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Posted: 9 November 2023
By Stuart Church

How can service designers influence organisational culture?

The quality of a service experience is underpinned by the culture of the organisation that delivers it. But as designers it can be hard to tackle cultural factors. In this post, Stuart reflects on what he's learned about influencing culture in recent engagements.

Process maps on the well with post it notes on them
Capturing feedback from staff about potential process changes in a recent service design engagement.

The culture challenge

As service designers, our main focus is on creating better experiences for service users. And given that the user experience is underpinned by the way that the service operates, we often find that a shift in organisational culture is required to significantly improve the user experience.

Culture change is hard though, and can present a challenge for service designers. On one hand we are in a unique position to facilitate change. We can remain objective, operating at arms length to conduct research, analyse data and identify opportunities for improvement. We can also engage with service staff, taking them with us on our journey of discovery, convening important conversations and driving  consensus on what needs to be done.

On the other hand we can’t possibly understand the complex web of personalities, relationships and history that influence organisational culture. And we often lack the authority to make change happen.

So how do we enable culture shifts without overstretching? From my experience of working on public sector service design, I’ve have identified the following tactics, which I see as key to both service improvement and facilitating the cultural shifts required for service transformation to occur.

Define a shared vision

If you can’t clearly articulate the problem that you’re solving, it’s very hard to get buy-in from service staff and effect change. It also makes it difficult to gauge progress and demonstrate success, which is vital for taking people with you. So, at the start of a project we run workshops with stakeholders and service staff and work hard to agree a shared vision. This serves as a ‘north star’ for the project team, ensuring that everyone understands what we’re aiming for and why.

Listen to wider concerns

In stakeholder interviews, there are always a small number of service staff who will have specific (and entirely valid) bugbears that they’ve been dwelling on, and they may launch into detailed explanations of these bugbears at the first possible opportunity!

Whilst these topics don’t always fit neatly into any discussion guides that we might have spent hours crafting, we always allow space to listen. If you don’t hear people out, they will not want to engage on the topics you need them to talk about. And if you don’t manage to get through every topic in your discussion guide, there are usually opportunities later in the process to fill in some gaps.

Be transparent

If service staff feel that there’s a hidden agenda or that, as a service designer, you’re ‘on the side of management’ then you won’t easily get to the core of how the service is run, or be particularly effective in catalysing change.

We need to be open and transparent in our approach. If we approach stakeholder research with genuine curiosity and a lack of ego, and if we paint an honest picture of what we’re trying to achieve (the vision), we’ve found that staff will be more likely to engage and reveal critical process details and pain points.

It’s worth nothing that while a culture of openness is ideal, this won’t always be possible, especially when internal politics are at play. Therefore we always offer the option of anonymity when interviewing internal staff. We can still be transparent with our process and insights, even when staff identities are protected.

Provide progress updates and solicit feedback

We usually chunk project activities into 2-week sprints. This provides an opportunity to share progress with all service staff via a ‘show and tell’ at the end of each sprint.

Although it’s tempting to use the whole session to detail the amazing work that we’ve (hopefully) done, this shouldn’t be the sole focus. Show and tells provide a vital opportunity to engage with service staff,  and to encourage discussion and feedback.

Of course, some service staff may not feel qualified or confident enough to participate during these sessions. So we always provide (and encourage the use of!) alternative ways for staff to express their views.

Tailor your communications

Different staff within the service need different types of information about what’s happening.

Senior leaders tend to think more strategically. They need to understand how current progress will lead to success. And they need to know their objectives and concerns are being considered and communicated during discovery, and that any future service blueprint maps directly onto the outcomes that matter to them.

Frontline service staff, on the other hand, have detailed knowledge of the day to day processes and ways of working. Their focus is more likely to be on the way that any service changes will affect them operationally. The sooner they can understand or anticipate the likely direction of changes, the better.

Involve staff in solution design

At the end of a service design discovery phase for a local authority, we ran two ideation sessions with a combination of senior and frontline service staff. The staff were struggling to keep on top of things at that time, so there was some reluctance to give up even more time. However, with management buy-in we coaxed a range of people to attend the workshop.

We teed them up with a short presentation and collated the key evidence from our discovery research. Primed with that information, they fully engaged with the process and sketched out lots of ideas, some of which aligned with our own thinking, and some of which embellished it. But the most important outcome was that the staff were now energised by the opportunity to change. They felt heard. They felt hopeful. And they felt some sense of ownership of that change; it wasn’t just something that would be imposed on them.

In summary

Service design isn’t only about the quality of the research, opportunities, ideas and solutions it generates. It’s about enabling organisations to deliver change, and sometimes that requires a shift in organisational culture. As service designers we need to do what we can to enable that change, whilst recognising the limitations of our position.

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