • Service productivity builds trust
  • Trust engenders informality
  • Informality is the route to richer, faster learning
  • Continual learning is essential for any service to be productive

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In this, we can see echoes of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development.  These are more than just cultural preferences, they are pre-conditions for productivity:

Screenshot 2016-02-04 14.41.23.png

Boldness and humanity

The longer this katamari of a blog post has sat in my drafts folder, the more it has accumulated examples and tangents and one-more-things:

Janet Hughes on boldness:

I’ve always been drawn to boldness. I find boldness in others inspiring, infectious, empowering, creative and meaningful. I want to spend time around bold, honest, open people. I want to be inspired and empowered to boldness myself. I know I am at my best when I can feel the weird whoosh of terror and relief that comes from real, heartfelt boldness. And I don’t think you can lead a great team, or transform organisations or services without a healthy amount of boldness.

Leanne Buchan’s new approach to a new Leeds Culture Strategy:

One thing that is already different is that what you are reading, hopefully, doesn’t feel like a council document for consultation. It is written in the voice of a person not an organisation and not just the foreword. This voice is the voice of Leanne Buchan: Council worker; Human with ideas and opinions; Sometimes gets it right, sometimes gets it wrong.

You’ll hear bold, human voices like these wherever good work is going on. People working at pace, making good progress, don’t need to dress up their words with technical jargon or commercial buzzwords. They have no fear of a burning platform. The way they talk about their work in their own natural voice is a sign of intrinsic pleasure from doing good work.

The anti-pattern

I reckon we should always stand our ground on cuddly toys and fruit lest the virtuous circle turns into a vicious one:

  • Increased formality dulls and slows our ability to understand customer needs
  • As a result we end up further away from doing good work
  • Poor performance leads to demands for tighter formal control. And so on…

New Mockup 1 copy.png

Start down this road and before we know it the good principles of the Agile Manifesto will be smothered in the cakewreck of so-called “best practice” (the very presumption of claiming that this is as good as it gets!) …

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Call to arms

Productive informality might just be a critical dividing line for our time.

There’s a growing impatience and disillusionment with the old ways of working. We are fed up with convoluted contracts. We reject processes structured around organisations not users. We are less enamoured of the arcane ways of parliament and political parties.

Many of the issues that anger people today seem to me to come down to unfair distribution of access to informality. Uber is criticised when it treats drivers with a harshness inconsistent with its brand for riders. Small businesses demand that HMRC cut them the same slack that it appears to offer to Google, Vodafone and Starbucks.

We are at a crossroads where digital technology can be used to enhance or extinguish informal ways of working – to promote spontaneity or enforce process conformance. As makers with that technology, whose side are we on?

In the industrial England of the 1810s, the Luddites destroyed machines that threatened their way of work and life. Contrary to popular belief, they were not against all machines. Their complaints were more nuanced, understanding all too well the relationship between technology and social change. In the words of their fictional figurehead Ned Ludd:

“We will never lay down our Arms… [until] the House of Commons passes an Act to put down all Machinery hurtful to Commonality,”

And so 200 years later, this is our demand: put down all behaviour hurtful to informality!

YClPcxm

Most of government is mostly service design most of the time. Discuss.

Without exception, everyone I meet in the public sector wants to help make their service better. Most of them are in some way frustrated. The domain is massive and the activities disjointed. People engaged in any given service – from users and frontline workers down to managers and policymakers – can go for months on end without coming into contact with each other. On the rare occasions they do meet, they generally do so with mutual incomprehension.

This is not exclusively a government problem. I know from my time as a product manager in the private sector that a similar malaise affects all big organisations. But when it happens in government the impact of poor service is graver. This is service delivered with the authority of the state. As users we cannot take our government custom elsewhere. Neither can public service providers cherry pick their customers like the private sector does.

Whether we realise or not, most of government is mostly service design most of the time. If we fail to acknowledge this, we’re doomed to short change our citizens and fall short of our policy goals. But when we wake up to the potential, we find proven tools and techniques for designing service. Applying them can and should be everyone’s business.

We only have to look at definitions of “government” and “service design” to find a naturally good fit.

Exhibit A: The Institute for Government’s Whitehall Monitor summarises the business of government under the following headings:

  • the resources available to government (ministers, money, civil servants)
  • how government manages them (through arm’s-length bodies or contracting), what it does with them (passing legislation, answering requests for information) and how it measures what it does (major projects, permanent secretary objectives), and
  • what impact all of that has in the real world and how the public and international studies rate government effectiveness.

… which is nice because, Exhibit B, the Service Design Network defines its members’ practice thus:

“Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers.”

