Rare is the opportunity to come face to face with a reflection on theory-in-practice in a business setting.

A design, by its very nature is a strongly evidence-based and explicitly documented theory on “what you could and probably should do”. But no matter how strong the evidence base or compelling the insight and documentation, the client and environmental circumstance often makes the choice about what actually happens.

Over the past four years, we have worked with a large ICT Group who has been through much change, all of it intended to connect them as an internal enabling group to the customer and service-oriented world they operate in. Importantly, all of the change has been driven by a service design approach.

The hard work of moving from design (why and what do we need to do) through build (what we need to make) and implementation (making it operational) may be endorsed by top layers of management – which is absolutely critical – but the reality of the day-to-day is often led by those at Team Leader and EL2/Director* level. Those who have to do their jobs, lead their teams through the change, as well as cope with the change.

With service design, this is why we insist on those people being part of the design team itself. As we’ve said before, we believe, if you’re pragmatic designers the value of the design to the client is that it can be made, and that they, themselves, can make it. But as Yogi Berra said:

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice.
In practice there is.

As part of a recent workshop to engage the final area of the Group with the design they had been involved in shaping and work through next steps, we invited leaders from the middle-management (EL2) level to share their experiences after nine months of living and operationalising the design in practice.

Importantly, we asked them not to talk about what was in the design (value propositions, work flows, roles and responsibilities, etc), we asked them to share their experiences of ‘the design’ with their peers in the room about to go through the same thing.

Some of the highlights of what they shared included:

  • Some things you design don’t happen, but as a “not yet”, not “not at all”.”
  • Try things out before you embed – you will find adjustments to work, to the plan, to the vision.”
  • “See it working to make it work, that way you can evolve and fine tune.”
  • People will want to see an org chart, but do things in bite-size chunks so people can also see how you’re moving towards being service-oriented.”
  • We needed to make it work, but the design allowed us to translate the Executive vision into reality.”
  • “A final reflection for where I know you guys are, be patient – this stuff really does evolve.”

From our own reflections, we were able to conclude

  • The design met, and continues to meet a service intent.
  • The business and customer goals are being met – even as they evolve over time.
  • The elements of the design we knew to be most important – value proposition, design principles, conceptual framework – stayed true. While they were possibly the most visionary elements at the beginning and hard to connect with for some of the Team Leaders, the vision provided the common reference point for the leaders and practitioners to stay on track, adjust and evolve.
  • The process of engagement and true collaboration is critical so that the output isn’t the only thing remembered once build starts.
  • Never be afraid to invite the voices of past design work in.
  • When you do invite the voice in, let them talk as peers, not through you.

To be honest, when we asked our design collaborator in, we were a bit nervous. Our speaker had come from one of the most complex and impacted parts of the ‘new’ business. But we needn’t have been nervous – her words spoke of experience, and good or bad that’s at the heart of the design and the heart of the reflections we needed (and all designers should hear). Moreover, in light of some recent ongoing commentary about mediocrity in IT leadership in the public service, we needn’t have been worried because we are fortunate enough to work with these kinds of capable and brave public servants all the time.

*EL2 means and Executive Level employee in the Australian Public Service.