My guest in this episode is Kate Tarling, a service leader and specialist who helps large organisations create successful services, by changing their working practices. She does this through consulting, training and writing, and regularly advises boards, executives and teams. She’s managing director of a services consultancy she founded in 2012 and previously held senior leadership roles in government and the private sector.
She is the author of best-selling book The Service Organization.
She has spoken about services, design and leadership at Harvard University, UCL, Google, the Estonian Government and the British Institute for Government.
Here we speak about her must-read book, ways to enable change and service design within large organisations, how to understand and help people get aligned, and the relationship of service design to product design.
Note: This transcript is machine-generated and may contain some errors.
[00:00:00] Andy Polaine: Hi, and welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels, zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organizational transformation and onto changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Pula. I’m a design leadership coach, service design and innovation consultant, educator and writer.
My guest today is Kate Tarling, a service leader and specialist who helps large organizations create successful services by changing their working practices. She does this through consulting, training, and writing, and regularly advises boards, executives and teams. She’s managing director of a service consultancy she founded in 2012 and previously held senior leadership roles in government and the private sector, which is also author of the bestselling book, the Service Organization.
She’s spoken about services, design and leadership at Harvard University, UCL, Google, the Estonian government, and the British Institute for Government. Kate, welcome to Power of Ten.
[00:01:04] Kate Tarling: Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.
[00:01:06] Andy Polaine: So first of all the question I always start off with, with guests is, what’s been your own journey to here? What did you initially start off doing or want to do, and how did you end up where you are now?
[00:01:17] Kate Tarling: Mm, early on, um, like even while I was a student, I was somewhat interested in the internet and the very beginnings of it. Um, and I was lucky enough to have a job coding, uh, links for one of the first sort of big company intranet sites.
Um, and I barely understood the worldwide web at the time, but that set a bit of a precedent. Um, And much of my sort of early career in my twenties was with sort of larger organizations that were somehow based on the internet, so telecoms firms, gaming firms, um, and then later on into consultancy. And I tended to look at all sorts of, all sorts of different areas.
So, um, I spent some time in, uh, marketing, in operations, um, and then I. Began to be kind of interested in customer experience and it was years until I had heard of a field of human-centered design or um, anything like that, and I think it was only coming together. Later on. So with that background of what it’s like to be sort of very much running services, operating services, choosing how many people you needed in a customer service center, for example, um, I think that explains why I’ve always been interested in how large service organizations work, um, and what makes it hard.
To do well.
[00:02:48] Andy Polaine: It’s charming you said I started off coding links.
[00:02:51] Kate Tarling: Yeah. It would literally, I could text markup language.
[00:02:57] Andy Polaine: Yeah, exactly. Now, I was, I was talking earlier today about this actually of those sort of very early days of thinking, oh, what does this all mean? And so, you know, you talked about the, the organizational bit and obviously your book, which is very, very good.
I really think, and one of the things I still teach services on, and one of the things I often say to my students is, Hey, you know, if you’re going to be, I. Complaining about the fact that the organization doesn’t get it and stakeholders don’t get it. And this is, you know, and they, why can’t you just get on and do the design work and, you know, uh, and do the service design?
You’re kind of in the wrong business, right? It’s a bit like firefighters complaining that they, it’s a bit smokey and they get burnt occasionally. You know, it’s just, it’s part of the work. And I think mostly, and we’ll get to this, I think most of the work is the organization ranking, right? Um, and so you do, you know, the book is really fantastic for this and it’s very, very practical, but it’s also got a lot of really nice mindset shifts and reframes in there that I think are very useful.
Now, having said that, There is a part of this organizational wrangling bit, which is really teeth pulling, like to experience. It is quite, it can be really kind of grinding. Uh, I’m really interested to know what you, you obviously you sort of, it makes your mouth water to kind of have those, uh, difficult or complex organizations to, to navigate.
What is the attraction there for you to tackling that kind of hard bit of it?
[00:04:21] Kate Tarling: Yeah, good question. Um, I think it’s partly comes from the difference between, you mentioned sort of service design there and there’s real difference isn’t there? Between using your skills and experience to like design or improve services for people and then getting your, and then the reality of that, which is getting your organization to do what’s needed for that to happen because yeah, the two are sort of closely linked, but one can’t happen without the other.
Um, and you are right. It’s really hard sometimes, and, um, I, there’s, um, I think you have to have an interest in, uh, diplomacy as well as sort of going after the end, the, the end result or the outcomes you’re after. And so if you’re very focused on sort of what you want to make happen, for me, it helps explain, well, I.
These are simply tasks and activities and necessary things to do along the way in pursuit of that goal. Um, but I also think it’s really interesting. These are systems of people. Um, I find people really interesting. Everybody’s trying to do the right thing. No one sets out to try and make a bad organization or make a bad service.
And so it’s just inherently interesting. How do you kind of bring understanding that all everyone’s trying to do the right thing, something isn’t working about that. Mm-hmm. If you come in with the idea that, well it’s lucky I’m here cause I’ve got all the answers. You know, you’ve been doing this wrong until now.
Like obviously none of us would like that.
[00:06:02] Andy Polaine: That’s the savior service designer.
[00:06:04] Kate Tarling: Exactly. So, Um, I guess approaching it with understanding diplomacy, trying to help people work with people to get the right sort of things happening and done for me is just inherently interesting. And part of the work, and I can’t sort of separate it in that way,
[00:06:24] Andy Polaine: but when was the sort of moment where you realized that, but also where you realize you had, uh, a particular ability or insight into.
Doing that kind of work.
[00:06:34] Kate Tarling: I think for some of my career I wasn’t aware so much of the need for it, which is. Partly why I wanted to write a book to guide others to it. But, um, mm, there was, there’ve probably been many points, but one in particular, I think I just completed a really interesting piece of work.
We’d taken a sort of classic human-centered design process, done really interesting user research to find out all sorts of problems with the service. Um, we had related those problems to costs. Potential revenue opportunities. So had quite compelling business case for investing in improvement and it, it just fell on in a really sort of hard ground.
