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It’s a Working Ranch: How to Bring Service Design to Your Organization

Posted December 17, 2015

Picture this. You’re a new service designer, in a new role, and you’re on a mission to build out capacity, create capability, and deliver on whatever promise it’s assumed service design makes. Maybe those things were asked of you. The more likely case is that you were never specifically asked to do any of those things. You took it on yourself. After all, you’re the type of person to take on an all new role in an ambiguously defined domain.

This is a topic I am intimately familiar with. 2 years ago, I stepped in as Intuit’s first service designer. I’ve gone through a steady series of challenges and triumphs as I continue to build out capacity and capability, spreading service design throughout our product and service organization. In that time, I’ve had the chance to present at multiple conferences, developed training workshops, and started a community of service designers (join it here). And I’ve noticed a pattern.

There’s a topic of discussion that comes up again and again, “How do you introduce service design to an organization, and build the capacity to enable it?” That question is difficult to answer. It’s the middle-altitude zone between the solid ground of “here are techniques and artifacts” and the blue-sky of “here’s service design as an ideology!”

The Working Ranch

To tell this story, I’m going to use an analogy that was passed on to me many, many years ago. “The working ranch” it was called. The idea that a company can’t stop or slow down just to try something new. If you want to hang, you have to find ways to do it without disrupting the current system too much.

At the time, as a younger designer, I resented it. I wanted to buck the system. I thought if I was just clever enough, tenacious enough, and bold enough, I could swing my lasso and drag an organization over to a new way of thinking. Oh how wrong I was.

Here are 6 fundamental lessons and questions to ask yourself. Grab a pen or open your favorite document editor, because this is an interactive article.

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(Warning: rancher and cowboy lingo ahead)

It’s a living entity, treat it as such

A working ranch is a complex machine, with little to no ability to coast on its own inertia. It doesn’t rest, it doesn’t stop. For a ranch to be successful, it must continually produce and continually sustain itself. Unlike a farm, a ranch is a place of constant movement, herding animals, feeding them, protecting them, buying and selling, birthing and butchering. The ranchers work morning to night. The ranch works because there is a complex system in place; the system is designed to keep the ranch alive, and meddling with the system is meddling with what keeps us all fed and clothed.

Successful companies have to operate in much the same way. There’s routine and structure, practices that keep the organization working and producing. If the company has been around for a while, it’s probably knows fairly well what has got it to where it is today. The practices that are established serve a purpose – even if to the outside observer they appear inefficient or arcane.

This Rancher’s Example: The first true set of service design projects I was tasked with were all related to our desktop software. While QuickBooks is transitioning to be our premiere cloud based solution, desktop still is a popular source of revenue and customers. So there I was, as a child-of-the-internet, designing solutions around a product we can launch and update essentially once a year. Having to take a step back and empathize with the plight of a fat-client, desktop software team was a whole new mindset for me to empathize with.

The most pointed advice I can give you right of the git-go – branded right into your hide – is to make yourself have empathy for the working ranch. If you’re not able to see, understand, and validate the current state and function of the system’s parts, you’ve already lost. You must drop the arrogance of thinking you know better before you’ve even spent a day breaking your back and working your hands raw, let alone the years of calloused palms well worn boots.

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Your goal is to first find ways to fit in and plan your approach from the mindset of appealing to the ranch’s interests. You’re a facilitator now, a catalyst. The ranch’s goals are now your goals.

LESSON 1

Find real empathy for your organization, and define how the status quo serves a purpose and is important. Until you can see how the present situation serves them organization, you won’t be able to have any influence with it.

Write down why the system works today, and how it serves the company’s success.

Find the fences and understand their purpose

Joining an organization as an in-house resource is nothing like working at an agency or as a contracted resource. You’re not outside trying to influence the system, you’re now a part of the system. Welcome aboard, now here’s your boots, rope, and hat. Now git to rustlin’ those dogies.

Whoever had the desire and motivation to hire you had a reason. There’s a good chance that parts of the ranch aren’t running as well as they could be. Or, there’s a desire to do something new that they don’t have the capacity for. More than likely, it was to start to drive some change and to help the company do old things in new ways, or to do net-new things altogether.

