It is no secret that Design Thinking and Service Design have been around for a while and are slowly becoming mainstream strategic approaches. Also, as I've covered in my previous article, it became a fact, backed by non-stop news and numbers, that the design firm establishment has lost its sweet spot as a one-stop-shop for large organizations that want to tap into the realm of real, delightful and meaningful innovation. From acquired to acquihired, design firms are seeing and feeling the impact of the Design Thinking evangelism they preached to the same companies that are now on the pursuit of an auto-sufficient Design Thinking mode.
It makes sense that large organizations like IBM are finding their way through incorporating Design Thinking as an intrinsic cultural value asset, after all, real design is never about advices and tools. Design is only as good as the amount of human-centric attitude you have ingrained in your culture. People can't create a well-designed chair just because they know how to operate AutoCAD or paint a Monalisa just because they have the necessary tools at their disposal. Attitude, vision, dare, human-centrism all must surface in order for amazing new services to be born. And those quasi-spiritual traits can't be taught with a canvas.
Small Business-Centered Design
So, long story short, we had 30 years of design firm-centered design thinking and now it seems like we are getting ready for 30 more of large organization-centered design thinking. Good for them. But what about small business-centered design thinking? And most importantly: Do we care?
Attitude, vision, dare, human-centrism all must surface in order for amazing new services to be born.
Yes, we care. Or at least I care. And I guess you will too after reading here that 99% of the existent businesses in the US and 95% of the operational business that are live today in this blue planet called Earth are small businesses. Not convinced yet? What about this statement found in the Kauffman Foundation Research report entitled "The importance of Startups in job creation and job destruction":
"Startups create an average of 3 million new jobs annually. All other ages of firms, including companies in their first full years of existence up to firms established two centuries ago, are net job destroyers, losing 1 million jobs net combined per year".
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Yep. I know. Scary sh*, right? So, bottom-line is: Yes, it matters if Design Thinking is not grass-rooted into the heart of small organizations and this should be of concern to every designer out there. Let me put it differently. Say we are in 1995 and you are a specialist in "recyclable thinking," making money by working for a consultancy firm that provides training in the fields of sustainability and environmental practices to large organizations. Would you feel ethically compelled to advise your local bakery, family doctor and local coffee shop on how to separate the trash by type? I bet you would.
Isn't Design Thinking as important? I believe it is. After all, the power of design has proven many times to be the differentiator that separates companies building relevant, meaningful things from, well, those ones spitting useless garbage.
Take also into consideration that these small shops and businesses may be statistically considered tiny but they are definitely not small in the impact they have in our lives. It would be depressing to work all day long teaching companies how to recycle their trash and then come home to see wrongdoing and awful waste disposal practices all around. Well, that's exactly how I feel. The large majority of places I visit every day, and from which my life really depends on, have no clue. Zero. And I don't say this because their services are necessarily bad (or good as a matter of fact), it's just that they run operations that are, for the most part, blind to the perspectives of the people they are serving. And what is more important for a small business than keep it lean and get better every day? Like Dieter Rams would've put it: "Less but better."
The Dutch, a local dining favorite near Core77 HQ in NYC.
That sweet bakery, the coffee shop, the preferred restaurant, that trustable vet hospital, all have a huge, and I mean huge, impact on our quality of living. They are the real ones orchestrating the vast majority of touchpoints we have to deal with when performing our daily activities. And let's not forget the small, fast and furious startups. The small giants "crazy enough to think they can change the world." They are the ones striving to create the needed bridges into a better and more sustainable future.
Can Design Firms Service Small Business?
After writing The Service Startup: Design Thinking gets Lean, a book aiming to democratize Service Design, I decided to move one step further in my quest to democratize design and started to ask myself what could I really do about it.
When I was the CEO for Livework in Latin America I saw first hand how the real challenge lie in the fact that the current design firm model cannot fit the bill for designing for small businesses. This is not related to how amazing these firms portfolios can be. It's just that steering their practice to serve a different scale of a large number of small-sized clients would require the ability to run many small projects at the same time, instead of the classic big bulky ones. And this is bad news. A pivot to this model would demand a brutal increase in team size and structure, at the same time that it would result in price per project reductions, resulting in a deep cut in the revenue per employee indicator. In other words: bad weather, all day long.
The fences are there and they were not moving, that was crystal clear. Whatever I was up to, in order to succeed, would have to carry values like: Globally spread, democratic (not consultancy-like), exponential instead of linear (costs could not follow growth), decentralized (no central "savior" figure) and self-developed, relying in continuous auto-learning and improvement.
Service Design Sprints
Today, exactly a year after its foundation, servicedesignsprints.com is a fully autonomous service design community that checks all those boxes. The community has been bringing design-grade change to SMB's worldwide and it has currently spread through four continents, including key cities like Tokyo and São Paulo and melting pot regions like Silicon Valley. Its community members are called Sprint Masters because of their ability to execute fast-paced accelerated and accessible projects using a model which is a combination of Service Design, Design Thinking and Lean Startup called MVS, Minimum Valuable Service model. The model is open source and it can be downloaded for free here. It was designed to equip small un-resourceful teams to run fast-paced Service Design projects.
And this is exactly what the SDS community has been doing.
Small coffee shops to, yes, vet hospitals, small bookstores, parking lots, mom and pop stores, small franchisees, you name it. Ah, and, of course, startups. Sprint Masters are out there, to the hundreds and growing, fostering real change, palpable, implemented transformations in services that affect, for real, our daily lives. You can read about their transformation stories here.
Sprint Masters in action in Japan, Netherlands, Brazil and the USA.
Not only that but, in an unexpected twist, as the servicedesignsprints.com community organically grows and extends its reach it ends up, unofficially, embracing the culture of large organizations. One great example is Cisco. Recently I designed an internal early stage accelerator program for the iconic connectivity company, based on service design sprints and the MVS model. Cisco, along with other large enterprises are intentionally joining the service design sprint community, only in their case they are creating their own internal army of service design Sprint Masters.
A Service Design Sprint in full swing at Cisco.
It's a new model. One that is very organic and full of surprises. I confess I don't particularly know exactly where this will lead us. Many changes, adjustments, learnings that are pretty different than the traditional design firm model. Oh, that I know for sure.
Like I said, SDS is completing one year this month, and with over one hundred projects, hundreds of sprint masters spread globally, companies like Cisco joining the movement and more than fifty open-published case stories, it would easily sit on the podium as the largest growing service design firm in the world. If it were a design firm. Which it is not and never will be. That I also know for sure.
The future of Design Thinking and Service Design does not belong to agencies and it can't be restricted to fancy schools, universities or large enterprises. Instead, I truly believe it has to be open-source, accessible and democratic. And on that, speaking in the name of the whole servicedesignsprints.com community: we are thrilled to be able to contribute somehow to pushing Service Design Thinking into this direction.