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Tackling complexity with service design

How to find opportunity in a rapidly changing business environment

Rei Paki

Former Senior Principal Designer



Complexity is the biggest threat to modern business. Increasing customer expectations, more stringent oversight and regulation, constant technological change, and the ever-present burden of business risk all contribute to that complexity. Design, on the other hand, is about delivering simplicity. It gives business leaders a means of understanding current problems, defining new ways of looking at old problems, and experimenting with new ideas.

So business complexity and the simplicity that design offers are not in opposition. In fact, a wealth of research, over the last decade, has highlighted the challenges of complexity and the opportunities that design presents. And business must exploit those opportunities. The speed of change has never been so rapid or relentless. Simply put, increasingly complex situations require more intelligent, less siloed perspectives and – most importantly – a shift in mind-set and action. We can't escape the fact that true business transformation is a complex goal.

The focus of service design: efficient operations

The good news: Service Design is a discipline that helps with managing complexity. As forward-thinking businesses embark on transformation, many are turning to this approach to help them envision their future.

In my view, the biggest opportunity that service design offers (you can find more about it here) is in exposing and clarifying the unseen inefficiencies in business transformation initiatives. It then draws connections (or lack thereof) between these inefficiencies, customer needs, and employee capabilities.

In recent years, business leaders have undertaken certain design initiatives hoping to improve the experiences of end customers or users. Yet often their efforts only affect the interface between business and customer. Their attempts don't bring about real change or improve the experience because they haven't altered the underlying business, processes, and systems. A slick user interaction simply can't do much to make a 30-year-old tech platform work better or improve a painfully inefficient back-office process.

The appeal of service design is that it gets to the heart of the matter. It builds on the work of process analysts and subject-matter experts to provide a creative and adaptive perspective. It overlaps and complements disciplines such as Lean Six Sigma, helping leaders better understand, communicate, and develop the future of their enterprises.

As well, it forms a dynamic, multi-threaded response to complexity by applying a wide set of tools and capabilities in the following ways:

  • Service design helps leaders articulate an experience strategy that aligns people and organizations: Businesses rarely formulate an experience strategy – one based on their corporate strategy – that they communicate to their customers or workers. Using service design to express an experience strategy offers a massive opportunity to align internal teams and communicate transparency. Most importantly, it's also a way of engaging the people who can champion change and transformation.
  • Service design derives analytics from data and turns the analytics into insights for measurable actions: An experience strategy is one tool. Another is a service blueprint that communicates the connections between customers, employees, processes, and systems. This blueprint can help companies make sense out of the mounds of otherwise often impenetrable data they collect.
  • Service design reveals ways of using machine learning and automation to help people on the job: The best technology makes life easier. Yet most discussion about automation and AI incorrectly focuses on the displacement of humans. The fact is, tools that do things faster and more accurately make people capable of so much more – and that's a vision everyone can get behind.

Complexity isn't solved. It's managed.

Today's business environment is a moving target. Constantly changing inputs make all solutions temporary. That raises two further points. First, responding to complexity is, by necessity, iterative and dynamic – so individuals, teams, and organizations must work and structure themselves differently. Second, you can't deal with complex scenarios using yesterday's methods, knowledge, and experience. Fresh, active approaches are far more valuable.

Businesses face challenging issues that impact everyone in the modern world. Tackling complexity requires a shift in mind-set and perspective. It calls for new tools and approaches, and can sometimes force us to abandon tactics that we have come to rely on. Most of all, managing complexity demands that we become nimble and open to change.

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