It didn’t match all the existing programs and portfolios that were already underway that sort of thought they were doing some of this, rightly or wrongly. The leadership was so distant from the work. They didn’t really kind of buy into the idea that. You could make things easier for people and that that would have a knock on effect on operations.
And so it was like, ah, you can do the most impressive, useful piece of work, and it’s not gonna go anywhere unless you’ve got an understanding of the organization, how it works, how decision making happens, where investments currently being made. And if you can’t make those links, It is too easy for you to get sidelined, whatever you’re doing, however good it is.
[00:07:55] Andy Polaine: And then the other bit of that question of like, when did you realize, oh, I have a kind of a way of thinking about this or a, an ability to, to do that kind of wrangling and getting that kind of buy-in and, or do you, I mean, I presume you feel that cuz you’ve written about it so well, uh, or is it still hard work?
[00:08:16] Kate Tarling: Well, it’s not easy for anybody. Mm. But certainly when you start to let go of the idea that the way that you think to approach work is the right way. Yeah. And it’s everybody else’s fault for not thinking that way and instead being like, okay, well if somebody doesn’t agree that this is useful or they think they’re already doing it, like sort of 50% trusting that they’re right, 50% holding back for thinking about it.
And so I think just. At that point starting to say, okay, let’s go and look at your program portfolio and find out what you are doing, why you think that you are doing it all or really successfully anyway. So I think there’s a, it’s, I dunno if it’s a moment more than a sort of mindset of like, okay, yeah, not gonna assume that I’m right about this.
Even though it looks like, yeah, I’m just coming up with a bit of sort of humility.
[00:09:08] Andy Polaine: Yeah. Did you have some sort of crashing and burning before that moment that sort of led you to that moment of humility?
[00:09:15] Kate Tarling: Well, for possibly inadvertently, but definitely, um, no, it, in sort of the general zeitgeist of what was going on in terms of, you know, the growth of sort of digital and design.
Coming into organizations to transform people. Yeah. And it, um, and I think although you do need a bit of a right, we’re gonna do this differently, this is what’s happening and a bit of sort of power and motivation to make that happen. One of the downsides is that some people can feel othered. Yeah. Yeah.
And then if your intent on changing the whole organization, it’s really hard to do if you’re coming at it as a separate, you know, a separate team or a separate person trying to drive that agenda. Yeah.
[00:09:57] Andy Polaine: Yeah. I mean, having worked for a consultancy and done a lot of that, I think, you know, that’s always the double-edged sword. Obviously as, as consultancies, they have a usually a kind of broader range of experiences across industries. Um, you know, and even though every client would say, well, and of course we are different, they, they’re kind of not really, you know, their, their industry is, but the problem they’re having is often the same.
And you have a bit more sort of license as a consultant to sort of come in and. Disrupt the kind of politics, if you like, a little bit. I think that, you know, that is the problem is that then A, you, you go again and b Yeah. That othering is a nice way of putting it. Um, it happens and uh, the organizational antibodies kick in and then nothing goes anywhere.
[00:10:36] Kate Tarling: Mm-hmm. And there were like, there were pros and cons of all approaches aren’t there? Like, yeah. Time it takes, how widespread it is, what you get done, and like all of these are sort of variables depending on the approach you take.
[00:10:49] Andy Polaine: That’s what I was just about to say about the time thing. You know, I think it’s unlike a.
A thing where it’s maybe, you know, make us a website, make us an app or anything. And obviously those things then have longer lifespans. Uh, but there’s a sort of clear deliverable, you know, it could be build and implement our new SAP system. Mm. There’s still a sort of clear moment of delivered and done and kind of, uh, there I think an, you know, and it’s usually a.
You know, relatively short timeframe, you know, 3, 6, 12 months or something. Um, whereas, I mean, I’ve worked about you, but I’ve worked on services design projects where from, you know, the moment of the very first sort of workshop to kick things off to, you know, to even just start the research to the, a pilot going out, you know, to maybe a few hundred people was two years.
And actually, you know, there’s some things that I’ve worked on in Australia where, you know, Five years later, someone got in touch with said, we’ve just gone out of pilot and we’re live with this thing. You know, cuz it was a very big and complex project. And that is, you know, in the, in the sort of quarterly cycle, uh, particularly of consulting in the kind of rapid cycling of that, that’s just an age.
But even in, in internally with the organizations who are still caught in those cycles, that’s just such a kind of long view that I think the organization struggles to. Sort of grapple with that as a, as a sort of unit of time.
[00:12:09] Kate Tarling: Mm. It always feels like there are, you can do sort of work at different levels almost simultaneously, can’t you?
Like the, even if you are working on, you know, I’ve worked on some pretty. Enormous complex public services in my time, but trying to break down how to work on something so that you can be learning, delivering something, iterating, changing, testing within those shorter timeframes. Feels like the only kind of safe way to approach the reality of complexity at scale.
Yeah. Like what’s sort of building on, on from it. But the thing that inevitably takes time is wider kind of cultural shifts around around that, that the rest of the organization might take. Like how they look at how governance works or how they handle sort of reporting cycles to, as part of the. You know, corporate activity, um, or like how funding works.
Like those are much bigger changes or just on a personal level, how we think about our role. Um, there like that takes time. And again, it really helps if people have some specific experience of how those things could work differently. Yeah. But yeah, the reality is, particularly in big services and big organizations like this, it it can take months and years to have profound shifts.
But you can always do things within the week, months, quarters as well, I think. Yeah.
[00:13:37] Andy Polaine: There’s a kind of fractal nature to that, I think, where you can kind of, there’s the big thing and then you zoom in and there’s another thing, and then you need to keep zooming in. And each thing is sort of complex in its own right.
And the worst bit is obviously that everything’s connected to everything else in that very sort of systems ecosystem sense of things. And I think that’s one of the things that makes it so hard because the organization, particularly if they’re coming from much more of a sort of project management sort of industrial, Set up, which is what most organizations still are stuck in, you know, their, their desire.
The sort of natural habit is, let’s break this down into smaller chunks. And disconnects them from each other so we can work on each bit. And of course then that moment of disconnection is when it all starts to to fall apart. Mm-hmm. I’m interested, I want to ask you sort of an author’s question. Actually.