You’re going to have to build capacity and influence change from the inside, causing tolerable disruptions just big enough to not degrade the existing system. This can start with education and looking for opportunities to join in the conversation, feeling out where the pain is internally so you can position yourself to be ready to help. It’s a working ranch, it’s not going to stop because someone with (or without) the title of “service designer” knows where they should start.

This Rancher’s Example: I was fortunate enough to be positioned not in the product/service organization, but with the care and voice of the customer organization. This put me far downstream where I could see the output of the ecosystem and existing experiences, and have a good vantage point of where it all adds up. If you are wondering where to pursue information, seek it out with customer support. They have answers no one else does.

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See, capacity is an interesting word. In corporate contexts, it usually is used interchangeably as “capability.” But in a literal sense, capacity means the maximum amount something an object can contain. The phrase “we’re at capacity” means the ranch plumbl fulled up. If you’re building capacity, you’re making space before you can make something new. It’s that space that lets you then exercise the capability muscles.

LESSON 2
Accept that capacity means space, capability means function. Write down where you see space can be made and how you can help, and write down where you see capability can be built up and how you can help. These don’t have to be the same things.

Write it down.

Know what is worth sweating and bleeding over.

You’re now a part of the ranch. You may came in with lofty visions and goals; there was an original reason and excitement around service design and all it can do. You were deliberately brought on as an extra set of hands.

No system is perfect, and ranches are no exception. Things break down and go without repair. Unforeseeable events happen – there’s a stampede, or a downed tree from a thunderstorm, or a huge batch of moldy hay that the horses won’t eat. A huge part of the ranch’s system is dedicated to just keeping the system running, the meta activity that lets the real activities carry on. How is this like your company?

But, awareness is meaningless without action. Everyone on the ranch may know that parts are broken, painful, or terribly inefficient. There’s a hollar of “yep, that’s so bad, we agree with you!” If people can see what’s broke or missing, that’s your chance to step in and start proffering ideas, right?

Reality hits. Instead of revolution, they want evolution. Incremental improvement. Help influence the system but don’t meddle too much and certainly don’t slow it down. Confidence can be shaken as the reality of organizational obstacles start to pile up. You write proposals that go nowhere, come up with visions, illustrations and slide decks to try to explain what you want to do and where you can see changes helping the ranch system, just like you were asked to do.

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But the cattle start to wander, tossin’ hay bales is a lot more fatiguing than it looked, and every time you think you’re making progress, the sun is setting on the horizon when you swore it was just noon.

This Rancher’s Example: During my first few months, I had to go through a series of ruthless prioritization exercises to really judge where I wanted to make change, where I could make change, and where it wasn’t worth trying to make change at that point. Often, the projects I felt the strongest about were the ones that I had to turn my empathy lens back on and accept that my gusto can’t change the fact that things need to move at their own pace, not mine.

Thankfully, you and I signed up for this willingly. And on a working ranch, there’s simply no time to despair. Feeling clueless and like you don’t have a handle on things is exactly what you should be feeling.

LESSON 3

Be realistic about what you can do now, soon, and in the future. Write down a statement of purpose for each phase. “Right now, my purpose is to…” “In the near future my purpose will be to..” “Eventually, my purpose will be…”.

Write down a statement for all 3 now.

Find your compadres, you need them more than they need you.

No matter where you are, there will be people who just get it; the early adopters. Usually because they’ve had a problem they’ve wanted to solve for a while, but never quite knew how to approach it or what options they had. Like you, the working ranch keeps them busy and they have a role they are already fulfilling. The working ranch prevents them from deviating too far from their responsibilities. They can’t just stop what they’re doing. It’s your job to appeal to their motivations and back them up, not the other way around.

To them, it’s a good thing you’re here; a new set of hands with a new set of tools. And most importantly, when you’re a new addition you probably have a loosely defined set of responsibilities to occupy your time. When the ranch works sunrise to sunset, that’s the most valuable resource there is: time.

