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Making Virtual Design-Thinking Efforts Effective in Government

Most design-thinking efforts are conceived and executed as in-person workshops marked by the shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration of participants at whiteboards and a flurry of post-it notes. The design-thinking ethos is premised on the idea that interaction breeds empathy, creativity, and ultimately results in good problem solving.

To be sure, face-to-face interaction is one of the fastest ways to get there, but it isn’t the only way. The need to keep costs low, respect telework agreements, and include global or faraway colleagues in critical solution design are all considerations that demand some level of virtual capability in design-thinking.

There are lots of great firms out there with examples, tools, and kits to help aspiring designers conceive and execute their own design projects (Ideo’s Design Kit, Luma’s Innovation Path, and Accenture Fjord Interactive to name a few). However, virtual design projects require special considerations to be effective.

At Technical Assent, we’ve been facilitating virtual collaboration and design sessions for our clients in the federal government since 2015. We continuously work to improve our capability to facilitate and deliver design-thinking workshops and outcomes for clients – both in person and virtually, nationally and globally. In addition, being a firm with many remote employees, we regularly devote time to practicing virtual design.

There are many advantages and some drawbacks of leveraging virtual collaboration in design efforts, and, here, we are sharing some of our best practices and most important considerations for successful virtual design-thinking efforts.

1. Structuring Your Virtual Design Project

To make virtual collaboration for design projects effective, the most important consideration is structure. The workshop must be structured with participation in mind to avoid remote participants feeling left out or frustrated. If this happens, they will “tune out,” leaving you without the benefit of their ideas and inputs. We consider the following very carefully when structuring a design-thinking effort:

 Spend more time planning.

We have found that the effective execution of a design project in a fully virtual environment or with some remote participants requires twice as long for planning as a traditional design effort. A few of the things that take extra time include:

  • Adapting and testing exercises to the virtual setting
  • Selecting interaction tools and platforms as part of designing the exercise
  • Testing and troubleshooting IT across multiple nodes of activity

 

Choose your activities wisely (and test them!).

We try not to select activities that require lots of space or fast communication. On the other hand, many drawing, symbol, and board-based activities work well. For example, abstraction laddering is very challenging on a small screen but concept posters and “visualize the vote” work very well. We test activities ahead of time to make sure they will work, and as we do so, we identify the “rules of engagement” for the activity.

Think hard about information flow.

Virtual design-thinking efforts require planning to ensure we can move information from one activity or screen to another, and to decide who is responsible for doing what. Knowing your information flow prevents glitches during the event and allows you to have more accurate timing and scheduling.

Consider timing very carefully.

If all your participants are in one room, it’s relatively easy to change a schedule (“Everyone finished early? Ok, let’s start sharing now.”). It’s possible, but not easy, to do the same thing when everyone is behind a computer. Additionally, we find most activities take a little bit longer virtually. Plan your schedule conservatively and try to stick to it.

2. Choosing Collaboration Tools

There are so many great collaboration tools out there right now, it can be dizzying to pick one. Tools have different price points and usability considerations for unfamiliar audiences. Try not to rely on any one platform simply because it’s new or has lots of features. Most tools do some things really well, but no tool does everything well.

Choose your tools based on what you need to get done, your budget, your client’s IT constraints (especially in federal government), and the tech literacy of your participants. You can get great results with simple screen sharing and a conference call, if your activities are well structured and facilitated.

3. Facilitating Your Virtual Design Effort

Facilitation—or leadership—is always important in a design effort. It’s especially important when your group of designers are dispersed and collaborating virtually.

Establish communication ground rules.

Communication is key to good collaboration, and good communication is always just a bit trickier over phones and computers. Consider instituting ground rules before you start to ensure everyone isn’t trying to talk or edit at once. That way all ideas are heard and no one gets frustrated.

Consider your introverted participants.

It’s much easier for shy or quiet participants to fade into the background in a virtual setting. Either be prepared to gently coax ideas out of your less extroverted participants more often than you would in a face-to-face session, or use the relative anonymity of “remote participation” to support individual brainstorming and ideation before participants share with a group.

Be patient.

Technology always requires some troubleshooting and learning before everyone is 100% effective. Be patient, and advise others to be patient as well.

Balance structure with flexibility.

The extra structure required by communication ground rules and careful time planning must be balanced carefully with the need for flexibility to accommodate the innovation process. Try to be cognizant of that balance as you facilitate, and be prepared to have your plan stymied. If you take changes in stride and have a good sense of humor, you (and your participants!) can adapt and still get great results.

