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+.