One of the things, because of that fractional nature of things, one of the things that we struggled when we were writing our book on service design was like, in what order do you tell this story? Cuz a book as a linear medium and you know what’s the right chapter structure? And we, at one point we kind of.
Printed everything out and put it all up on the wall and, and kind of in, in, in this very room actually. And, and so moved it all around because we, we thought, well, this isn’t quite working and reading your book, I, I was struck by you could kind of read your book backwards and equally as forwards because your final chapter is about sort of making better services, the organization’s strategy.
And I think the chapter before is about governance, um, or support from people at the, at the top and that kinda stuff. Mm-hmm. And the beginning is about this idea of redefining your service, you know, from the outside. In, you know, you kind of need both of those, right? The impetus could come from either way.
And I’m wondering, just had you had, was that clear the, the structure of this? Or was that something you also struggled with when you were writing?
[00:15:18] Kate Tarling: Oh yeah. It’s, um, oh, it’s really hard writing a book, isn’t it? Um, it would, it most definitely was not obvious how to structure a book like this. Um, but there were a few principles that I was trying to use.
So one is that, This is complex stuff. I don’t know that any one organization would do everything all at once or have the capacity to, so I wanted to make a book that you could pick up and read the chapter so you know, if service, leadership and ownership is a particular theme, As it is with many organizations right now, that you could dive in and look at that chapter or reread or pick the page.
That was the most helpful in the share it with someone else. Um, for that you didn’t necessarily need the whole background. That said, I was also, I think the overall is if you find yourself inside a large organization and your goal, your remit or your desire is to help make it a better service organization, what are some of the natural steps you might take and.
So hit the nail on the head here. I don’t think you can do like, just demonstrating by making one better service or one better product. I don’t think the rest of the organization is magically gonna look at that and go, oh, okay, brilliant. We can, we think we need to work really differently now to make that happen everywhere we, we’ve got it.
That doesn’t happen by itself, but neither of you remain talking in abstract with leadership. It’s really hard for them to kind of see for themselves what it looks like when you’re working differently. So to do the two together. So the book starts with, okay, you’re inside an organization. Here’s some of how you might start on a practical level.
What’s useful? Bringing a bit of order to what’s often chaos or bringing a narrative about what are we doing the same that might be common, that we could probably handle more sensibly across an organization and then expanding out from there. So, hang on. Have we actually got a strategy for all these different services we’re operating?
How might decision making happen and what about the teams that we need? So it can kind of grow from there. It’s, yeah. Trying to handle two, two things at once.
[00:17:26] Andy Polaine: Mm-hmm. And, you know, the, the, the book starts with this idea of redefining your organization. So in that sense, I guess you sort of, the beginning sort of meets the end.
Like it does connect background again if you see it as a cycle, but it’s a redefining your organization by the service it provides. And then you kind of talk about this idea of, you know, defining what a service is from the outside in. Can you, can you talk about those two things because it’s sort of come together?
[00:17:51] Kate Tarling: Yeah. And it’s a sort of interesting concept because in some ways the only things under your control are what’s happening on the inside cuz you can’t dictate what someone does with their lives or with your product or, or so on. It’s just that it’s so often, like in institutions and large organizations kind of forget to make the link or it just becomes really hard or overwhelming or you’re too tired or there’s too many priorities going on.
So it can become really easy to just be focused on the projects, the portfolios, that large piece of technology reform that’s happening, or, um, the pressures on our operational teams. So the idea is to. Be able to lift outta that to have some connecting force that sits above that, that helps you make sense of what is under your control.
And that’s to see or to redefine what performance means in terms of what’s happening in the outside world. And that is everything from what your users know of you or think of you, what they can do, what they can’t do, how easy it is, and so on. Um, but it also, Incorporates kind of your business goals and your drivers.
Like, why are you doing this in the first place? Is it to make money? Is it to manage costs? And then the wider remit, the wider intent than public service. That might be to do with the policy outcome. Um, but otherwise it’s to do with the mission of the organization where it exists and sort of bringing that together, defining that as good performance.
And it sort of brings a, a sense of, right, this is why we’re doing all that we’re doing on the inside. So when I’m thinking about how well it’s working, the actual activities we need, I’ve got a, uh, something to look for, something that brings it all together.
[00:19:34] Andy Polaine: There’s a phrase you use more than once actually in the book, which is this idea of start before you have permission, which I really like.
There’s a kind of slightly sort of geurilla aspect to that. Why is that necessary?
[00:19:46] Kate Tarling: Thinking in terms of services that. Intentionally cut and real realistically cut across every area of an organization. Particularly the, you know, the older, larger organizations that are often structured functionally goes against everything that people think that they’re doing, that the structures based on, our assumptions are based on.
So it’s fairly unlikely. And often the problems of that are quite hidden cause we report on delivery of things being shipped. We don’t report on sort of how well those things work together for the good of the whole. So it kind of goes against everything. So it’s unlikely that someone is saying, do you know what, Kate?
Could you come in and reorient us around services off the bat? And that’s true. I used to think that. If you wanna make big changes in an organization, what you need to do is basically get as high as you possibly can. So if you are the chief executive or the ceo, then you are in a position to be able to do these things with the organization.
So that was part of my plan. Yeah. But I began to realize that’s not true either. Because there’s always people around you that will have different opinions, won’t necessarily see things the same way, have different incentives and motivations. So if you’ve got a board structure, a board of directors that are all structured around individual functions, it might not necessarily be a compelling.
Goal to reorient that around end-to-end services. So realizing, you know, the CEO will come under pressure from, from the chief finance officer or the board, or the chairperson of the board or somebody else. So whatever, whatever role you are at, I think you just have to start. If you can see value, if you can see that it makes sense whether you are an individual who’s just joined an organization, whether you’re a service designer, whether you’re an operational manager, whether you’re the chief executive.
Just starting and then learning and then being able to change course or redirect accordingly seems like the best strategy.
[00:21:48] Andy Polaine: Yeah. And you talk about a lot of strategies like this of, you know, sometimes if you don’t have all the data to just get started with your, you know, your best guesses at this, and then you can kind of go back and get that data or you are you mapping out the service and, and showing people it.
