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:

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.

Stephen Hawking called the 21st century the “century of complexity.” The past year certainly confirmed that hypothesis as normality exited stage right and negative became the new positive. There can no longer be any question that we need to be ready to adapt to change. The only question remaining, is “how?”

Future researchers have determined, that in order to effectively adapt, both individuals and organisations have to develop three key skills: preventive actions, ability to change and agility.

Preventive action is the ability to notice the weak signals of coming change, Taleb’s so called black swan. Moreover, it is important to recognise the most likely future scenario and understand the change with the biggest impact, which Michele Wucker referred to as the grey rhinoceros. Various action strategies need to be put in place as soon as possible to help you react more quickly, as the future runs down the door.

Ability to change refers to the skill of turning unexpected change to your advantage. For organisations this means leaving behind presumptions and pre-defined futures and instead accepting constant change as an opportunity for renewal and growth.

The third key skill is agility. This requires organisations to be ready to experiment and quickly change course. The latter is best served by teams that include T-shaped people, with skills and experience from a very broad spectrum disciplines.

How to support the acquisition of these skills is not obvious. What do you do, when you don’t know what to do? How to recognise change? How to handle irregular and unpredictable situations? How to constantly renew without burning out? Finding answers to these questions is what service design is good at. One particularly useful tool in the service design sandbox is the design sprint.

Recently we saw how the design sprint helped diverse, unfamiliar teams address future challenges in just a few days. We applied the design sprint within the first week module of the Service Design for Executives course (SD4X), where 25+ participants from Estonia, Latvia and the Netherlands worked on a real client brief inside a two-day window.

The brief was delivered by the Port of Tallinn, one of the busiest passenger ports in Europe. They challenged participants to find solutions, how to design a functional, democratic and organic public space within the context of the redevelopment of the harbour area, that would attract both locals and tourists alike. The re-construction of the area has barely begun and is scheduled to be completed in 10 to 20 years.

For the design sprint, participants were divided into six teams and each team worked from the point-of-view of a concrete persona type. The brief was the same for everyone: 1) define the key criteria of a welcoming harbour area of a city, 2) find solutions that make the area attractive for the user type and validate concepts with users and 3) propose solutions that could also serve as attractions during the construction period. The participants were pressed for time to find user group representatives and conduct interviews, to clarify the key traits of the personas, describe their user journeys and propose validated and tested solutions to the Port of Tallinn, that would make the area attractive to that persona.

The managers of the Port of Tallinn rated the design sprint results very highly. “Thanks to the broad life experience of the participants as well as the tools and methods of service design, a wide range of interesting and viable concepts were presented that also included very international points-of-view. Although participants were focusing on different user groups, a lot of commonalities still cropped up as needs of all people: accessibility, public transport, food, socialising spaces and activities for children, amongst others. More challenging ideas such as light shows combined with digital wishing wells, port side sauna and swimming (also in the winter!) pools, construction viewing combined with AR / VR tours of both the past, present and future were also presented” commented Piret Üts, business manager, real estate.

The course participants themselves appreciated the desing sprint experience very much. They particularly highlighted the importance of talking to users, rapid and constant testing of concepts, trusting the process even when you don’t know where it will lead you, the inherent strength of a diverse team, the pain (and satisfaction) of adapting to unknown situations as well as keeping the big picture in focus as you delve into details.

The feedback from the participants reflects exactly the reasons why the design sprint methodology works so well. It suits situations that require compact solutions through co-creation, rapid prototyping and qualitative testing with users. Just as the experience in the course showed, participants were able to deliver concrete results within two days, that the Port of Tallinn can now continue to work with. And let it be mentioned, that the paricipants had no prior information about the design sprint topic nor did they know each other beforehand.

Service design helps identify and focus on root causes, which increases the likelyhood of not being run over by the grey rhinoceros. This requires your organisation to become comfortable with future scenario planning in a constantly changing environment. 

The service design course, Service Desgin for Executives (SD4X) has been created by Tallinn University, Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, Maastricht University and Brand Manual. Starting in January and ending in August 2021, 25+ executives from very diverse organisations will go through the entire service design process from contextual analysis to problem definition, prototyping and validation. Participants in the program include organisations such as exela, ROC Gilde Opleidingen, Cicero Zorggroep, Sharewell, Rimi Baltic Group, VISTA college, Telia Eesti, Rimi Eesti Food AS, PKN ORLEN, PRIVA, Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek, Statistikaamet, Rimi Latvija, Cabo Verde Airlines, GroeiFabriek, Eesti Töötukassa, Riga Airport, Sogeti, If Kindlustus, VIRŠI, The program is supported by Erasmus+.

Many miles and kilometres of real and virtual print have been expended on declaring physical retail to be dead.

