Using Story-Telling as a powerful tool in your Service Design arsenal

I thought this article by John Hagel was absolutely brilliant! What he has written about is really important and has implications for all of us in Business.

He tells us about the value of Stories in effectively communicating complex pieces of information, a lesson anyone in Service Design would benefit from reading. Its amazing, recently we have undertaken weeks and weeks of research for one of our clients and despite the rigour and ideas we developed, the most powerful and most effective way of demonstrating our grasp of their business was telling them a story about a particular interaction that occurs time and time again when potential customers try to engage with our client.

You can source the original post from John here at his blog Edge Perspectives or read it below. Either way, take ten minutes to have a read and think about the implications and opportunities for helping communicate and deliver change in your organisation.

From Research Monographs to Story-Telling: New Forms of Communication in the Big Shift

The Big Shift cascades through all dimensions of our life.  The Big Shift will also transform how we communicate with each other. We are moving from a world of deep analysis communicating explicit knowledge to a world of rich, personal narratives communicating tacit knowledge. Narratives powerfully help to shift perception from static objects to dynamic relationships (the focus of my previous posting).

20th century communication – research monographs rule

The 20th century was an era of research monographs, slicing into the complex reality we all confronted, seeking to simplify it and focus us on the elements that really mattered.  We pursued research and explored many new frontiers but we did not rest until we had the knowledge stocks appropriately codified and reduced to writing in iron clad patents and copyrights. We knew that the real work and wealth creation did not start until we had protected stocks of explicit knowledge and reduced the knowledge to routine tasks that could be efficiently scaled.

Serious research required large data sets that could yield statistically significant results.  It would be even better if the results could be reduced to a simple yet universal formula that could be reliably applied to yield predictable results across as many situations as possible.  The more universal the results, the more scalable the activity could become.

Stories, on the other hand, were for kids. As early as possible in school, children were brought into the world of abstract concepts and scientific analysis. Stories at best were ghettoized into literature classes. Literature and arts were nice to have, budget permitting and as long as these programs did not conflict too much with the real work of bringing children to a level of “maturity” that would allow them to enter the workforce and become productive employees, able to handle the basics of explicit knowledge, literacy and numeracy.

This message was reinforced in a variety of subtle and not so subtle ways.  Virtually everyone in their academic careers has encountered the ultimate put-down: “The plural of anecdote is not data.” Get serious. Forget the stories, even if there are many of them, and focus on hard, raw data that can be massaged into real knowledge.

When we entered the workforce, this message was reinforced time and time again.  “Don’t tell me stories, bring me data” could be emblazoned above the door of every conference room in the large corporations that drive our economy. Spreadsheets and PowerPoint charts ruled while memos summarized the findings and made the case for action. Stories could be read for entertainment and relaxation in our leisure time, but they had no respectable role in the workplace. Workers furtively gathered at the water cooler to tell stories, but quickly disbanded when their bosses showed up to check in on them.

The impact of the Big Shift

But here’s the thing. Knowledge stocks in general diminish in value as the changing world renders more and more of this knowledge obsolete.  This increases the need to generate new knowledge. New knowledge inevitably has a higher proportion of tacit knowledge in its early development. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge that is the most difficult to express, either because it is so new and so unfamiliar or because it is so deeply embedded in our practices that we are not even aware of it.

As tacit knowledge grows in value, we need different ways of communicating it. When we first encounter new and unexpected events or results, we often have a hard time even expressing what happened, much less reducing it to the abstract, conceptual language that explicit knowledge pulls us toward. We need different ways of communicating what we encountered.  What do we tend to fall back on?  Stories.

Pick any area that is just emerging.  It could be some new technology frontier like cloud computing or a new set of practices like open source courseware.  One key indicator of these emerging areas is a rapid growth in the number of conferences. What are people doing at these conferences? They are telling stories to each other, sharing experiences, seeking advice and input regarding those experiences and learning from each other.

