Failure FTW


I’m interested in making public services work better. By embedding service design practice in government I hope to help make services more accessible for everyone- citizens and people working in public services. Service design and user research are hugely fashionable and in demand in Scottish public sector right now but, paradoxically, they tend to be environments that are inhospitable to design.

Why are you here?

Wanting to embed service design in government is a kind of masochistic endeavour. It’s been my experience that the very organisations that have hired me to do research and design come down on me for actually doing it. But why?

First, the process of design has been new to them. They are commissioning and procuring things they don’t really understand yet. With the surge in things like introductory training sessions, how do we spread the good word without diluting or fostering misunderstanding about what service design is in practice?

Second, service design activity and outputs can be uncomfortable, unusual, and unexpected. Non-traditional reporting, unusal workshop methods, prototyping have thrown former clients into a tizzy, which has been soul destroying.

Some of the things I have worked on in the last couple of years have had a negative impact on my wellbeing and the quality of my work. They’ve also compromised improvements for citizens. I want to learn from these experiences and my failures. I want to share share them because I don’t think they are uncommon but it seems we’re not talking very openly about them.

After thinking about some situations that were really difficult to navigate and made me feel like a failure, here are some reflections…

I failed to deflect the transfer of stress

It’s not unusual for us to be called in late on in a project or to be used as chess pieces during an organisation’s ‘transformation’ or on the back of a Ministerial mandate. The level of stress on client side can be enormous and in the past, it has been difficult for me not to take on their stress during projects and that has often meant a dysfunctional relationship with clients from the start.

By not deflecting someone else’s stress and by failing to keep perspective on my role in representing and defending the needs of citizens, I lost my way and got wrapped up focusing too much on the wrong thing. I’m a values driven practitioner. There is a careful balance to strike between satisfying a client and doing right by the people their policies and services impact. Often I came down too hard on client side to me, that has felt like failure.

I failed to help clients use their words

The transfer of stress coupled with a lack of understanding about what user research and service design is in practice has resulted in me be being accused of failure. From now on, I’m making a commitment to reframe ‘failure’ as unclear criticism.

Where I know I have done good work, where the results of user research are hard for a client to swallow, where design ideas seem too far out, some clients have shut off and retreated. The easy way to do that is to chalk the work up to failure with comments like, ‘This won’t help us’,’We already knew that’, ‘The Minister won’t like it’ ‘We can’t do that’. These are not actionable pieces of feedback and they did not come from critical thinking or discussion. From now on I am going to see these kinds of comments as doors to be opened to a different conversation. What is a client trying to say but might not be able to? Are they having trouble giving critical feedback about something they don’t understand? How can I stay confident and help them find their words? Chappell Ellison’s article on giving and taking criticism has been particularly influential on me in thinking about this.

I failed to maintain my role as a leader

I’m riddled with imposter syndrome. At the core of what I’m reflecting on here is about how to hold on to self-respect, confidence and dignity. But if I didn’t have strong experience, skills and expertise I wouldn’t be hired to do this stuff, right? Because I want to help embed service design thinking in public services,  I have a responsibility to help people open up difficult discussions, learn from me and build their own capability. I really like Liz Wiseman’s idea of ‘multipliers’– leaders who look beyond their own talent and focus energy on extracting the talent of others. The level of impact my work has in an organisation is directly linked to the amount of participation, responsibility and agency that organisation takes in the work. One of my most important roles in a job is to leave behind new skills, new ways of thinking and to extract creativity and action. How can I stay strong in my leadership role and be a multiplier?

For me, the answer is through networks of people inside and outside of my immediate peer group. I have been reliant on the OneTeamGov network, Twitter networks, various Slack teams and being able to reach out in DMs to people I know will be there for me. There is not really a union for us agencies, freelancers and contractors. We need to create the conditions, relationships and environments we need and want to see. A lot of us might not be sure we have the confidence to insist on psychological safety, to have difficult conversations with clients or to remind ourselves how amazing we are. It’s necessary for us to stick together through networks to make a united front, to strengthen our positions and keep integrity in our professions.

I failed to treat myself ethically

As someone who carries out research with other human beings, making sure participants feel safe and respected is an absolute priority. Making sure that respect is explicit, project purpose is understood, and that clients and users are heard are obligatory parts of my work. However I have been failing to apply those same ethics to myself. How do I make sure I make the same commitments to myself as I do clients and research participants?

I’ve been inspired recently by the Modern Agile movement. One of their principles is ‘make people awesome’ and another is ‘make safety a prerequisite’. Modern Agile creator Joshua Kerievsky says, ‘Making people awesome isn’t possible if people are not safe. Safety is a basic human need and a key to unlocking high performance. Fear is rampant on too many teams. People are afraid to make changes, afraid to voice their opinions and afraid of making mistakes. The trouble is, fear kills performance. If you have a culture of fear, none of your fancy processes or practices will help you.’

Psychological safety is a belief shared in a team that everyone in that team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as ‘being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career’. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.

The sector I choose to focus on, the public sector, is one of risk averse environments where the perceived risk of failure is extremely high. Because of this, I need to take the responsibility of introducing safety in project teams and normalising that it is necessary to fail in service design. From now on I want to make sure psychological safety is a feature of my work, that it is negotiated or indeed insisted on, agreed on and respected or work pauses. This is a step beyond check ins and course corrections. This means a closer kind of involvement in the work between me and the client. It’s explicitly agreeing dignity and respect and a new kind of relationship.

I’ll keep failing and so I’ll keep learning. My practice will improve through honest and supportive conversations with clients who think service design is some kind of inaccessible dark art. I’ll insist on safe places to ‘fail’ and iteratively improve. I’m keen to talk to anyone who has had similar experiences and wants to build on them or anyone who just wants to see how I’m getting on with all this. Keep in touch 🙂


Posted in: Life in general

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