We may call it many things, but service design happens all the time at every level of the government stack. The problem is that when done unconsciously it’s just not very good. All of the following contain random acts of design by default…

  • Users work their way around complex government processes, even if it means hiring costly experts like lawyers or accountants to do it for them.
  • Frontline staff hack the process just so they can serve their customers better. Visit any contact centre to see tattered papers, sticky notes by screens, Dymo-labelled folders and trays put in place to expedite information from one part of the process to another.
  • Good managers manage with ingenuity to sort out shift patterns, holiday rotas and flexible working so that their people can do their best work – in spite of policies and processes that treat workers more as resources than as human beings.
  • Entire, organisations-within-organisations accrete with baroque titles such as “change management” to drive through discontinuous re-structures that fracture working relationships and frustrate any long-term organisational learning.
  • “Policy” is a Platonic conception perceived to exist on a higher plane where users are always rational, processes run smoothly and every day is a sunny one. By the time we descend to the grubby depths of “implementation” it’s already too late.
  • Our democracy itself still runs on rails laid in Victorian times, as if the population were barely literate onlookers and the parties the houses of a minor public school on a bad-tempered match day.

Everywhere there are gaps. With their 1985 Gaps Model of Service Quality, Parasuraman et al. posited 5 types of them.

gaps model

All 5 gaps are endemic in public service. Design shouldn’t just be used to paper over them: it can eliminate them altogether. As Tom Loosemore said in his Code for America talk last year describing the Government Digital Service’s approach:

“We don’t talk about policy and implementation or policy and then delivery. We don’t think of them as two separate things. Even thinking how you fix the gap is a category error. What we are doing here collectively, with policy people in the room, is digital service design.”

(Disclosure: It’s my privilege to work as a contractor for GDS, though like everything on this blog I write this in a personal capacity.)

Let’s look at those gaps again.

  1. Gap between what customers expect and what managers think they expect. We seek and expose user insights, not just at the start or end of the process, but throughout. There’s good evidence that everyone on the team should spend at least 2 hours every 6 weeks observing primary, qualitative research. How about we make that a prerequisite for Permanent Secretaries, council CEOs, and everyone else not in direct day-to-day contact with service users?
  2. Gap between management perception and service specification. Even when we understand what users need, we have to get better at translating that insight into a vision of the service. We can use powerful formats such as user stories to tie requirements back to users and their goals. The best specifications of all can be real working prototypes. Making prototypes is easier than ever.
  3. Gap between specification and delivery. Alpha and beta versions are what we use to close this gap. They help us understand the ins and outs of delivery even as we refine our designs.
  4. Gap between promise to customers and what’s actually delivered. Ever been sold a Tesla only to find it’s a Sinclair C5? In the words of this tweet, “how could we get Britain voting on prototypes rather than promises?”
  5. Gap between what customers expect of service and how they actually perceive it. This yawning chasm is the cumulative effect of gaps 1 to 4. It is also the main driver of disappointment and distrust in public services. One bad experience loops back round and poisons our expectations of future interactions with government – a downward spiral that we need to disrupt.

How can we make government better? By accepting that first and foremost everyone’s a designer, and that we all need to develop a design thinking sensibility.

Besides relentless people-centricity – intellectually and empathetically understanding users, tasks and environments – service design practice has some distinctive characteristics:

  • Service design is visual. This doesn’t mean you have to be great at drawing – but it does demand working with more than words. When we draw pictures and diagrams we engage a different part of our brains and spot things we would miss through written specification alone. Making those assets visible can feel scary at first. That’s worth it though, because they change the conversation into something much more constructive than any amount of finessing verbal positions and semantics.
  • Service design is multidisciplinary. ISO 9241-210, the international standard for human-centred design acknowledges that no one discipline has a monopoly on design. Rather, “the design team includes multidisciplinary skills and perspectives.” This is a challenge to a silo-ed way of working, but small “two-pizza” teams in startups and internet giants like Amazon and Google prove it can be done.
  • Service design is holistic and integrative. Good designers of any stripe look at the big picture – what is the user need? what is the policy intent? – but they don’t stop there. They also dive down into the details and forge novel combinations of components. They hold multiple, potentially contradictory, strands in tension, zooming in and out between the reasons for doing something and the details of delivery that will make it succeed.
  • Service design is iterative. Whenever I read an account of Apple’s development process I am struck by the number of versions and iterations their products and services go through. They create and test many ideas before narrowing down on a handful to develop further. Just at the point when lesser companies would settle and launch they throw all the cards in the air and create yet more new combinations.
  • Finally, service design treats time as a material. There’s a place for thinking and working fast, and one for being slow and considered. A food bank user needs assistance before the next mealtime while a retiree of 60 needs to think what money they might need aged 100. Big service providers get stuck too easily in the middle of Stewart Brand’s pace layers. Service design helps them to be more supple.

Pace Layering

Don’t believe me? Try this stuff out for yourself. In June I’m taking part in the Global GovJam. It’s not a ‘designers’ event, just people designing together. For 48 hours we break down silos between local and national government, the NHS and social care, public, private and third sectors. We challenge people to communicate their ideas through doing, not talking. They make prototypes and take them out to potential users when they still feel incomplete. And the buzz as people realise how much they can achieve in so little time is amazing. Come and join us in Leeds or in dozens of other cities around the world.

I ♥︎ Dots: Why I signed Martha Lane Fox’s petition

DOT EVERYONE

I love that the working title of Martha Lane Fox’s proposed new public institution is Dot Everyone.