So that once they see it, they have that moment. Oh yeah. Okay. Now, now, now we sort of get it that there’s a, there’s a quite an element of show Don’t tell Larry. I think in that idea of, you know, start before you have permission, because sort of by default, I guess, um, or de facto if the, if the organization is undertaking this process or if you are there, they have problems.
Right? They don’t, they, if, if they knew all of this stuff upfront, they would’ve done it. Uh, you would imagine. Uh, and I guess, so that’s, that’s part of the thing is to, to give the, the diagnosis for people to look at, at the very beginning. Mm-hmm. There’s a, a tension or potential tension there though. Cause on the one hand I think that can be very powerful to say like, here’s, I’ve done the work of kinda mapping out all the bits of this, uh, at the, how this all hangs together as a tire ecosystem.
And you can see now where it’s not matching up or where kind of a, a typical thing is some backstage problem. Appears, you know, so, so some backend system issue or process issue appears later on. As a fail point for the, the customer or end user. And previously, cuz there’s been in separate departments or whatever, they haven’t been connected that that chain hasn’t been connected together.
So that can be really useful cuz at this moment of, oh, now we see it all together and now that gives us greater insight of how we’re all working together there and collaborating. The other side of that is that can also tread on people’s toes, right? Yeah. So how do you, you know, how do you gauge that, do you think?
[00:23:30] Kate Tarling: And at the heart of it is it, it often can mean, uh, a shift in power dynamics or challenging the notion of that an organization is there and that you are allowed to kind of own a bit of the operational or a bit of it, yeah. Rather than you are there working together for the goals of the organization and on behalf of, of who it’s there to serve.
So it does challenge some people’s, I think, notions of what they’re doing and sort of what their entitlement is at, you know, certain points in, in their career.
[00:24:10] Andy Polaine: Yeah. And their status and expertise, right?
[00:24:12] Kate Tarling: Yeah. Particularly, um, it can, can be status. I think what’s really important is that this sort of move to thinking about services which cut across and bring some of those things to bear.
It’s not meant to be sort of an idea that you are forcing upon people in sort of some dogmatic way. It’s meant to be valuable and useful and serve the goals of the organization, the goals of the people, um, that rely on services better. So that can sometimes help to provide some objectivity and sort of logic to follow.
That makes it easier to talk about, well, what are the activities we need? What are the roles we need? Does it make sense that you own the area versus seeing your role very much working with and supporting the other areas to do better? So there isn’t so much of, you know, blame for one area not working very well.
Like it’s a take much more of a kind of shared responsibility and accountability of working together for the good of the whole. So at the very core it starts to shift some, some perceptions about what we’re here to do, I think.
[00:25:19] Andy Polaine: Yeah. One of the ways you talk about doing this is one of the chapters is called Reveal How Services Perform in the Real World.
Mm-hmm. And I wonder if you found that useful to take the focus of your bit isn’t working and you, you know, the sort of naming and shaming or cuz I think people can feel called out by when you, when you sort of map it out and it’s like this bit isn’t working. Uh, and then they will resist the change or they’ll be defensive and so forth, which is a, a natural human reaction.
Yeah. But part of your thing is to really look at. You know, um, you know, what’s the job of the service and its outcomes and, and you know, the classic what good looks like and you know, and what the indicators are for that. But from, from the outside, have you found that that is a, a useful way to sort of take the focus off, off the sort of internal.
Politics and kind of slight naval gazing. So to, to look at it out, uh, uh, an external thing.
[00:26:05] Kate Tarling: Yeah, it’s, it’s definitely one good way that can work to kind of bring some objectivity to it and just to get, sometimes it’s about as much as about land and kind of sh agreement, like shared agreement between areas that this is all what we’re trying to make happen, isn’t it?
And it’s really easy for that sort of, Culture of blame to exist. Like whether it’s, you know, the IT department or the operational team or the digital team or, or somebody else. Um, but yeah, if you can kind of define performance in terms of like either words or numbers and then sort of check in with each other saying this, this feels like what Raymond for, right?
Like to actually. And there will be all sorts of reasons why people find that hard or you know, perhaps I don’t get the thing I need from this other area or this other team, or, it’s really hard for me to know what to do when this sort of thing happens. But it can help kind of connect, like be a practical way to help connect or also to bring in support from.
Leadership as well if needed. So sometimes it doesn’t happen naturally cuz people are incentivized differently. Yeah. But in that case, the, it can help you get support for that process as well.
[00:27:14] Andy Polaine: It’s what I was gonna say is, it’s funny isn’t it? Cause that thing of everyone blaming everyone else just goes to show how everything’s connected to everything else.
Actually, kind of the, the yes, the sort of casting blame around the place that everyone else is, is, uh, It’s of actually mapped. It’s a sign. Yeah. It maps out the system actually, or the ecosystem. It’s not, uh, it’s funny…
[00:27:33] Kate Tarling: It’s a fun little exercise, like mapping the blame.
[00:27:37] Andy Polaine: I wanted to talk about the unit of teams.
You talk about this and I thought it was kinda really interesting. There’s a little quote you said, what is a team if working across the whole service requires the combined expertise of operations, user researchers, product managers, developers, designers, policy and strategy, not to mention legal, commercial, procurement, finance, fraud, and compliance.
You know, we have this two default things, which is projects. It’s a chunk down work and teams to sort of be the container of people, but you kind of talk about this as that’s actually kinda part of the problem in some respects. Mm-hmm. Tell me a little bit about your view on the, kind of the unit of the team and, and how it might be they might sort of work together or be considered differently.
[00:28:19] Kate Tarling: Mm, no, I think I’ve changed my view over time, so I, there’s been a brilliant, um, shift to thinking in terms of multidisciplinary teams, hasn’t there? So, You don’t have your designers separate from your developers and they’re separate from, uh, the product managers or so on. Um, you try to bring people together and have them work together.
It’s just that when we work on really complex services, that that might be part of the answer for the sort of digital parts of, um, a service. But what about. The underlying infrastructure or what happens in the contact centers or for the people making decisions behind the scenes who might. You know, be given me rubbish tools to work with.
