Establishing trust and having meaningful connections are essential to working relationships, but it is something practitioners of service design along with many other professions can struggle with it in many different ways. The challenges may stem from how organizations are structured to stakeholders’ mindsets. Furthermore, in the larger picture, our society continues to be confronted with headline news, of which repeatedly points to the erosion of trust. Therefore, we at 5by5 think it is pertinent more than ever before to have conversations about different ways to facilitate trust and building on it for meaningful connections.
In conversations on how to establishing trust and meaningful connections inside a client organization we spoke with five leaders from the Service Design Network Midwest Conference: Amit Kiran, Director of Design Strategy, Bridgeable; Kat Jayne, Sr UX Consultant at Fathom Consulting; Mark Jones; Founder of SD Lab; Robert Bau; Senior Director, Service Design at Fjord; Shilpi Kumar, Founder & Innovation Catalyst, Khoj Lab LLC.
Interviews by Thomas Brandenburg & Twisha Shah-Brandenburg
Disclaimer: The views in this interview are those of Robert Bau, and not necessarily that of his employer, Accenture.
“Trust begins with genuine concern about the issues that an organization faces. Clients can tell when you are as committed to the success of the organization as they are, and the rapport that it builds allows the relationship to go beyond the scope of a project. They really do see you as an extension of their organization. —Mark Jones
What are ways in which you establish trust with your client organizations so that you can create meaningful outcomes that go beyond your engagement?
Amit Kiran: It begins by approaching all of our client relationships as collaborative partnerships. Instead of coming in with all the answers, we believe in taking a more exploratory approach with our clients, which involves working side-by-side to deeply understand their challenge; understanding how their organization functions; and building a bespoke engagement plan that meets their needs. We then deepen our client’s faith in our abilities by going beyond the engagement plan to help them develop an internal strategy for gaining stakeholder buy-in and maintaining the momentum required to bring the engagement’s outcomes to life for end users.
Kat Jayne: We establish trust through collaboration and transparency. Our clients are our partners every step of the engagement and we work together to establish the guard rails and objectives of not just our project, but their ongoing work. When we plan and perform research, they have a front-row seat. When we debrief and arrive at themes, document journeys, and design solutions we are working side-by-side. By the end of the engagement, they are deeply knowledgeable advocates for getting the work implemented.
Mark Jones: Trust begins with genuine concern about the issues that an organization faces. Clients can tell when you are as committed to the success of the organization as they are, and the rapport that it builds allows the relationship to go beyond the scope of a project. They really do see you as an extension of their organization. I have had several occasions when the work we had designed ran into some implementation translation issues, and we came back to help reset the design to adjust to the implementation environment. That only happens when the client feels that you are truly committed to making things right.
- Help clients to articulate a working hypothesis – including the perceived problem/challenge, the envisioned solution or solutions, the desired outcomes, and the indicators to measure success.
- Get to the bottom of client and customer drivers and needs by being insatiably curious, by asking open-ended questions, by seeing things from multiple perspectives, and by challenging assumptions and biases.
- Show that you can instill and facilitate collaborative practices across multiple silos in the client organization – there is no better way to tap into employee creativity, drive bottom-up innovation, and make real change happen.
- Constantly revisit and revise the hypothesis during the project based on research findings, concept development, prototyping efforts, and ongoing client discussions.
- Actively engage the client in the decision-making process by (co-)creating multiple scenarios, North Stars, concepts, and roadmaps – there is no such thing as an optimal solution.
Shilpi Kumar: Build Empathy. Respect others perspective. Ask the right questions and in the right way. Listen. Learn with them. Carefully engage them appropriately throughout the creation process.
“Lack of transparency due to organizational silos. This often results in not knowing what and how others are doing causing redundancies and wastage.” —Shilpi Kumar
What are the barriers or biases that stakeholders have that you have seen show up across different organizations?
Amit Kiran: When advocating for a service design approach in large organizations, we see the same barriers emerge time and again. For example, many clients think of their offerings as individual products as opposed to holistic services. Some clients underestimate the scale of change required across the organization to transform the way they deliver omnichannel service experiences (from breaking down silos to changing how success is measured). Others look to invest in short-term engagements that will help clients achieve “quick wins” and deliver immediate results.
Kat Jayne: Our stakeholders are human and exhibit all the same biases we all do. Many teams have lasting impressions from projects that have “failed” in the past. I often discover that stakeholders who are resistant to a particular approach or recommendation are not understanding how the work we are doing is different than what they have tried in the past. It is helpful to understand their context for research and design work and be able to speak to and learn from their concerns.
