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Service Design, Business Silos, and Hot Air Balloons

Posted May 3, 2015

How do you align multiple groups of people on a goal, who have never met, and are not in communication with each other? Or better, who is accountable for an entire experience when it is comprised of a series of neighboring entities that don’t have any unifying presence keeping them all smooth and in order?

I have an analogy that might help unpack exactly how this might be done, so let’s take a journey of the imagination.

Cylindrical Containers Full of People

First, picture your standard, high performing product and design team or larger group. There are some who lead and some who follow. There are people who contribute work directly and people who channel their work through others. There can even be someone whose job it is to coordinate and organize the group as a whole. In many cases, there could be a singular person who leads the entire group. They’re good at what they do, and work efficiently as a team to build a thing.


Next, picture a cylindrical container just big enough for the team. The team lives here, building their thing. There are ladders that they can use to climb to the top, and even periscope if they want to look out. Most of the time, though, they work down in the container.

Add to the scenario someone that stands up above the container; a delivery person who brings to the group inside the container envelopes of instructions. The group receives the instructions and carries out the work that it specifies.


This is how the machine keeps running and producing. It’s a simple system that is used around the world by teams who want to produce outcomes.

A Bunch of Cylinders in a Row

Now that we have a picture in our heads of the cylindrical container, take it a step further and imagine many containers lined up in a row. They aren’t all the same width or height, they vary from one to another. Sometimes there are nice, organized ladders and bridges to traverse them, but sometimes the bridges and ladders are quite suboptimal or missing altogether.


Within the containers, the teams and groups work away. At the top of each container, the delivery person sits within view of their counterparts on the other containers. But due to the nature of the varying shapes and sizes, they can’t all see each other or communicate from each end of the row.

To take care of longer range communication, there’s another, higher level instruction writer on a tall platform. From here, they can see the whole row, but are far enough away that they can’t see the groups inside them clearly. To counter that, they work directly with the delivery people on each container, passing instructions to each of them and keeping the groups in the containers working on a somewhat concerted effort.


The teams themselves, sometimes they climb up and communicate, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they can hear each other through the walls. Certain cylindrical containers have more advanced communication systems that allows them to speak to each other. But, for the most part, once you’re more than a few containers away, the occupants don’t really know what is going on in the containers that aren’t right next to them. They rely on the delivery people to keep things in synchronization.


But we already know that all the delivery people can’t see or talk to all of their distant neighbors, so they themselves rely on the instruction writer to see the whole row at once, and trust that the instructions are all cohesive and in some sort of synchronization. The instruction writer does their best to keep things in order, but with only a limited view to the groups inside the containers, they are almost completely reliant on the delivery people.

Building a Bridge, One Cylinder at a Time

Now that we’ve got a complete picture of how these rows of cylindrical containers look, let’s discuss their purpose.

Each container produces a thing. Each thing is placed up on top of its container, and together they form a line of things that can be experienced one after another. To get to each thing, you cross the bridges and ladders that connect each container. From one to another, someone can traverse the row and eventually experience the entire thing.


That is the purpose of the row of containers, to allow someone to get from one end to another. The experience of that walk and the interaction with those things atop each container is what the collective group of contributors, delivery people, and instruction writers are trying to offer and entice people with.

The better the walk across containers, there will be more people to go on the journey and eventually complete it. Our goal is to get as many people happily across as we can.


Hop, Skip, Jump, Fall

If we move on to that person whose goal is to walk across the container path, we see that there can be a lot of variability with regard to the paths relative difficulty. Some paths are smoother than others. If a path becomes too treacherous or painful, the person walking it can choose to stop and leave.


The delivery person and groups in each cylindrical container can try and improve their part of the journey by improving their thing and the bridges and ladders that connect to each of their neighbors. The effect is localized to just their immediate proximity, though, and can’t lift and smooth the entire row of containers. While a single stop along the way can be improved, it can’t fix the whole. If multiple container’s things are improved, a wave-like effect can be had, which can set the journeyer up for disappointment as they go from one great stop along the way, to a painful stop down below.


The delivery people take note of this and do what they can, reporting back up to the instruction writer. And the instruction writer can see the whole like of containers and the delivery person on top of each. They do their best to write new instructions, but the instructions are each written in a 1:1 ratio with the containers – there’s not a single set of instructions for the entire row.


It is this combination of factors that degrade the experience of the journeyer. Without some way to smooth out the entire row as a whole, it is up to each of the groups in the containers and the delivery person on top to bolster and lift their individual thing and try to elevate the entire experience of the journey.

The problem is that no single container can bear the weight of a whole journey, and even when groups focus on building the best thing they can, there’s no telling what happens before or after their stop along the way.


The Big Reveal

Time to come clean – this is all just an analogy for business silos.

The containers are business or product units, and the groups inside are the organizations or teams that work together to produce the outcome – the product or service. The level of detail can vary greatly. A team may produce an entire app or offering, or a team maybe focused on just a series of interfaces and interactions as part of a larger experience. The delivery person on top is some sort of leader that oversees the efforts of the team. The instruction writer above it all is the entity that defines the business objectives, be it a executive leadership group, a manager, a vice president of the collective business units, or even something abstract like a market force.

