Building the team that delivers change

February 17, 2021

Service design projects or inititatives often suffer from two contradictory ailments: lots of enthusiasm and little team structure. Enthusiasm is necessary as the people involved are put into unfamiliar situations and asked to do counter-intuitive things. But doing this without team structure means, that in the long run the project will fail as presumptions about who does what and when overtake enthusiasm as the driving force.

If the team doing the service design work survives the invevitable re-adjustment of team member roles and responsibilities, they will run into the same problem again as the designed service moves from prototyping to implementation. As the design team is always much smaller than the actual organisation being re-designed, the roles and responsibilities of the whole organisation need to also be re-designed and communicated.

Because service design always impacts the larger organisation, because it always creates organisational change, it also almost always faces resistance within the organisation as roles and responsibilities are redefined and reassigned. This is one of central aspects of service design and design thinking and also one of the main reasons why service design initiatives fail.

The Service Design for Executives course (, which Brand Manual helps develop in cooperation with Tallinn University, Stockholm School of Economics in Riga and Maastricht University, has as its central theme (and main homework task for participants) to document and understand the impact of service design on the wider organisation. How redesigning the customer experience and organisational innovation processes necessarily change the way the organisation itself works (and has to work) in order to meet and exceed the needs and wants of all stakeholders. 

As a long-term member of the Service Design Award jury, the discussion about the submitted projects has also produced a number for the above described source of failure. Only about 20% of service design projects (as discussed among jury members) end up being implemented. Which conversly means, that 80% of service design projects fail. Experience suggests, that the reason projects fail is because the organisation wants to achieve different results but hopes to achieve them by doing the same thing it has always been doing.

In smaller businesses, achieving organisational change is relatively easier. Often all stakeholders are directly tied to the company and driving change can be done within the context of daily business. However, in public services or large enterprises, where the the delivery of an improved service requires multiple organisations to work together, that may have different mandates, follow different regulations and face different obstacles, achieving the necessary organisational change, is notoriously difficult. Furthermore, as such initiatives for implementing changes are often also (partially) driven by period funding, the initiative often withers when the funding dries up or the political priorities change. On the other hand, when these services really do change for the better, the impact is far greater than just that of a company having happier customers and a fatter bottom line.

Achieving lasting change in complex ecosystems, such as helping school age children from being held back due to social and financial inequality, requires different organisations, from education to health care to social support to work together. However, as all parties tend to have a full days work already everyday, changing the system creates more work that reduces everyone’s motivation to participate. Without being able to define the team and team member’s roles and responsibilities, achieving the transition from “as is” to “should be” is almost impossible. Furthermore, as this change has to be benevolent rather than coercive, it requires on some level, a vision and determination to achieve change. Which brings us to the third critical aspect of service design and achieving real improvements for stakeholders: senior management support and buy-in.

In our practice, where senior management was disinterested or sceptical of service design (and a qualitative approach to organisational re-engineering), the initiative eventually always fails.

In order to successfully implement change throughout an organisation, to work differently and to deliver different and better results to all stakeholders, requires clearly defined roles and responsibilities, authority and backing to try new things and the support to implement them, when they are proven to work. To do this, the RACI principle works very well, in providing the necessary understanding of who is responsible for what, and avoiding the situation where everyone, and consequently no-one, is responsible for the end result.

RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed. On the high level, it divides responsibility for doing something and providing the resources to do something in two. This means, that the person that is Accountable for getting something done has to provide the resources to the person Responsible for doing it. Resources are both time, money and authority. This way the person doing it has a source of redress, if they cannot get something done because they were delegated responsiblity without authority and resources. In short – in order to get someone to dig a hole, that someone needs a shovel and time to dig the hole. One without the other doesn’t work. If it is a complicated hole, they also need help to do it. Those are the people who are Consulted, who have the needed skills to dig the hole, whether knowledge or muscles or time etc. At the end of the process, the hole isn’t there to be a hole, but rather to put something into. Which means that there are people who need to Informed that the hole will be dug / has been dug and something else can happen now.

Service design to be effective requires three things:

  • Explicit enior management support
  • A diverse and multi-disciplinary, cross-organisational team
  • Clearly defined roles and responsibilities

If you are missing one or the other component, then go back one step and make sure you have all three. If you find yourself put in a position to design a better service but don’t have the explicit support of leadership of your organisation, a team to work with and understanding of who does what, then our advice is not to touch the project at all. It will fail.