A New Conversation: Service Design Series of Papers

Over the last year I have begun the construction of a series of short papers bearing on the question of how we invent futures and enterprises in language, and conduct and manage our business in networks of commitments. My idea is that the papers will serve as provocations, inspirations, and foundations for a literature useful to practitioners seeking to build more resilient, adaptable, responsive enterprises. The plan is to publish them as part of a Wiki. There, people with experience in thinking about the design of enterprises as something centered in language will be able to adjust, add, repair, and contribute to the development of a useful literature. This literature, I hope, will be something taht we construct together, in the style of “open source” programming.

So here we announce and preview this series of papers, publishing a few initial chicken scratches to invite conversation and consideration of the idea. The initial set of papers I have drafted cover topics relevant to the questions, how do we bring action in enterprises, and what is language action? I have, in addition, sketched papers on topics such as listening, coming to resolution, preparing and leading meetings, speculating and innovating, and others. Without further ado,

Introduction to the Service Design Series
Chauncey Bell 20070418

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence; the second, listening;
the third, remembering; the fourth, practicing; the fifth teaching others.

Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Jewish Poet and Philosopher (c. 1021-1058)

In this series of short papers we begin to lay stepping-stones for a new interpretation of the way that organizations deliver services that will let us vastly improve how services are designed and delivered. We are doing this in “wiki” format, which will allow people who have studied what we are discussing, and who have experience in applying it, to add to it, and to incorporate it (with attribution) in their own work, as long as they share back what they have contributed.

Our intention is to begin to build a rich, shared literature about a new way of observing and talking about the design of services.

For the moment we will call this new model Service Design Practices™. The purpose of the model is to assist people in becoming more effective as designers and implementers of new and more effective ways of working in enterprises of all sorts, in all sectors of the economy, all over the world.
It is not a big challenge to produce a 5, 10 or 15% improvement in the quality of services delivered by an organization. It can be done by essentially any team of intelligent people through the application of care, discipline, and some basic research. That is not what we are interested in producing.

This is our challenge: to bring radical improvement in the design and delivery of services.

The challenge is analogous to the shifts that occurred when we moved to transistors and semiconductors for making electronic devices, or when we moved from land and sea-based travel into the air.

To make this leap, we will need a new way of thinking about problems we have not had to encounter in the old world of designing products – things – along with new distinctions and a new language that will allow us to understand and design services faster, more effectively, and at far lower cost.


Our world has changed, far more than we usually notice. We have arrived in a world dominated not by things, but by services. Yet the design of things dominates our attention. We design services – and what happens to human beings as a consequence of our design of things – as secondary matters. Sometimes we worry about the “effects” of what we are doing on people, after we already have in mind what we plan to design. People, in our design practices, are a special kind of thing. We share pretty universally bad interpretations about what human beings are, and, in any event, they are almost never the center of our design concerns.

Leading design firms such as Cheskin and IDEO are working to build ways for designers to interact directly with the experience of customers, but they have a ways to go. We put most of our attention on the things in our world – the things we can see and touch. Our understanding of what we are doing has to catch up with our actions. The mechanics of our cars are mysterious to us. The interesting questions are what they let us do, what they cost to operate and maintain, and the identities that they give us. The same is true of our music systems, our cell phones, our computers, clothes, and contact lenses, to name a few of the many products that have become vehicles for the delivery of services in our world.

Service design and delivery is directed and orchestrated in language, in the way that we speak and listen to each other, communicate with each other, coordinate our actions with each other. The essential actions of specifying, offering, and delivering services are overwhelmingly language actions. We mean not just words, of course, but the many kinds of signs and indicators, music and silence, moods and emotions with which we speak to each other about our concerns, joys, and disappointments, acknowledgements and complaints.

When something “goes wrong” in our world, the original source of the difficulty is always a result of a linguistic failure. NASA’ Challenger came down because of mistakes in conversations among the engineers and those managing the launch. Our cars break as a consequence of design failures (or “features”), and the design of the service network in which we have them maintained. In every case, we made a mistake in a conversation, or we left out a conversation. Things become what they are, and have the effects that they have on us, out of the conversations in which we design them, design their manufacture, and design how they will appear in our worlds.

