A year designing on the inside

A year ago I embarked on a 12 month secondment from Service Design agency Snook to drug, alcohol and mental health charity, WithYou (formerly Addaction). At the time, I spoke openly about the reasons for my move. As I come to the end of my secondment I want to reflect on my experience.

The first 6 months were hard. I didn’t write much because I couldn’t put what I was experiencing into words. I attempted to speak publicly way too early which was difficult for me. I was in a completely new world and I struggled to adapt.

I was used to a brief and deliverables, tools and methods and ‘ways of working’. I didn’t realise just how much service design, in the context of organisational transformation, is about people. Building relationships, telling stories, navigating politics and power is difficult but this is the reality of making change happen.

When I first started working in Service Design I had moved from Graphic Design. I found this transition difficult because I’d gone from having a very linear process with a set output to shaping a piece of work as it progressed based on what I was learning. It took a while to get used to holding this uncertainty.

When I moved to WithYou I faced the next stage of learning to cope with ‘not knowing’ and I struggled. I was searching for a manual that would tell me what to do. Convinced people had read this holy grail and were hiding it from me. What I learnt was how organic organisations really are and that it’s ok to repeat yourself 100 times, get things wrong, attempt to visualise things that don’t exist, try 10 different approaches… and still be no closer. Laura Bunt really helped me see how much leadership is about recognising what kind of approach is needed when and being able to adapt to take people with you.

During my time I’ve moved in and out of both strategy and delivery and I’m really grateful I’ve been able to experience both. Straddling two teams with emerging priorities and finding my place has been challenging but I realise how much value service designers can add in both areas.

At a delivery level I’m proud to have been able to lead a piece of work to improve people’s experience of starting treatment. Led by user research, this work has resulted in people being able to book their first appointment through WithYou’s new website. The team is also currently prototyping a new digital platform for recovery workers to have better conversations during initial assessment to help build early connection and reduce drop-out rates.

A highlight for me was running a workshop at the Managers Event with NBCR and Operations

I’ve loved the experience of working in a multidisciplinary digital team to grow new products and services out of research that will hopefully have an impact on people’s lives down the line — both staff and service users.

Strategically it’s been challenging. WithYou are interesting because while they are a charity, they are also a service provider with most of their income coming from local authority contracts. This means ‘services’ mean different things and have different constraints (for example, responding to a specification from commissioners), rather than my perspective of a ‘service’ as a thing that helps someone do something. This has been difficult for me to adapt to and it’s certainly made me aware of how purist service designers can sometimes be. WithYou are doing lots of work to rethink and redesign services, and I’ve helped bring some external perspective and challenge. Laura and I have spoken about how difficult I find seeing value in the softer, more relational aspects of service design. This is something I’m still working on.

It’s emotional reading back on what I wrote a year ago with the benefit of what I know now. The most poignant thing for me being my comments about being a design leader. A year ago I really felt I was taking an active step away from being a leader to stay designing for a bit longer. I genuinely felt I was doing this because I didn’t want to be a leader yet and that I had separated this out from being capable. This was a lie and imposter syndrome is real!

If this year has taught me anything it’s that design leadership is not this magical thing over here that you have to be ready for. I’m doing it. And I feel ok to say that now. This transition for designers is a huge one but it’s gradual and different for everybody.

My time on the inside has been so important to me moving forwards. I’ve felt how difficult organisational change is. I’ve thrown my tools and methods out the window in favour of building relationships. I’ve learnt to hold uncertainty and recognise that shared understanding sometimes trumps ‘the answer’.

But most importantly for me I was given a training ground and soft exit out of consultancy, out of the company that has been my home for the last 5 years. In July I’ll be starting as Design Lead at NHS Digital and I can’t wait for this new chapter. I’ve been in awe of NHS Digital over the last few months especially and I can’t wait to start working on designing end-to-end services across the healthcare system.

I never thought I would be leaving two jobs and starting a new one with the world where it is today. This is going to be a hard to process but I do know how grateful I am to so many people for their wisdom, support, patience and guidance over the last 5 years. To Sarah Drummond, Valerie Carr and Anne Dhir for the early days and everything since. Thank you. I’m so proud to have painted the walls of that first London office. To all the Snooks who I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the years, it’s been inspiring, challenging, painful at times but most of all it’s been fun. To Lucy Stewart, thank you for all the things.

To Laura and everyone I’ve worked with at WithYou, especially the Digital and NBCR teams, for picking up where Snook left off and giving me the opportunity to learn on my own terms these last 12 months. Special thanks to Hannah for being my conference talk partner in the early days.

And lastly thank you to my Service Design industry pals, especially Emily Bazalgette, Kathryn Grace, Sophie Dennis and my SD Breakfasts crew Leanne, Rahma, Caroline and Snezh.

Wish me luck — I’ve heard the NHS has a few things on right now.