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The soft stuff is the hard stuff

Blog by Lynne Wardle of Taylor Haig

The application of design to public services is not new.   A quick Google search will reveal numerous case studies and agencies offering to redesign services, starting from the ‘users’ experience’. However, when talking with colleagues from various design agencies, their frustration is often the same; how can we raise design from good looking graphics, novel toolkits and one-off service improvements, to a more sustainable and strategic response to organisational challenges?

In Better by Design, the organisations that applied to take part were not looking for a one-off fix.   Rather than seeking to redesign a single service, the majority wanted to apply design methods to redesign their business model, introduce new, more user-focused ways of working and get off the ‘hamster-wheel’ of short-term, output-driven funding.  The focus of the design effort was not so much on a service as on the organisation itself.

Taking a strategic design approach means moving from looking at the pieces, the individual services, to looking at the whole – the organisation itself, its system, culture and processes.  While there are numerous examples of service redesign, there are fewer examples of the design-leadership necessary to embed design at a strategic level and use it to continually and sustainably increase impact.  In Better by Design, the chief executives of the participating organisations have stepped forward as pioneers to develop their design leadership and create the conditions within their organisations to enable sustainable change.

In the early stages of Better by Design, many of those taking part said they were unsure of the language and fuzzy nature of the iterative design process.  We are conditioned to drive for solutions but design encourages us to spend more time exploring problems.  At first this can feel frustrating and uncomfortable but with practice we find that fresh perspectives can help to reframe problems and identify new opportunities.  The leadership challenge is to create the space for this exploration, to encourage questioning without fear of blame and to remain open to insights that might challenge the operation at a fundamental level.

In seeking to understand the potential of design approaches in public services renewal, the Design Commission invited Barry Quirk, Chief Executive of Lewisham Council, and Baroness Kingsmill to lead an inquiry, seeking evidence from a wide range of people, at home and abroad, involved in redesigning services.  Their report, Restarting Britain, sets out their findings and recommendations and concludes that,

 “The really hard work is in making the space for change to happen, which is often about paying attention to the internal dynamics of the organisation, sometimes about getting public buy-in, but always about thinking about the behaviours and contexts of everyone interacting with the system.”

 We have spent quite some time in Better by Design looking at relationships with people using services, with stakeholders, funders and one with another.  We’ve identified patterns within organisations that help or hinder change.  We’ve engaged in new and different conversations and identified opportunities for improvement.   This is the work of human-centred design.  The soft stuff – creating the conditions for change – is the hard stuff.

As we move forward through the next stages of Better by Design, we hear people ready and hungry for action, to design and implement concrete changes that have a positive impact on the people who benefit from your services.   As culture changes in conversation, outcomes change in action.  These next few months will see a lot of action as we work together on prototyping, testing and implementing change.  But Better by Design is just the beginning.  The leadership within each organisation, at all levels, will remain, the conversations will continue and new networks, relationships and ideas will continue to develop.  The test of Better by Design is not the new services you will deliver but the way in which the approach is embedded within each organisation as your own.

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