Mark Jones: The biggest barriers to change are closely held orthodoxies that cause people to dismiss good ideas without serious consideration. Sometimes it is a belief that their product or service is the best in the business, which holds them back from rethinking it. Or they believe that they possess incredibly valuable data that is more valuable than what others have, shortchanging potential partnerships. Or they believe that current market structures will be in place indefinitely. Sometimes barriers can be internal, such as the belief that they are a highly innovative organization, which creates resistance to new design processes. There are many more. Any of these beliefs can become barriers when successful new services require a shift in how an organization serves customers.
Robert Bau: The traditional stage-gate innovation process is a huge barrier in my view. Like Accenture puts it, the stage-gate process is more like an “innovation-choking funnel” with a series of decision points designed to reduce uncertainty as exposure to risk grows. This means that big ideas (transformational innovation) often get weeded out in favor of small ones (incremental innovation). Furthermore, the stage-gate process tends to discourage experimentation, iteration, and evaluative research.
Shilpi Kumar: Few barriers that come to mind are:
- Lack of transparency due to organizational silos. This often results in not knowing what and how others are doing causing redundancies and wastage.
- The misconception of what customer-centric means – doing exactly what the customer tells you to vs trying to understand their unarticulated needs and trying to show them their needs that they didn’t know about.
- The perception that Innovation is all about ideation and often focused around innovating products or brand experiences.
- Starting the discussion with a focus on the solution rather than the problem.
- Thinking of research as a onetime activity rather than an ongoing activity in an agile manner to help reduce uncertainty.
- Narrow perspective on the role of design. I like the distinction that John Maeda makes with the 3 types of Design: Classical Design, Design Thinking and Computational Design. All three are equally important and need to be understood.
“When tough recommendations need to be made, trust is bolstered by crafting an articulate and data-driven story of where the research has led us and how the proposed design meets the specific needs of those involved in the process.” —Kat Jayne
“The principles I always try my best to follow in client projects are: (1) extreme collaboration, (2) extreme transparency, (3) extreme flexibility, (4) extreme simplicity, and (5) extreme vulnerability (e.g., by admitting knowledge gaps and mistakes).” —Robert Bau
Can you share with us your perspective on the dynamics of trust and decision making, (power) in the design process when working with stakeholders?
Amit Kiran: These dynamics change as we interact with stakeholders of varying seniority and decision making power. With project-level stakeholders (e.g., Associates), we build trust by taking the time to help them understand the details of our process and how it will impact their specific challenge. We also work side-by-side to provide the tools and resources required to communicate upwards and help them tell engaging stories that tie our work back to their group/organization’s broader strategic objectives. With management-level stakeholders (e.g., Directors and VPs), we build trust by focusing our discussions more on the impact of our work on their group/organization and how we can enable them to become internal agents of this change. This often involves sharing best practices and learnings from our past change management efforts and how they can be applied to their specific division/organization. With strategic-level stakeholders (e.g., SVPs and C-Suite), we build trust through strategic storytelling that emphasizes how service design can transform their entire organization to gain/maintain industry leadership. These conversations focus heavily on impact (qualitative and quantitative), including case studies from past engagements, and display our deep expertise and knowledge of their industry.
Kat Jayne: In our most successful projects, the decision makers are an integral part of the work every step of the way. When this is not practical due to the time constraints often placed on high-level professionals, it helps to get their perspective early on through stakeholder interviews. Understanding what matters to them and how they make decisions helps to focus the project in their absence. When tough recommendations need to be made, trust is bolstered by crafting an articulate and data-driven story of where the research has led us and how the proposed design meets the specific needs of those involved in the process. Even very powerful people have trouble arguing with straight-forward and well-researched conclusions.
Mark Jones: I wish I could say that there is a single pathway to influencing decision making within client organizations, but in my experience, every organization is quite different in its politics. But there are two general scenarios: one is when you are working directly with all of the key decision makers and you can depend that once an agreement is made it will stick. The second situation is when there are key decision makers that are not a part of the design process or are even hidden from you, but their opinions weigh heavily in approving a direction. This scenario can be very destructive and cause a reset at any time. The key thing is to understand if you do indeed have all of the key decision makers involved in the design process, and if not, then have a plan to change the dynamic.
Robert Bau: The principles I always try my best to follow in client projects are: (1) extreme collaboration, (2) extreme transparency, (3) extreme flexibility, (4) extreme simplicity, and (5) extreme vulnerability (e.g., by admitting knowledge gaps and mistakes). These principles will not only help build trust but also streamline the decision-making process.
Shilpi Kumar: Relationships come first.
Engaging the stakeholders early on in the process by having one on one conversations or multiple work sessions with them to understand their perspective.