Um, so it’s partly like, um, challenging the notion that multidisciplinary team only means some disciplines because of how interconnected it is. But in order to make it workable, you have to have smaller groups of people working together. So rather than split by disciplines, There’s an interesting split, which is more about what that team is trying to make happen and how it’s been used in some organizations is by focusing some teams on operating a service, but including the skills and experience to be able to make changes, not separating the two.
And other teams are working on changing parts of a service, and their entire emphasis is on, you know, testing, learning what might improve in performance, but you also need operational people or policy people alongside you doing that. So to change the nature of a team around what it’s there to do, the activity it’s trying to get done rather than into disciplines or groups or tribes.
[00:30:03] Andy Polaine: Yeah. So you, you have these service teams, depth teams, common capability teams, enabling teams, uh, coordinating teams and what’s the other one? Organizing teams. I think I’m, I’m cribbing off of the, the book right now. Yeah. There operational teams. Yeah, that’s right what you just said.
[00:30:18] Kate Tarling: Yeah. Yeah. There are some that focused on, yeah.
Running or operating and some that are kind of sitting around that. And I think for some people that’s like quite a lot of types of teams. I think that is the reality in very large organizations, that you have people doing those. It’s. Part of an answer to, um, probably like things that just don’t work that well otherwise.
[00:30:37] Andy Polaine: So with those different teams, You know, a very coffman common thing, particularly in larger organizations. But, um, and it’s funny how we keep saying in larger organizations, and when I think back, you know, as a consultant, a lot of, uh, large enterprises say, you know, treat us like a startup. Or we wanna start, we wanna start a kind of in innovation unit that’s like a startup within our company, and there’s this sort of tacit recognition that the way we work now is broken. So can we do something else?
And I’m kind of think back of like, what, what would that mean? You know, to be a startup is how you’d strip away a lot of policy and process and, and uh, sort of cruft around it. Mm-hmm. Um, because a startup has, you know, you might have, might be two people, it might be, you know, 10 people and often people wearing the same hat.
So, you know, often one of the founders is both the CEO and the sort of head of marketing or something. So there, there’s no conversation to be had there. Between them or if, they’re sort of, if then the, and I don’t know, the head of product or head of engineering is the other founder, then they just have a conversation with each other cuz they’re having that anyway.
[00:31:39] Kate Tarling: Mm-hmm.
[00:31:39] Andy Polaine: So the lines of communication are much, much shorter. But also they’re obviously way more nimble. They don’t have procurement departments, they don’t have, they can choose whatever tools make sense, you know, at the time. Uh, becasue they just, you know, put ’em on their credit card or whatever. Mm-hmm. All of that kind of stuff.
And it’s interesting when you kind of strip it all out, it’s kind of everything that makes a large enterprise, right? You just take all of that away and then you have sort of small group of people who communicate well with each other and are able to be sort of fleet a foot and flexible and sort of discover as they go.
One of the things that then starts to happen in a larger org with teams, Is this idea of owning stuff, and we talked about it a little bit before, you know, how do you prevent this situation where you’re going, okay, we’re gonna think differently about how we structure teams and they’re gonna be, you know, around what they’re, what they’re focusing on rather than their disciplines.
How do you stop that turning into just another version of the same thing where, and now they’re sniping at each other and trying to kind of, uh, gain ownership.
[00:32:33] Kate Tarling: Mm-hmm. Yeah, good question. And I think if. You sort of got a range of starting approaches to this, so if you are in the lucky and enviable position of starting what will likely be a big service, but you’ve got, you can start from scratch actually. Like never starting with all those different kinds of teams at once. Like trying to start with one team and then using that one team to seed and grow other teams so that you can have people get to know each other know ways of working, and it’s much easier to have that kind of shared sense of ultimately what’s needed by growing that way. The problem is, it’s like that isn’t how it happens in every situation. Like you often mid, you know, a service might be running for like dozens or even hundreds of years and you’re in the middle of it and there’s all sorts of teams already.
Um, I think it’s not necessarily, given that this doesn’t automatically mean that silos don’t start forming, I think how you pull in working practices around this is really important. So making sure that you do that the teams do feel cohesive, that they’ve at least got a shared view of what they’re ultimately trying to pull together, that you’ve got a rhythm of how you work together.
So what kind of. You know, weekly or monthly interactions, do teams have like a chance for everybody to come together and talk about the changes that are happening, why they’re happening, what we’re gonna learn, what we wanna look out for? Um, and so it’s not, yeah. The team structure by itself does not prevent new silos from forming.
Mm. But how you think about what practices do we need so that we feel like a whole working for the whole. Okay, well let’s try, uh, every Wednesday morning we’re gonna do this thing. On a Monday, we’re gonna have this thing and this is how we’ll know, da da da, and we can see how that works a few months and then we’ll make changes if we don’t feel like we’re pulling together.
Then there’s a whole sort of other working practices that you probably wanna look at at the same time to help prevent that natural movement. Yeah. Whenever you have groups of humans, it’s, it can happen.
[00:34:37] Andy Polaine: I, I wonder if there’s, there’s a discipline stoush that goes, I think it’s an Australian word, isn’t it? Stoush. Argument, um, that goes on there. You know, I, I often rail and you and I are friends with quite a lot of well known product people and often sort of rail at the product community that most of them, if not all of them, are actually working, creating services. And, uh, our mutual friend Jeff Gothelf.
You know, I was very happy to see his quote on the back of your book, uh, where he says, you know, he put "Kate finally puts to bed that, is it a product or a service debate? By proving that all organizations are service organizations." So it’s, it’s there on record. Jeff, my complaint usually about the kind of product thing is it, you know, product has, has risen and it’s done great things, right. And it’s been, it’s been a discipline that’s really kind of grown in the last sort of 15 years or so. But there’s also been a bit of a sort of ownership pull towards product managers and, um, you know, uh, heads of product and so forth. As you know, we are, the, the Steve Jobs is of the organization and kind of the masterminds and, and I guess I’m, I’m talking about when it’s done badly. Uh, like, and Teresa Torres and, and Melissa Perry will be kind of, you know, rolling their eyes at this saying, yeah, but you know, when it’s done well, it’s a collaborative thing, which it is.
