Why it’s never a good time for service design

Picture the scene: you’ve just joined a new team, they’re doing good work but they’re plugging away at the wrong problem.

You bide your time, thinking of ways to bring them round. Maybe weeks go by as you work on each stakeholder one by one, until one day someone calls it – “look” they say to you, “I hear what you’re saying but it’s just not the right time to do [the very sensible thing you’re suggesting].We just need to do [the wrong thing to fix the wrong problem] and then we can do what you’re talking about

Sound familiar?

This has happened to me 100s of times. I have spent years either chasing trains that have ‘left the station’ or ones with no intention of moving.

The reasons I’ve been given have all sounded perfectly reasonable – we can design the service, but only once we’ve moved off this piece of legacy software / delivered this MVP / have more buy in / don’t have this crazy deadline.

In short, it is never the right time for service design.

But the problem isn’t the urgency of these situations – when people are in difficult situations it’s understandable that the last thing they want to do is take a step back and consider the bigger picture.

The real problem is the inertia that precedes this urgency.

Like someone who’s always late to things because they thought they had ages to get ready, we look after Business as Usual, whistling ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ until something falls over, someone dies or it hits the press.

Suddenly someone senior gets involved and boom, as if from nowhere you’re surrounded by ‘burning platforms’ and have no time to solve the problem because you have to ‘deliver’….something. Anything.

My dad used to have a sign on his desk at work that said ‘poor planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine’.

I’ve always wished I could say something like this but that won’t cut it with service design, because whatever that thing is that needs to be delivered, it’s going to get delivered whether it’s good or not.

In that situation you can either walk away, or stay and make that thing marginally better in a hope that you might catch the next train before it leaves the station.

Sadly though, that day rarely comes because that next train will be just as fast as the last one.

This has a profound effect not just on the service an organisation is trying to deliver, but on its culture and ability to design in the future.

Designers are like doctors. We can’t just give people what they want, we have to give them what they need. That’s our job.

But the reality is that our ability to help is increasingly limited when things get urgent. Just as it does for a doctor in an emergency room.

All we can do in these situations is stabilise the work and hope for recovery, for ourselves and the project. Cue burnout for designers and subsequent organisational churn that’s off the chart.

The way to tackle this isn’t by fighting back against this urgency – you will never win. Instead we need to tackle the inertia that comes before it, and that is caused by one very simple factor – fear.

We’re more afraid to try and to fail than we are of doing nothing. The trouble is that this ‘doing nothing’ eventually results in failure anyway.

Our services get more expensive because they’re unusable, which means we have less money to spend on improvements. Carry on like this and we’ve got a ticking time-bomb for failure.

In order to break this toxic cycle of inertia-failure-panic, we need to make doing nothing as risky as change. That means acknowledging that the slow failure of providing increasingly unusable services is as bad as the fast failure that follows.

As an industry, we need to start talking about slow failure, and that means holding ourselves accountable to the data that proves it exists.

Only once we have this can we decide when the train leaves and where it’s going.

And most of all, kill business as usual.