The unique value of stories

Stories emerge as an increasingly central form of communication in times of rapid change because they so richly reflect the needs of the time. In particular, they help us to shift our perception from static objects to dynamic relationships.

Stories by their very nature are dynamic rather than static. Stories are ultimately about movement and development.  They engage because they immerse listeners in changing circumstances and the challenges and opportunities created by change.  Stories focus on sequences of events and highlighting the causal forces shaping these events. They are far more “true” than snapshots.

Stories are about relationships at multiple levels. Stories situate their protagonists in context – they help the listener to understand a complex set of relationships that shape the choices and movement of the protagonist. In a story everything is related. Stories integrate apparently disparate elements and make their relationships visible. They take people and things and focus on relationships rather than objects.
There’s another set of relationships developed by stories – the relationship between listeners and the protagonists as well as between the story-teller and listeners.  Even more generally, as PJ Manney reminds us, stories help to cultivate empathy, encouraging listeners to understand the perceptions and motivations of others.  This empathy extends far beyond the story at hand and helps listeners to be empathetic in all aspects of their lives. Thus, in many ways, stories help to build new relationships, rather than just describe existing relationships.

Stories powerfully illuminate tacit knowledge. By focusing attention on the motivations and practices of the protagonists they help us to gain insight into tacit knowledge that cannot be reduced to explicit knowledge.  We indirectly access the tacit knowledge through a deeper understanding of context, choices and practices of specific individuals.

Stories inspire the imagination, rather than simply communicating existing knowledge.  By pulling us into a new and often unfamiliar context and helping us to see this context through the eyes of someone else, stories help us to break out of our existing frames of reference and inspire us to see things in very different ways.  As a result, stories can generate sparks of new insight that, properly nurtured, can lead to fundamentally new knowledge about complex and rapidly evolving situations. In the end, stories are not just powerful ways to communicate existing tacit knowledge; they help to catalyze the creation of new knowledge.

Stories are catalysts. One story often pulls out other stories from other people. Stories can begin to build upon each other and draw other people in.  They spark broader conversations and begin to establish a common ground for shared understanding, helping to build trust based relationships.

Stories provide powerful filters that help us to orient ourselves in complex and rapidly changing worlds.  On a daily basis, we are bombarded by an ever expanding array of stimuli that spread our attention ever more thinly and risk disorienting us in terms of a sense of what matters and what is simply noise.  Stories help to focus our attention.  The task of the story teller is to reduce a complex situation to its essence, making difficult decisions about what matters and what is simply extraneous while still preserving the relationships and textures that drive forward movement.  The result can be very helpful to listeners in terms of communicating what is really important in a world that distracts and diminishes our ability to focus. At the same time, stories also encourage listeners to use their own imagination to enrich the context of the story – they pull listeners in and invite them to co-create the world at hand.

Stories focus on agency. Stories highlight the role of individuals and groups in acting upon challenges and opportunities.  They give listeners a sense of the possibility and importance of action, rather than simply passively absorbing what is going on around them.  They motivate listeners to make choices and act.  They also show the potential to reflect on and to learn from action, as the listeners are encouraged to do when they hear stories about others.

Stories help develop a questing disposition and passion. Stories are often about protagonists who are curious and seeking something that is difficult to attain.  By helping us to put ourselves in the situations of these protagonists and experiencing the questing disposition in a very personal way, they inspire us to pursue similar quests. Passion is about pursuit and stories can similarly ignite passion as we experience in a deeply personal way the satisfaction and rewards of pursuits. The potential for passion is enhanced by the passion that successful story-tellers bring to their craft.  The stories that engage the most are the ones where the story-tellers communicate their own passion as well as the passion of their protagonists.

For all of these reasons, stories will become an increasingly central form of communication in the Big Shift.  Stories help us to make sense and to make progress in complex and rapidly changing times in ways that more conventional forms of communication simply cannot.