As I’ve illustrated above, the analogy can be summarized in 4 points

1. Teams work in the silos and produce something, a product or service. The teams may be producing the most awesome, perfect output regardless of what is going on with their neighbors. There’s no inherent detriment to the team when they are in a silo, they just aren’t in holistic communication with the rest.

2. The manager of the silo oversees what is happening with the team, and works to meet the business goals that they receive from their leaders. They have more visibility with their neighbors, but their picture is incomplete. Their main concern is with their silo, and with keeping the business objectives being given to them met by the teams output.

3. The leaders that guide the direction of all the silos together, piecing out the objectives to the managers in an effort to product the entire experience we’re trying to offer.

4. There are the customers who try to traverse the series of silos without any care for how they are actually built. They just want to get from one end to the other. The difficulty in doing so is what we call the user pain throughout their journey.

It wasn’t a very subtle analogy. But it was important to help visualize what will be explained next – the role of the service designer in all this.


Who’s Accounting for the Accountable?

There’s a gap in the system as I’ve described it. While we have the leader at the top who is passing on the business objectives to the managers, it’s not their job to focus on the complete experience from end to end. Their job is to keep the business objectives flowing downward so that each silo is building what they are supposed to be building. That’s how traditional business work, and a lot of times it is good enough.

But as customer’s who traverse the outside of the silos began to demand better experiences as a whole, the gap in the system becomes more and more apparent, and painful. There’s no one who has the view of the experience end to end whose job is to ensure that the silos are being leveled out and smooth, and that all the outputs, the products and services, are acting in concert from start to finish.

It’s an important distinction; the VP of a entire business unit is there to ensure the translation of high level business objective down to the work of the individual contributors. They aren’t there to monitor the experience and have a hand in the minutia. They own the row of silos, yes. They are responsible for the output, yes. But, in a way, they aren’t accountable to the customer’s experience.

Before you get your torches and pitchforks, let me be clear; I am not suggesting that high level leadership is acting inappropriately or negligent. Not at all. They aren’t accountable for the customer’s experience because it’s not their job, and rightly so. Those leaders are responsible for the outcome, and they report to something above them as well, be it another leader even farther away, a board of directors, shareholders, the market itself. Their focus is on the business health. They own the row of silos that form the end to end experience, but they don’t monitor and smooth out the row as a whole.

That’s the gap. There’s no one who is responsible for the end to end experience. More times than not, there is no role or group that can see the end to end and that their full time job is to work to keep it smooth by viewing, diagnosing, and finding opportunities for those managers and teams to work together in concert without having to see the entire view.

That’s the new role of the service designer. Accountability to the entire customer experience from end to end.

The Role of the Silo

These rows of silos that each produce something, a product or service, are now seen by the customer as a single entity – the experience as a whole. And it’s this new distancing in the modern age of experience that necessitates a service design presence. They are the party that is accountable to the holistic experience and ensuring its health, just as the leadership above are responsible for ensuring the businesses health.

This isn’t implying that service design needs to be held in the same regard as high level leadership. They just needs to have the same view, and be afforded the freedom and influence to work in a way that spans the silos and teams horizontally. When this happens, the entire experience now has someone who is accountable to it and whose actual job is to look from end to end, and act from end to end to help the silos all work together and keep the customer experience as smooth as it can get.

It’s the secret to how you can align multiple groups of people on a goal, who have never met, and are not in communication with each other. Simply have someone whose job it is to actively unite everyone, and be accountable to the holistic experience they produce. We do it on a silo by silo basis, why not try doing it on an end-to-end experience basis?

Learn to Love the Silo

Silos will never go away, and I am not even sure they should. Instead of silos, maybe someday we will refer to them as pillars or columns that bolster the entire experience just like supports under a bridge.

For that to happen, we need to all adopt and accept the need to have dedicated, horizontal roles that spend all their time working across the silos, not as high level leaders, but as contributors and stewards that simple operate at a higher elevation. This is where I see service design living, and what I want to help clarify and spread as a new idea that isn’t new at all, just applied differently. It’s very difficult to keep the silos all in sync when there is no one party who is accountable to the entire customer experience.

The next time you find yourself talking or thinking about silos, ask yourself “Would silos be so bad if there was a horizontal element that made sure they were acting in concert?”

[inlinetweet prefix=”Check it” tweeter=”Erik_UX” suffix=”out!”]The service design roles help neutralize the inherent lack of communication and cohesion between silos.[/inlinetweet] By adding that presence, silos become manageable, and may even be more efficient and productive now that they aren’t acting in conflict and isolation from one another. And all of this leads to the ultimate goal that most of us have – to create delightful, cohesive, and connected end-to-end experiences.

Stop expecting silos to be responsible for fixing entire experiences that are outside of their control. Instead, create an accountable, horizontal function who will unite the entire experience. That is what service design means today.


I love all things experience design. I work as a Principal Service Experience Designer at Intuit in Mountain View, CA.

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