Scoping the Design of Human Systems

Tim Fife

I’ve found that people leading product development initiatives have an advanced toolkit to define the problem they are trying to solve, the resources they are willing to commit, and the outcomes they want to achieve. But when the object of design is a human system rather than a product – for example an organisational model or a new customer experience – articulating the problem and desired outcomes becomes a lot more difficult.

And, if your ambitions are bigger than your pocketbook, chances are you’re going to waste a lot of time and resources. How, then, do you lead a conversation to get clarity about the scope of a design project for a service or a system?

Since human systems can’t be physically prototyped in the same way as a consumer product, we need a different toolkit to wrangle shared thinking. At 2nd Road, we use conversation and visualisation as our primary tools to enable shared thinking.

Here are five questions to stimulate conversations when scoping the design of human systems. I developed these questions in partnership with Kyle Vice, a fellow 2nd Road consultant. The first three questions focus on your ambitions in the marketplace. The final two focus on your willingness to invest.

Questions about your ambitions in the marketplace

1. What kind of relationship do you have with your customers?

a) No touch, a third party interacts with the end customerb) Low touch, focus on high volume and quick customer turnaroundc) Medium touch, deliver immediate value and rely on repeat businessd) High touch, create value through long-lasting relationships with customers

2. What are your financial targets?

a) Noneb) Stop leakage or break-evenc) Incremental growthd) Exponential growth

3. What competitive position do you want to achieve?*

a) None, these efforts are internally drivenb) Match the capabilities of a competitorc) Create a differentiated source of competitive advantaged) Change the industry

Questions about your willingness to invest

4. What resources (people and funding) are you willing to commit?

a) Outsource effort as a one-off projectb) Leverage internal team(s) and assign budget to the projectc) Create a dedicated team with its own budgetd) Make design an organisation-wide priority

5. Which parts of the organisation are you able and willing to change?

a) Marketing channelsb) Sales and/or support channelsc) Systems needed to design and deliver the value propositiond) All organisational systems, structures and resources

An engaging conversation using these questions will help you articulate goals and ensure that your ambitions are aligned with your willingness to invest. Compare your initial answers to the ambition questions with your initial answers to the investment questions. Quite likely you will find that your ambitions are higher than your willingness to invest. If you rated one of the ambition questions highly, but gave a low rating to one or more of the investment questions, then it is critical to re-visit expectations with your stakeholders.

When you use these questions:

The answers provided are just options – you should adapt them to your specific circumstances.Add other questions to suit your context – other questions are likely to be critical.Don’t overcook the list – the idea is to use these questions to stimulate shared thinking through conversation, not replace it with a lengthy document to demonstrate due diligence.

These questions are our starting point for many design projects. But they are not the end of the story. What other conversations are crucial up front?

* Adapted from Jeremy Alexis’ “Ambition Level” framework