The way of thinking introduced in this series, including distinctions, structures, and language, belong to a new tradition. The design of services is not going to be revolutionized through extensions to the traditional scientific disciplines of physics, chemistry, and engineering. We are bringing a new discipline and tradition, rooted in the same kind of serious, rigorous practices as the traditional sciences, but this time, we need to start with human beings and language in the center, and we need to keep them there.

3 thoughts on “A New Conversation: Service Design Series of Papers

  1. Hello Chauncey,

    What a remarkable topic. It has always been my view that how we shape knowledge through conversation is an intangible perspective that can only grow out of the design of service that not be very tangibly viewed by those who experience benefit from these services integrated with the distribution of knowledge.

    In my view, I don’t see how we can filter through the surplus of information to determine what is valuable. Social network Theorists and Systems Thinkers engage this way drawing from their training. This is what is key to sparking innovation and assuring that work practices do not become mechanical.

    I look forward to following your thinking here and on the wiki, you described.

  2. Hello Lavinia,

    Thank you for the comment, and for the encouragement. I am delighted that you find the topic interesting. Now I must get some of the other parts of the story out soon. I have drafts for a dozen parts of this, and have been postponing while working on some other things. Your two brief paragraphs are packed with questions, and I cannot do justice to them in a brief reply.

    The following may be too terse, but let’s try it.

    I conclude that it is ONLY through conversations that we discover and shape our own and each others’ possibilities, futures, and capabilities for interacting with our worlds. Talking (and listening) offer the only tangible, direct path to understanding and intervening effectively in what is going on when we are designing, delivering, or diagnosing social interactions. Everything else is, by analogy, like the work anthropologists do when they attempt to infer the practices of a community by observing the shards and detrius of their past existence.

    I agree that filtering information is not a useful method for producing value (although people with good backgrounds and questions can sometimes do interesting things with databases.)

    I wrote a good amount about the notions of “knowledge” and “value” a couple of years ago, in a chapter of the book “Inquiring Organizations” titled, “Wise Organizations?” “Information” and “Knowledge” are problematic terms here. “Value” is an assessment (evaluation or interpretation) made by some speaker or community of speakers, in the background of concerns they embody. As concerns shift, so do the interpretations of value (and waste). (As in “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.”) Then it stands to reason that statistical paths to assessing value are going to be fraught with difficulties. (As in Enron.)

    I look forward to questions and comments as I roll out the other pieces I am working on.

  3. Chuckle.

    Your entry here is not terse. If there is anything I have learned in my life, a conversation worth having is an opening. In the beginning any conversation can be awkward or terse just in the birthing process. Meaning emerges out of ongoing dialogue and the commitment of the people in conversation to discover that meaning.

    As you know well the first lesson, Flores taught anyone was based on the lesson of Kotoba, the Japanese word for “word” which implies the flowering of meaning.

    I think for many, meaning turns into a definition rather than an examination of value in inquiry.

    Let’s stay in touch on this one. I am currently focused on developing a thought leadership on “exercising precaution.” While this principle for many implies environmental justice and sustainability, it is in fact the exercise of engaging in how to “do no harm.”

    In my literature review recently, I saw how so many want to weave this principle into a method or series of rules, when in fact it is a schema for thinking about culture and change.

    You refer to “inquiring organizations” above in one of your paragraphs. One thing that has fascinated me as of late is that the most popular search words that bring people to my web site are “intangible form(s) of organization. A conversation is just that and as knowledge is shared and trust grows, I believe within that evolution is the concept of “service,” and what that implies and how the value points (described by Verna Allee) shape knowledge into an asset.

    Let’s stay in touch. I’m happy to read anything early stage from you if you like as I can. Currently I am working on a challenging article and sometimes deeply focused on that. My email to be in touch with me directly is lavinia@workecology.com.

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