Yes, the “everyone” bit is like motherhood and apple pie. It’s important, but it’s not a strategy.

But dots (and we all know that @ signs are so last decade, don’t we?), dots are cool.

Dots are a strategy.

Because when people talk about “small pieces loosely joined” they are really talking about dots. Dots between the levels in a domain name make the Internet what it is, a network of networks. “blog dot mattedgar dot com” – speak them softly, but never gloss over them. With dots, we have an infinitely scalable, massively distributed, highly resilient system. Without dots, it would be one big centralised brittle of data.

Lots of things in life besides hypertext pages can be enhanced with this spirit of savage resilience.

So after reading the text of the Dimbleby lecture, I had no hesitation in signing the petition to establish a new public body. In Martha’s words the new institution would “prioritise three areas that best demonstrate the opportunities we should be grabbing with both hands: education, women and ethics.”

These things are all important to me because the people of the world hold the web in common. Yet many in this country and beyond are still not getting their share. Instead we risk enclosure by a monocultural “tech” establishment incapable of imagining the best the web could be.

The Internet should set people free to realise their full potential through learning, work and play. Increasingly that will mean doing all three of those things at the same time.

In David Ogilvy’s words, “diversity turns out to be the mother of invention (not necessity, as the mechanists thought).” Only human diversity can confer legitimacy. Only human inventiveness can create capacity. We’ll need both to do battle with the powerful interests that will otherwise bend our future out of shape.

Everything about this new institution should be considered in the open:

  • the location (not London-by-Default, please)
  • the way it co-creates with users (proven people-centred service design tools are available)
  • the way it delivers (less Gantt, more Git).

Let’s make it an institution that is not just on the web or about the web, but truly of the web. That’s why I ♥︎ Dots.

The Last Target Operating Model You’ll Ever Need™

I first wrote this as a comment on Joel Bailey’s excellent blog post titled ‘This thing called agile might kill us all’ but thought it worth re-hashing and expanding here.

For context, Joel writes about “working for a big high street bank. The brief is to redesign the ‘end to end mortgage experience’. The timescale is to reach a business case, with a roadmap of delivery waves to achieve minimum viable product, within 6 weeks. ”

He floats the idea of a Target Customer Experience as counterpoint to that change management staple, the Target Operating Model.

I’ve had recent experience with a “TOM”, attempting to intercept with an agile, digital project. It left me puzzled, and I’m grateful to Joel’s post for helping me clarify my unease.

In case you haven’t come across one before, the TOM is a Thing in the world of “change management,” defined on Wikipedia as:

a description of the desired state of the operations of a business. Typically a TOM also includes the roadmap over time that specifies what the company needs to do to move from the “as is” to the “to be”.

For the service designers among you, a typical TOM covers similar turf to Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, only with fewer sticky notes and more spreadsheets.

As an aside on his nascent agile project, Joel writes about the toll it takes on participants:

someone needs to write a Marxist evaluation of agile. Yes the outcome is better and it’s all very sexy and new and ‘oh so right’, but I suspect the cost on the worker is high as essentially it speeds production and works the asset of production (you and me) harder.

… which immediately set me thinking that if people are using “agile” to mean doing the same process only faster, even at the risk of burning out their people, then they’re Doing It Wrong.

I reached for the 8th of the Agile Manifesto Principles:

Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

And that’s when I realised the real challenge to peddlers of TOMs and the like: agile transformation isn’t a one-off thing that you do to get from A to B – it’s a continuous culture of iterative improvement.

Agile organisations succeed through sensing, not planning.

  • They are in touch with their actual customer experience (not just some brand fantasy). This is the dirty secret of much Target Operating Model work. A warts-and-all “as is” picture is far more valuable than any amount of “to be” prognostication – but even if that’s what executives secretly wish for, no consultant can afford to say out loud “I’ll tell you the time if you show me your watch”. Sadly the picture TOM processes do generate is often missing empathy, the key ingredient that spurs the organisation’s people on to make things better for their customers.
  • They truly understand their operating model (clue: it won’t look like a flow chart). Organisations are nothing more than systems made of, and by, people. They’re complex social constructs that operate on emotional as well as financial planes. This is what agile understands when it says “individuals and interactions over processes and tools”. To map an organisation by decomposition is to follow in the footsteps of the early Cartesians, dissecting a dog to prove it has no soul.
  • They have the capacity to make very frequent adaptations in response to their ever-growing understanding of customer needs. Being able to respond quickly to what you learn beats any amount of predicting and planning. Embracing diversity means pushing decision-making to the frontline. This in turn reduces the waste inherent in standardised processes. Let’s cultivate this as a core competency of every organisation. If we never get stuck in a rut, we’ll never require a “change programme” to jolt us out again – and that should come as a relief to all concerned.

All of this poses problems to an organisation addicted to discontinuous change. We’ll have to break down the Berlin Wall between the bits of an organisation that create “strategy” and the bits that do “operations”. Likely, product development can no longer be capitalised, so the balance sheet might appear worse before it gets better.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the only sane way to run an organisation.

Learning by doing: it’s the Last Target Operating Model You’ll Ever Need™