Setting expectations in the very beginning.
Aligning on what different terms mean – Innovation, Design, Prototype, Concept, MVP, Pilot, Playbook, Cocreation, Research, Experimentation etc. Making clear different milestones and roles in the design process.
I value what you bring to the table and you value what I bring to the table.
Trust comes from mutual respect. Often time the roles like – product management, designer, UX researcher, design strategist, product owner and are not clearly understood – what are their accountabilities and measure of success etc.? Lack of clarity about roles can cause a lot of mistrust and untimely decisions. Key to establishing trust is transparency and clear communication across these various roles within the organization.
“For a service design project, there are several signals we look out for from potential partners, including a willingness to challenge the status quo within their organization and be an agent of change to deliver better service experiences…” —Amit Kiran
In order to be effective what are signals that you pay attention to before accepting a new client/project?
Amit Kiran: For a service design project, there are several signals we look out for from potential partners, including a willingness to challenge the status quo within their organization and be an agent of change to deliver better service experiences; a dedication to working collaboratively with a partner and assigning the resources required to drive success; and an openness to the design process and working in a new way. This is important as it requires being comfortable with ambiguity, learning through iteration and prototyping, and working across silos in their organization.
Kat Jayne: We primarily look to understand the objectives of the project and how success will be measured. If these aren’t clear, we know we have work to do before the project can really begin. We often ask the prospective client to openly discuss what has been tried in the past in order to gain visibility into organizational challenges. We sometimes map the stakeholders involved in terms of what matters to them, their organizational position and business objectives, and communication styles. We do this to anticipate potential conflicts or oppositional forces that may come into play.
Mark Jones: In ideal situations, you get a chance to do at least one working session with the client as a part of the project planning process. This gives you the opportunity to have informal, but important, conversations that allow you to gauge if:
—the decision makers are clearly identified and there is a plan to involve them in the design process.
—There is clear agreement about the final deliverable and outcome for a project.
—There is clear agreement on a budget, timeline, process, and staffing level that will lead to a great outcome.
Robert Bau: The client seems ready, willing and able to:
- explore the problem and solution spaces with an open mind
- embrace new ways of working
- tap into the creativity of employees and customers
- set realistic goals and expectations
- spend the time, money and effort necessary to achieve the desired outcomes
Shilpi Kumar: If the client is not convinced about the ROI on their investment in research /innovation initiatives or if the client is not engaged in the project in spite of trying hard that’s a signal. On the other hand, if they value human-centered design approach and believe that it can help us think of new ideas holistically it is a sign of a healthy client relationship and success for the projects.
“Trust and momentum starts with the combination of designing exceptional service experiences and working with organizations to successfully get them to market without getting too compromised during the implementation process. Being aware of how success will be measured allows you to make sure the design will deliver on that metric.” —Mark Jones
As you think about the future of service design as a profession, what are norms that need to be established so that we can gain trust and momentum within the business community?
Amit Kiran: We need to establish norms around how we speak to and measure the impact of our work. This begins by shifting the service design narrative away from a focus on processes and tools towards one that highlights outcomes and business impact. Doing this well will require building a versatile vocabulary that resonates with different audiences in the business community. The final piece is establishing clear metrics and KPIs (both qualitative and quantitative) that can be consistently used to demonstrate the customer and business impact of a service design approach.
Kat Jayne: I would like to see service designers insist on co-creation of services as the norm. I still see too many service design projects where someone is designing for a community they are not part of. While deep ethnographic research is unquestionably helpful, it’s not a substitute for actually having the recipients of the service at the table when design and decisions are happening. Design should become more about elicitation and facilitation of the ideas of others, and less about documenting elegant solutions we dream up in our beautiful offices.
Mark Jones: Ultimately, success is measured by outcomes, which means successfully designing and launching great services that deliver business value. That value can be measured on a number of levels such as increased revenue, customer acquisition, better throughput, or raising NPS. But trust and momentum start with the combination of designing exceptional service experiences and working with organizations to successfully get them to market without getting too compromised during the implementation process. Being aware of how success will be measured allows you to make sure the design will deliver on that metric.
Robert Bau: We are always competing with other types of consultants and designers, all claiming that they can solve the problem or tackle the challenge better than service designers. The best thing we can do is to demonstrate (with real business cases) how our human-centered innovation and design process will ultimately produce sustainable solutions and create long-term value for multiple stakeholders.
Shilpi Kumar: Great storytelling from the customer’s perspective is key to transforming future experiences and services. More than norms it’s about helping propagate the role of design in business growth through new services, products, platforms, and experiences. And systems thinking mindset is critical for that.
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