But I think there are two different mindsets that go on there and hearing you talk about those different kinds of cadences and rituals and how we work together, I can also think of all the kind of product and lean approaches and or agile approaches that will say, well, we already do all of that.
So, you know, a kind of what’s the difference and how, how do you sort of marry this view? You are talking about here together with that very loud voice that product has inside organizations at the moment.
[00:36:13] Kate Tarling: Mm. And I think you, you do need somebody with, um, a sort of guiding voice because there’s so many influences coming at you, coming at teams, otherwise.
Um, so you need someone who, I mean, great if they happen to know all the right answers. Like, you know, who wouldn’t want that? It’s just that we don’t believe that that can be true. All the time across the board. So, um, someone who can kind of corral the various influences coming in and help to make sense of them, um, or who can do a really good job at communicating what’s going on so that everybody else is in a better position to make decisions for themselves.
Um, So there’s, there’s lots of that kind of leadership role. It might well be a head of product or a product person. It might be an operational person. It probably depends on somewhat the nature of the, um, organization and, and the, the extent of knowledge that they have as well. Um, so I think like definitely there is room for leadership and if teams are, if it’s small and teams can do it for themselves, great.
I don’t think at scale that’s realistic. I think underpinning the wider conversation about, well, hang on, isn’t this what kind of agile means? They’re often thinking in terms of, you know, building software, building pieces of technology, not necessarily how do you run 10, you know, you’ve got a team, a frontline team of 10,000 people running a service day to day. Like what about them? Where’s the sort of, the feedback loop, the learning, the, the tools, the sort of thinking about how this all fits together. Um, and I think really we’re saying like, I think some things are more certain than others. Where you have uncertainty you put certain skill sets together who can kind of build, try, test, learn, iterate together where things have more certainty or they’re more predictable day-to-day you might have different forms of teams.
It doesn’t mean that there’s sort of one size fits all. You either can’t know anything and have to learn everything, or you can know everything predefined, everything upfront. Like neither of those are true. But there are some situations where some works more than others. So I think it’s sort of a maturing a reality, uh, an acknowledgement of scale that brings some of these thoughts and thinking together.
[00:38:24] Andy Polaine: I mean, what this all points to is actually the sort of the, the last kind of two or three chapters of your book around that, you know, strategy really, and having a clarity around that from, from above and, and the, the governance and support from the top.
And I think, you know, when I see. You know, the, what I’m, when I’m complaining about sort of bad product going on, if you like, or product management skills going on, it often, you know, I I, I get it a lot in my coaching cause I’m coaching design leaders who are finding a, are frustrated often, um, by, The things they’re being asked to do or they feel they’re being dictated to and so forth, um, and don’t have the voice, their experience isn’t being drawn upon and leveraged as in the way it could be.
It’s very hard to kind of change things entirely from the bottom cuz a lot of it has to come from the top. But, you know, one of the ways of doing it is to ask lots of pointy questions. Like, why are we doing this and what’s the, how does this fit with our strategy and what would good look like? And, and you soon find out that.
While certainly in those problem cases, it ladders up to, there really isn’t a clarity of vision or strategy at the right, at the top. Mm-hmm. You know, and in fact, leadership are often asking people much further down to sort of define that and have one coach there kind of co-founded CPO’s. Like, I want your, you know, what’s the, what’s the strategy, the design strategy for the next, you know, 18 months.
And it’s like, yeah, but, but what’s the product strategy? You don’t, you don’t really have one. And so they’re actually kind of hoping it’s gonna come from the bottom cause they don’t have it themselves at the top. Mm. And that’s a bit of a disaster. Um, but it’s, it’s kind of common. It’s particularly common as you said in sort of larger order organizations too.
[00:39:59] Kate Tarling: It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? Because in some ways how brilliant to bring the people who are ideally kind of closest to what’s actually happening, what customers and users are doing to help define what we should be doing. That would be better. But, um, if the result of that is completely different, steers lack of vision, no prioritization, that’s the sort of the bad page played, and I think like there are things you can do in that situation aren’t there to, to help to make those logical arguments and links between things and then calling out the consequences of a different steer. But I think it’s, it’s really important to hold a vision. I think in, in as a leadership activity, and that could be a single person as a leader, it could be like a number of people across the team too.
Otherwise, it is really difficult to know what to not do.
[00:40:55] Andy Polaine: Yeah, and I think sometimes, I mean, there’s, there’s a few kind of things that happen certainly in that sort of startup and scale up world where the, the people who are quite good at starting something, starting a startup and that entrepreneurial aspect, and they can get their first few rounds of funding.
They’re not very good at dealing with it when the organization gets bigger and sometimes they just get bored, I think, over it, and so slightly check out. And so they don’t have a kind of purpose beyond. The next few years. Mm-hmm. And then once they’ve got there, it’s like, oh, oh my, no. Now that the party has started, not really sure, you know, not sure really sure how this continues or ends or I’m not interested anymore. Here’s another new shiny thing.
I’d be interested in your view. Um, you know, you obviously work with quite a lot of government and public services. You know, there you get this tension between policy from a, in a governmental political level and what the organization might feel it should be doing. And and how you navigate that.
[00:41:50] Kate Tarling: Mm. I think part of this sort of notion of multidisciplinary comes in very much because it’s sort of shifting the idea that policy is made in complete abstract and isolation and then thrown over the wall to be implemented. And so much work, particularly in UK government in many governments, has been about trying to move away from that position to be much more learning what works.
Being able to change calls deliberately, leaving gaps in policy so that we can learn much, much closer to implementation. So there’s definitely been sort of some shifts. It’s also true just as it is in the private sector though, there’s an awful lot of change and investment happening without a prime directive from a new policy, um, enormous technology reform taking place or, um, It’s another particular, you know, campaign happening.
So it can be a driver, but there’s an awful lot, even in public sector where there isn’t, policy isn’t the driver, it’s something else is like a lot of money is being invested. Can we make sure that we are spending it in the best way for the best value given what we’re trying to achieve overall? Yeah.