And with the Amazon juggernaut steamrolling everything before it, you may be forgiven for thinking, that real stores are all going to disappear. After all, everything from book shops to Toys-R-Us are going out of business, because you can get it cheaper on Amazon.

And it is true, that a lot of businesses are going out of business, because Amazon (and other’s like it), satisfy their customers’ needs better than they do. On the other hand, however, a lot of brick-and-mortar stores are thriving because the physical store excels at delivering something, that digital just cannot copy: serendipity and ambience.

How often have you stepped into a store and surprised yourself by finding and buying something, you didn’t even know you wanted or needed? This doesn’t refer to impulse purchases (like candy at the checkout), but genuinely finding something you didn’t even know existed? Like an exotic fruit or a pair of funny socks?

In some ways physical retail is like a physical magazine. Reading a magazine on an iPad is fine, but digitally you don’t happen onto articles. You have to choose them. You tend not to read what doesn’t seem interesting from the table of contents. Reading a physical magazine, however, you often just randomly pick your way through, reading articles that you would never happen onto, if you had to actively choose it instead of happening to look at it.

The experience of both buying things and reading things are completely different from online to offline. However, dismissing the offline experience as old fashioned, is shortsighted. A physical store can be provide feeling and individuality that an online experience cannot. However, this means looking at the physical experience not as an alternative to online, but rather as fundamentally different, where the value created is not in a more expensive transaction, but in a service.

Effective retail environments don’t try to compete with online sales for generic products. But offer an inherently fuller customer experience centred around service and ambience. As Steve Dennis pointed out in Forbes magazine, “physical retail isn’t dead. Boring retail is.”

To understand what matters to your customers (ie, understanding what is boring), you need to consider that customer behaviour is based on three factors: time, place and motivation.


Obviously, if it is very important then they’ll be willing to spend the time and travel to get it. If it isn’t important, then they won’t take a step out of their way nor invest more than a second. Understanding customers in this context allows you map their customer journey from need to satisfaction, and where you fit into their life. Retail can only go two ways in today’s online environment: down market to be cheapest and physically closest or up market to be best. The middle ground, where you’re selling stuff to customers that just want stuff, but don’t care where they get it, belongs to online stores.

The other obvious extension of the above logic is, that there is room for services in retail environments, that didn’t use to be there before. Grocery stores that offer you a glass of Pinot Grigio while you peruse the legumes may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but neither is it danger of being usurped by an online competitor. Finding opportunities for “symbiotic multi-tasking,” for lack of a better expression, offers physical retail environments means to extending their competitive advantage over online stores that sell the same physical product, but cannot offer a feeling to go along with it.

At the end of the day, it will be the customer experience that makes the difference. If the best a store can offer is the same as the competition, but with a different colour scheme, then beware that this store will be disrupted. But if there is a reason to visit it again and again, for something beyond the just the products on sale, you can rest reasonably assured, that it will stay in business and thrive, not matter what happens online.*

*Disclaimer: Probably:-)

The American Medical Association recently published research that showed hospital doctors spending only a quarter of the day with patients. The rest of the workday was spent on administrative tasks and filling in electronic health records.

In Sweden, one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world, almost all official correspondence comes through snail mail. In most cases it cannot be answered in any other way than calling a number and waiting in a phone queue, for minutes or hours, just to complete a mundane errand. In the unlikely event that a citizen receives an email, it cannot be answered. But there’s a number to call.

The above situations waste peoples’ time.
Time costs.
This cost isn’t measured.

Waiting is sometimes unavoidable. When going to a movie or boarding a plane. However, in most cases, what causes time being wasted is the system itself. It does this by having an unnecessarily steep learning curve, or too many required steps or conditions, which in fact are not required to complete the task at hand. Summed up as “the way we’ve always done it.”

For public services, the choking point is often that people don’t have access to their own information. This forces people to interact with institutions and staff on their conditions, rather than being able to help them selves at their convenience. This results in a time cost for both the state and the citizen, which can be avoided.

The thing about inefficient systems, services and organisations is that they waste peoples’ time – both the customer’s and the service provider’s. This cost is often not measured and instead the only costs compared is the investment needed to upgrade or change the system versus keeping on working with the old one.

Focusing on the customer and employee experience can expose the cost of wasted time

A good customer experience happens when time isn’t wasted.
A good employee experience happens when one doesn’t have to waste time on redundant steps.

Either way, the common denominator is time and the waste of it. Measuring the cost of time wasted and creating experiences that save time, and therefore money, is the best way to improve customer and employee satisfaction. As Gartner points out, in 2016 89% of companies expect to compete mostly on the basis of customer experience. Five years ago that figure was only 36%.

Finding out where time is wasted, calculating what it costs, is crucial to maintaining competitive advantage. The clock is ticking…