Bottom line

So, what does this mean for corporate executives? Executives have generally viewed stories as somewhat suspect distractions from the focus and data required to run the business.  As we move from a world where scalable efficiency is the source of wealth creation and capture to a world where scalable peer learning becomes a much more powerful source, stories assume a much more central role in the communication arsenal of executives.

The ultimate task of leaders is to help the people around them make sense and to make progress.  In a world where performance pressures are mounting and the old assumptions no longer have as much validity, stories can be a powerful means for leaders to accomplish their mission. Stories become critical to build shared understanding among employees, but they also become increasingly powerful in helping to orient and engage third parties and customers.

Leadership is about pulling people out of their current situation and helping them to see the potential and opportunities that exist around them.  Leadership is ultimately about helping people to pull out of themselves their potential, helping them to see and achieve the potential that lies latent within all of us. By pulling people into a different context and building connections with other people, stories can help leaders to be more effective.

For those who are intrigued by the increasing importance of stories, Steve Denning represents one of the most thoughtful proponents of narrative as a way to strengthen leadership.  In particular, his book, “Squirrel, Inc.” explores a broad array of story-telling genres and analyzes their importance for leaders.

On a personal level, stories help to integrate our own experiences into an overall personal narrative. Personal narratives help to provide us with context and orientation in our own lives. Daniel Siegel in his important new book Mindsight makes the case that integrated personal narratives are an important marker of psychological health.

Stories matter.  Analysis and explicit knowledge still have a major role to play.  But stories and the tacit knowledge they convey are essential if we want to venture out to the edge, build a deep understanding of what is happing out there and help to communicate that understanding back to our colleagues in the core.

We have a choice. We can stay closeted in the core, hiding behind patents, research monographs and charts of compelling data, and staying well in the comfort zone of the forms of communication that have contributed to our success to date.  But the complacency that breeds can be very dangerous in the Big Shift.  Far better to venture beyond our comfort zone and master new forms of communication that will help us to make sense and to make progress in an increasingly complex and challenging world.

And, yes, I am aware of the profound irony that I wrote this entire blog posting without telling a single story. I am a prisoner of my 20th century education and still struggling to master the art of story telling.

Why developing solid Service Principles are so important

Below is the latest blog i just received from Seth Godin. He (as he does most days) makes an important point especially for Service based companies and provides additional reasons why Service Design can be such a potent weapon for progressive companies.

It’s not JUST the steak or the phone call or the insurance cover that your customers are buying when they look to buy something from you. Its not JUST the all the elements that make up the customer journey and everything within it. The touch-points that deliver it, the spaces where engagement with customers occurs through channels such as in-store, call centre, postal mail, or online. The ‘moment’ within each touch-point where there is an interaction and your staff or systems engage with your customers.

These are all crucially important and without it, your business will not thrive and grow new and recurring revenue streams. But how do you handle situations when the unexpected happens. When there is no script, no exact procedure?

We have been working with a large Australian based firm recently who is acknowledged as a great Service Innovator and relative to their peers, they are head and shoulders above in terms of customer experience and growth. However they also know that their competitors are quickly imitating them in marketing, minimising the perceived gap. It’s time to leap ahead again with a sustainable differentiator.

Having developed deep insight through design research methods we have developed innovative human centered Customer Journey Maps, an Experience Strategy and undertaken Intention Engineering.However you cant stop there. On top of that we have developed the mortar that holds all those bricks together. It’s a set of Service Principles that allow their team to take the right decisions each and every day when there is no touchpoint, no planned interaction. It provides an important guide, a set or principles on how to act to remain customer focused even when no-one is looking and no one is listening. It fills in all those ‘in between moments’ that all add up to the delivery of an exceptional customer experience and transformed loyalty and profitability for companies.

As is quite often the case, the ideas are the relatively easy part, the real expertise comes in how you hang it all together and make it work in a repeatable, sustainable manner making it work within your clients organisational systems and infrastructure. That is our singular goal here at Proto Partners and should also be for each and every Service Design firm.