[00:42:58] Andy Polaine: I mean, you give some really good examples of how some things require a change of policy to really unlock.
The way you work. Like, you know, and sometimes it’s the, the things we’re asking of people and we think this is a risk thing. And there was a thing about, um, people with newborns having to mm-hmm. Can you just talk, give that anecdote about them constantly having to reprove
[00:43:17] Kate Tarling: Yes. There was a, a new. Bit of, um, policy, and this is often the case, um, talking about when, when governments give support to people and they’re trying to, they’ve got particularly eligibility criteria about who gets the support, cuz they want the, you know, financial support to be in the hands of the people who need it most.
So you have these criteria, but then there’s a concern, well what if someone no longer meets the criteria, but we’re still giving them money? And that means someone else might not be getting the money. Mm-hmm. And in this one example, um, it was looking at, um, people, um, and how much support they would need for, for children.
And, and they were expecting that people would sort of reapply for this on a weekly basis, but it would mean like you are having to constantly demonstrate that you’ve had a newborn and you’ve still got a newborn. It’s like, what is the point of that? Like there are some things that we can know once, we don’t need to keep checking.
[00:44:06] Andy Polaine: And I think you said, you know, what is it that you’re trying to prevent here? And it’s a really good question. I think on, on that it’s particularly around risk and things. And you also then went on to say there’s quite a lot of stuff you can do and transformation that can happen that can actually happen with inside existing policy.
I think policy often gets pointed to as the, you know, as the, the bug bear of kind of. Oh, you can’t do that cuz because policy and actually it also really revisits the actual policy itself. You know, it, it’s usually some how policy has then been implemented in the organization, but the original policy and even more the intent behind that policy.
And when you go back there, you really open up the, the opportunity space to change things.
[00:44:45] Kate Tarling: Yeah, absolutely. And it requires, you know, a bit of archeology.
[00:44:48] Andy Polaine: Yeah, yeah.
[00:44:50] Kate Tarling: As to where notions or thoughts come from
[00:44:53] Andy Polaine: I know that there’s, and you know, hundreds of policies laid down over the years, right?
[00:44:57] Kate Tarling: Yeah. And sometimes it’s not, you know, it, it just is where sort of things get a bit muddied up between saying how something is done in reality in practice. That doesn’t leave room to kind of learn change or even like respond to the fact that, oh, the internet’s here. Now we’re in the digital area. Like things can and should probably work differently.
And there are new risks to think about as well. Yeah. So it’s a more sort of trying to get to a more adaptive position for organizations to be in.
[00:45:23] Andy Polaine: We had a, a workshop with a large, you know, at the beginning of this project I was talking about that took, we went, you know, unfolded over many years because this kept happening we got the policy people in the room in one of the workshops and you know, that comment happened a lot of, oh yeah, no, well that’s not possible cuz policy doesn’t allow. And the policy guy was like, that’s not true. He goes like, not true. And it’s, you know, he kept having to pipe up and no, that’s not true. That’s just, that’s the way this organization has interpreted policy, but this’s, in fact, not, not the case.
[00:45:51] Kate Tarling: Mm. There’s something about like, it’s so easy to do to accidentally block really sensible, different takes on things like, because you think you kind of know stuff or because you are, you know, there’s the whole view about oh, you know, we should, you know, that might be a bit risky.
You know, we wanna, you know, err on the side of caution. Everyone like, oh yeah, yeah, that’s true. Like it’s so easy to dampen down. Yeah. Yeah. Attempts at rethinking, it takes real calling out and the consequences of not doing stunt something differently, often not. Held in equal. Yeah. Uh, which you also need to do a good job of.
[00:46:28] Andy Polaine: Yeah. I mean, I’ve often had in a workshop, literally people were shutting down an idea and saying, you know what? That’s too risky. We can’t do that. Or It’s a PR problem, or whatever. And I’m like, I’m holding a post-it note in my hand. I said, this is just a stick man. And a couple of words on a post-it note. This hasn’t gone out into the world yet, you know, and I’ve sort of crunch it up and if we can throw it away, it’s not yet a thing, you know? And, and I do think that’s one of design’s superpowers actually. Um, and I say this really often, but this idea of the ability to make an idea, uh, more tangible, you know, whether it’s in a little sketch or a storyboard or, you know, sometimes it’s some kind of mapping thing, um, or a concept so that the fear that is kind of building up of, when I project that in my mind of my idea of what that thing would look like, when I look at that idea on a post-it note and it’s horrific and terrifying, versus, oh, now I see it. Now I’ve seen how that would actually work. And, and the, you know, seeing it as a tangible thing, it’s far less scary quite often.
And even if it isn’t less scary, you actually have a thing. You’re all looking at the same thing and you know, and it’s a fantastic alignment ability, you know, and. The fact that designers can do that, um, and actually help everyone else do that too, cuz it’s not, you know, people, everyone will do a stick man drawing.
It’s incredibly powerful and I think we sort of forget that that’s a thing that we can do quite often.
[00:47:50] Kate Tarling: Absolutely, and it helps to de-risk it doesn’t it? Like there are probably ways, like if you are concerned about a PR disaster, what’s the smallest way of trying and seeing and limiting that risk? When you might learn what the benefits are that make you think actually this is the right course of action. And by being able to visualize it, yeah, you put people in a much better position to be able to logically think through some of the implications and consequences and how. You might learn about it safely, which is really powerful.
[00:48:17] Andy Polaine: Which sort of brings us to towards the end of your book, you talk about, obviously support from people at the top, but also this idea of, you know, revolutionizing governance. So not government, but governance. And you started it with, uh, you know, you used to find governance was really tedious, but actually there’s, you know, you go on to talk about this, this thing of there are conversations that are happening at certain points, including in those kinds of workshops, uh, or meetings as they probably are, that are important. Can you tell me why governance is actually is interesting and important?