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Quicker than you might assume, these people who were thirsty for something new will gravitate to you, and spread the word. A willingness to help and join in is more important than having “just the right idea” or the most effect method.

This Rancher’s Example: After a few service blueprinting sessions, the world got out in certain circles about its effectiveness, and soon all of service design became known as “blueprinting”. The early adopters gravitated to that term and the process after having found it so useful. From there, they would spread my name and insist I be involved with things, not because of what I told them, but because of what we’d created together.

The first step in building out capacity is realizing that you’re the physical embodiment of capacity itself. Find those allies and be of service to them by making yourself available and someone they can rely on. Get behind their motivations and use that empathy to see it from their angle.

LESSON 4

Find those who believe in the ideas you’re presenting, and get behind their motivations. Write down 3 people you can help immediately and what is currently motivating their work.

Write it down now.

Just saddle up and join in the controlled chaos

There’s no better way to get up to speed than to just jump on a galloping horse. The working ranch is already cranking away on it’s huge list of jobs. Instead of focusing solely on how you can start something new, put some focus on how you can immediately leverage an existing effort.

This is where embracing incremental improvement is your new saddle. You’re not re-inventing ranching processes (yet), it’s time to “fit in” and contribute in a way that works with the culture. Being advised to “fit in” is something you don’t hear often, especially in the world of tech disruption and innovation. But it’s a fundamental requirement – if you don’t fit the ranch, where else are you going to go? You’ll be not much more than a tumbleweed; a wandering, detached, dried out and thorny outcast piled up against a barbed wire fence designed to keep you out.

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Don’t despair, this is your chance to show worth. If there is already an effort to build a fence, find ways to take part and introduce your methods and thinking in a way that can clearly help the fence building project. Take what is being done and find ways to improve in small and meaningful ways.

This Rancher’s Example: The biggest boon to my time at Intuit so far has been having those allies and champions invite me along to projects after they see what service design can offer to help make their lives easier, and their projects successful in more ways than before. To date, there is only 1 effort that I have created wholesale, the rest have all been underway where my involvement was that of an accelerator and activator.

This is where those early adopters are important – they’ll include you because they’re willing to try what you are suggesting. Without the faith of allies, it will be very hard to get involved with existing efforts, let alone contribute new ideas. Instead of working to prove something new, prove that you can help with something old.

LESSON 5

Find existing efforts that have slow progress or are under-resourced and find ways to help. And/or, use your allies in lesson 4 to help you join in and contribute with things they might be working on. Write down 3 existing efforts you can see yourself contributing meaningfully to, and be specific in how you can do it.

Write it down now.

Be a fireside storyteller, not a preacher

Show, don’t tell. This is one of the most overused and diluted phrase there is. Plus, it’s the epitome of “do as I say, not as I do.”

Having said that: show, don’t tell. Before you grab your rope, let me explain. Telling people about how you’re applying service design is okay, it’s bound to get some people’s attention. But it’s not going to motivate. What you need to do is show them why you’re working this way, that your rationale can result in something valuable.

You’re not just showing them the work, that’s an outcome of something more important; what you believe. If you’re one of the first service design oriented roles in an organization, you’re probably the type who really believes in what you do. Someone with a streak of adventurous cowboy/girl in you. Use that to your advantage.

Trust me about this: don’t go around telling people what needs to change about the ranch and its various processes. People will be resistant to declarations of change. Instead, show what you believe through your work, and show outcomes that are tied to those beliefs. Take existing situations that can be related to and help illustrate stories about the possibilities you believe could help.

This Rancher’s Example: One of the most powerful and gratifying experiences was presenting one of our most laborious blueprinting projects to an Executive VP and GM, and to have him simply say “This is what I mean when I talk about end to end.” One glance at the output was all it took to tell the story.

This is where you’ll have to put on the gloves and just do something. You have a responsibility to share your beliefs rooted in this service design mindset. With those existing efforts mentioned in lesson 5, take the outcomes and output and illustrate how it worked and how it helped.