Seth’s blog entry is below

Scott McCloud’s classic book on comics explains a lot more than comics.

A key part of his thesis is that comic books work because the action takes place between the frames. Our imagination fills in the gaps between what happened in that frame and this frame, which means that we’re as much involved as the illustrator and author are in telling the story.

Marketing, it turns out, works precisely the same way.

Marketing is what happens in between the overt acts of the marketer. Yes you made a package and yes you designed a uniform and yes you ran an ad… but the consumer’s take on what you did is driven by what happened out of the corner of her eye, in the dead spaces, in the moments when you let your guard down.

Marketing is what happens when you’re not trying, when you’re being transparent and when there’s no script in place.

It’s not marketing when everything goes right on the flight to Chicago. It’s marketing when your people don’t respond after losing the guitar that got checked.

It’s not marketing when I use your product as intended. It’s marketing when my friend and I are talking about how the thing we bought from you changed us.

It’s not marketing when the smiling waitress appears with the soup. It’s marketing when we hear two waiters muttering to each other behind the serving station.

Consumers are too smart for the frames. It’s the in-between frame stuff that matters. And yet marketers spend 103% of our time on the frames.

Biker-centered design in Denmark showing real empathy

I really thought this was perfect sense and showed a good understanding of human behaviour or in this case challenges. Simple, elegant and effective –  all things that good Service Design should be.


Check the railings that the man is holding onto and resting his foot on. It’s located on a little Copenhagen traffic island where cyclists often wait, reports

The City of Copenhagen has implemented this double railing simply as a convenience for the cyclists who stop here. A high railing to grasp with your hand and a foot railing for putting your foot up, if that’s what you fancy doing. Either way you can also use the railing to push off when the light changes.

The foot rest reads: “Hi, cyclist! Rest your foot here… and thank you for cycling in the city.”

It certainly is a fine example of the City understanding human behaviour and basic anthropology.


Read article at Core 77

Sydney Service Design Drinks & Thinks /2

Last night we held our second Service Design Thinks and Drinks in Sydney at Trinity Bar Surry Hills. I presented a Service Design case study undertaken by Proto Partners for Contours Fitness Studio, a women only gym that has over 200 studios across Australia.

Ellie Nichol from BT Financial Group who attended the SDN Conference in Madeira last year provided some great insight into some of the hot topics from the conference and demonstrated how BT have already successfully employed these methods in their work here in Australia.

Following the presentations we had a great discussion about Service Designs’ role in Business in Australia and some ideas on communicating its increasing relevance to the Australian Service sector.

It’s always important to drink your own Coolade so following the presentation of the Contours Case Study where we showcased the insights derived from using NPS for Contours,  we are over the next few days going to unxertake some user research and undertake Net Promoter Score  on the Australian Servicedesigning Drinks/2 to garner feedback and suggestions to make this a better Service experience.

An idea we have had, sparked by Ellie’s presentation where she discussed “Customers engaging with Customers” is a suggestion that at the next SD/3 we co-create the Sydney Service Design Drinks customer journey and touchpoint experience. It might be a fun way to get everyone involved in a real Service Design project and improve our own event. Love your feedback on this idea at

Sydney Service Design Drinks /3 will be held at 505 Crown Street, Trinity Bar at 6.30pm on March 16th, so pop it into your diary and bring along a friend.

Service Design Drinks 2

Service Design Drinks 2 is coming up quick!

6.30pm, Tuesday 19 January 2010

Trinity Bar, Surry Hills (Google map for Trinity Bar).

We’ve got two awesome presentations lined up. A great service design case study of Contours ladies gyms from Damian Kernahan (Proto Partners) and some wise words of experience from Ellie Nichol (BT Financial Group). Followed by a quick round-up of what’s been happening in service design around the world from Suze Ingram (Service Design Hub).

This is only our second meeting. The first was a hit – so don’t miss this one.

Let us know if you are coming by sending a quick “I’ll be there” email to