[00:48:51] Kate Tarling: I think sometimes it’s used as a word to be a sort of scapegoat that’s come to be everything that’s dysfunctional about an organization, isn’t it? Oh, it’s the governance. It’s like the reason why things are so hard, and it was helpful for me to just unpack what do you, what do we mean by governance? What are some of the things that happen that we think of as governance, and it’s decision making, like how decisions are made, how close people are to the work, and the process of scrutiny and challenge and power and influence and all of those things. If you care about making real stuff happen in the world to have real impact, like you have to then be interested in those things because as I learned, a good process by itself does not lead to anything changing unless you can play enough of the game and understand enough about how your organization operates. So for me, it’s kind of, it should be at the sort of cutting edge of where everything our work should be and all sorts of people are missing in those conversations at the moment.
People who really get what’s happening, people who do have a really good, strong nuanced. View of the work, people who are close to the reality of customers and users, um, people who are implementers. Um, so, and you know, prob like by showing up and being part of those forums, um, even to help you just begin to understand how we organizations operating, you can kind of go away then and think about whether it’s relevant, whether you wanna pursue it or not, but just to get an understanding about how decisions are being made and how work gets progressed or stopped, or invested in is really powerful knowledge to have that you can bring to bear in your own work.
[00:50:38] Andy Polaine: It is really, really important. I think this is one thing that, you know very good or sometimes nefarious politicians know is, you know, what, what committee do I need to be on? Where is that decision gonna be made? And you know, they either use it to get something through the cracks and they know how to kind of, you know, get something through the system or they use it to block obviously as well, um, in, you know, when they’re doing it badly. And, uh, Lisa Welchman, who, who wrote a book called, um, Managing Chaos, and it’s called Digital the sub, the sort of tagline is Digital Governance by Design.
Um, she was on the podcast ages ago, um, and she really opened up my eyes to this actually, uh, to this idea of, you know, those kinds of conversations you’re talking about. And one of them things she said is, you know, this stuff you really need to set up early, particularly in, you know, in startups because you know, as it expands, it’s never gonna get simpler and you’re never gonna get less busy. Right. So that, you know, if you don’t do it early on, it, you end up with like a sort of governance debt later on because, you know, it then becomes really hard because establish, you know, practices have become established and ways of working and sort of tacit informal power structures are in there. And it’s not, you know, that’s much, much harder and messy to, to navigate.
[00:51:49] Kate Tarling: And, uh, yeah. And very much is the realm within large organizations because it already exists that way. Um, and a little bit, like we were saying, the difference between kind of leadership in terms of owning and status versus guardianship and collaboration.
There’s a similar thing in terms of, I think, sort of presence in some of those decision making forms can be given as a reward. Um, Or be seen as some sort of status. And that’s, you know, one sign when you’ve got committees that have like dozens and dozens of people. You’ve got like a decision making forum of 25 people that comes together once every three months, whereas, you know, the cadence of the work is happening daily.
It’s like that’s, that’s something else. That’s not a decision making forum. That’s probably really important. Communications engagement for him. Yeah. Or a club best case. Yeah. Uh, but being very clear about how decision making happens. And the need for communications engagement, like respectful, collaboration, informing, and so on, they’re all good, but they’re not the same thing. And to pretend they are is inviting all sorts of dysfunction and delay. And good work being done.
[00:52:55] Andy Polaine: Yeah. I dunno if you’ve watched any of Succession, the series?
[00:52:59] Kate Tarling: Yes I have.
[00:52:59] Andy Polaine: And sometimes I’ve been watching that, you know, and cringing terribly cuz it’s felt like a documentary, you know, of some of the places I’ve worked at.
But you see there, I mean, it was, it what’s sort of cringeworthy and so fascinating about it, you really do see two things, which I think do go on all the time. One is, you know, who’s in the conversation, who’s not, and everyone kind of vying to try and be in a conversation or exclude others from a conversation.
But also that lack of candor, you know, of people kind of half saying things and maybe not just to test out, you know, which side is this person on and I’m going to, you may… and just constantly leaving ambiguity there about what their position is. And so, you know, and it creates this very kind of toxic environment and the, the more the people can be, feel like they can be open and clear um, and, you know, there’s a equity there in, in what people saying to each other, the better.
So listen, we could talk about this for, for ages and ages, but, uh, we’re coming up to time. My last question is always, uh, based on the Power of Ten podcast is based on the… is named after the Eames film, which is called Powers of 10, which is about the relative size of things in the universe to each other.
And you can talk about that sort of ecosystem view, these different zoom levels you see a lot of patterns repeating. It’s really fascinating, you know, from out in the universe, all the way down to sort of subatomic levels. Uh, and so the final question is what one small thing, uh, could be redesigned or is overlooked, maybe, um, that has an outsized effect on the world?
[00:54:31] Kate Tarling: Mm.
This is at risk of sounding a bit cliched, I think, but if ultimately the thing we can control is mostly ourselves. I think how we approach other people and to really focus on kindness and assertiveness as a mode of being. And I say that because knowing that the people that would probably things would benefit from most if they were, are the least likely to make pay attention.
So, you know, there’s that. But I think at an individual level, how one shows up with others has a, has a really outsized impact in our organizations.
[00:55:21] Andy Polaine: I don’t think it’s a cliche tool. That’s a very fine answer indeed. Where can people find you online? Where do you hang out on the interwebs?
[00:55:28] Kate Tarling: Well, these days, LinkedIn, increasingly. LinkedIn, Twitter, um, there’s a website, theserviceorg.com. And um, I blog at kateharling.com and other places on the internet.
[00:55:42] Andy Polaine: Great. I shall put them all in the show notes. Thank you so much for being my guest on Power of Ten.
[00:55:47] Kate Tarling: Thank you. It was such a pleasure talking to you.
[00:55:51] Andy Polaine: You’ve been listening to me, Andy Polaine on Power of Ten. You can find me at @apolaine on pkm.social on Mastodon, @apolaine on Twitter, or go to polaine.com where you can find more episodes, check out my coaching practice and online courses, as well as sign up for my newsletter, Doctor’s Note, if you enjoyed the show, please take a moment to give it a rating on iTunes. As you know, it tickles the algorithms and helps more people find the podcast. As always, get in touch if you have any comments, feedback or suggestions for guests. All the links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening and see you next time.