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Take special note: this isn’t about getting people to believe in your methods and mindset, that’s just what it looks like on the surface. All of this is to help people believe in the one thing they need to believe in: you. If those you work with and support don’t have faith in you as a person, you will almost certainly fail. When your peers and organization believe in you and what you offer, you will almost certainly succeed.

LESSON 6

People need to believe what you believe in before they’ll accept you as a leader. List 3 ways you can help illustrate what you believe about your service design mindset and how it can help. Be concrete and specific with your 3 ways.

Write it down now.

Work is hard. But we’re getting closer every time.

There you go, 6 core things you can do right now that I can attest to the success of. Take a minute to write down a response to each one – it will help. When you join a ranch, you join to work. It can be hard to get started without being grounded on what exactly you are supposed to be doing. So give it a try, pop open a document or just grab a pen and give an answer:

LESSON 1. Establish real empathy

Find real empathy for your organization, and define how the status quo serves a purpose and is important. Until you can see how the present situation serves them organization, you won’t be able to have any influence with it.

LESSON 2. Add both space and function

Accept that capacity means space, capability means function. Write down where you see space can be made and how you can help, and write down where you see capability can be built up and how you can help. These don’t have to be the same things.

LESSON 3. Be realistic about what you can do now, soon, and in the future

Be realistic about what you can do now, soon, and in the future. Write down a statement of purpose for each phase. “Right now, my purpose is to…” “In the near future my purpose will be to..” “Eventually, my purpose will be…”.

LESSON 4. Find allies and understand their motivations

Find those who believe in the ideas you’re presenting, and get behind their motivations.

LESSON 5. Jump in on existing efforts

Find existing efforts that have slow progress or are under-resourced and find ways to help. And/or, use your allies in lesson 4 to help you join in and contribute with things they might be working on. Write down 3 existing efforts you can see yourself contributing meaningfully to, and be specific in how you can do it.

LESSON 6. Show people what you believe

People need to believe what you believe in before they’ll accept you as a leader. List 3 ways you can help illustrate what you believe about your service design mindset and how it can help. Be concrete and specific with your 3 ways.

Keep them dogies rollin’

The working ranch has an obligation to itself and those who depend on it to not slow down or stop. By approaching your role methodically through the lessons detailed above, you’re bound to be successful and help the ranch with its existing

Remember: this list of lessons isn’t here to divert you from your big plan and grand vision. It’s quite the opposite. The purpose of the lessons is to help you get to a point where you understand and have deep empathy for the ranch you’ve joined, proof that you can deliver value in your own new way, and have people believing in you as a person, not some job title or methodology.

Only after you’ve succeeded at those lessons will you be in a spot to act on your vision and make good on that service design capacity and capability you promised to bring. Your obligation is to work in a way that works for the ranch. It’s your job to help out and introduce new ideas people can believe in that will make them want join in.

You didn’t sign up to do what is already being done, you signed up to bring something new. Put down the lasso – anything you pull against is also pulling right back at you. Your job isn’t going to be what you thought it was. That’s the fun of it. The ranch never stops.

I’ve spent the last 2 years at a 35 year old, very successful software giant with thousands of employees; the epitome of a working ranch. It’s not a startup, it’s a tech company almost as old as I am, it has a history of success that has gotten it to where it is today, and a well established organization and set of routines that keeps the lights on and the cattle fed.

The lessons I’ve outlined here are hard-won lessons from just a simple dusty cowboy – bruised, beaten, callused, but undaunted. Hopefully, this can help you in your journey from greenhorn to true grizzled ranch-hand in your own service-designy way.

It’s an adventure. If you find yourself as an in-house, bottom up service design instigator, just remember what famous cowboy John McClane had to say about things:

Yippee-ki-yay [censored]!

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I love all things experience design. I work as a Principal Service Experience Designer at Intuit in Mountain View, CA.
  • Nice article. I’m not familiar with “Service Design” but i found these lessons also applicable for many situations. I had an agile organisation in mind and a role of let’ say product owner or DevOps.