Consider hybrid alternatives.

Thinks about if there is a way you can organize the project so that in-person collaboration is only required for a portion of the exercise rather than the whole project. For example, being in-person for a single day at the end of a session instead of the whole time. That way you can take advantage of both methods.


Written by Danielle Wiederoder and Jonathan Miller

U.S. Capitol during cherry blossom season represents the idea of government innovation

Government Innovation with Purpose in a New Administration

In April, I attended MITX’s DesignTech summit in Boston and had the opportunity to talk to a lot of really interesting folks designing innovations in the IT world today. As a government innovation professional, I particularly enjoyed the keynote by Gene Han – he said two things in that stuck with me:

  1. Innovation must have purpose
  2. Innovation is about getting things to work together (it’s not always about the most advanced technology)

 

Both statements are simple, and neither is totally new, but these are sometimes hard principles to remember and apply – particularly in the government innovation world. Mr. Han probably didn’t have the federal government (or state or local) in the front of his mind when he gave his talk, but it struck me how important these two principles are for the government (and those like me who support them) in this precise moment.

Big-budget departments like the Department of Defense have been talking about government innovation for some time – former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter gave a speech this week reminding the world of the steps he took to try to bring innovation back to Defense. However, the future of those initiatives is cloudy in a new administration with different priorities.

Other organizations, many with already small budgets, find themselves facing new budget priorities and potential for significantly reduced spending power. And yet, the country faces a lot of really important and unprecedented social, economic, and diplomatic challenges.

If the government’s goal is to continue (or even improve) its service to the public, they need to get innovating at a time when resources to innovate are increasingly slippery. Daunting, yes – but it can be done, especially if we remember to have purpose and make things work together.

What does federal government innovation look like in practice?

Focus on outcomes first

This sounds easy but can be surprisingly hard in government spaces where things are often done because of regulation or policy, not value. Identify what the improvement looks like in practice and then work backwards.   If you build something cool that no one uses, your “innovation” is without purpose – and therefore not really innovative at all.

Use the tools you already have

Think hard – and seriously – about how to use the tools you already have to create innovative government solutions. If you can reach your outcomes by rethinking process, training, and re-use (or better use) of everyday tools that everyone already has. This is where “making things work together” comes in. It doesn’t matter if it’s a laser-guided missile or a really well-designed process with a shared drive; if you’re doing something new to improve the status quo, you’re innovating.

Think about requirements as constraints, not restraints. Too often in government we get stuck in the mindset that “we can’t” because of all the requirements placed on us (interoperability, reporting, security, authority…the list goes on). If we start to think of these requirements as constraints (that which imposes structure) as opposed to restraints (that which limits), we suddenly allow ourselves to think more creatively and proactively.

Simplify

Another temptation for those swimming in government bureaucracy is to think that everything has to be highly specialized or complicated for it to work.   The more we focus on outcomes, the easier it is to focus on core requirements. This makes it a lot easier to find an iterative path to innovation: ways of making ideas, people, methods and tools connect to get things done.

 

Maybe there is hope for the White House Office of American Innovation after all.

two chairs overlook a quiet lake encouraging government program managers to take a strategy offsite.

Rethinking the Strategic Offsite: A Summer Vacation for Your Office

With June quickly approaching, offices are abuzz with employees scheduling and coordinating summer vacation time. Vacations are important because they give us the down-time we need as humans to rest, relax, and clear our minds. They also give us a change in scenery, which inspires us and helps us self-reflect and see things with a fresh set of eyes.

But individuals aren’t the only ones who can reap the benefits of down-time and a change of scenery: government program teams can, too. But how? A field trip? An office potluck? Trust falls and a ropes course?

Nope. Our suggestion is to hold a summertime strategic offsite meeting.

Strategic offsite meetings are helpful to government organizations because they allow leaders to have an uninterrupted block of time to reconnect to the mission and purpose of their agency while actively exploring solutions to a set of goals or problems. While strategic offsite meetings have the reputation of being expensive, lengthy, complicated to organize, and only for senior leadership, they don’t have to be any of these things. A strategic offsite can simply be a chance for employees to step back from their daily jobs—physically and professionally—to see their work unit as part of the complex government ecosystem. In vacation terms, the dedicated down-time gives employees a break from putting out the fires of the day, and the change of pace gives them perspective and frees up their imaginations.

In re-envisioning a strategic offsite to bring the benefits of a vacation to your program team, I’m not suggesting that the offsite will be unproductive. Quite the opposite, but it does require careful design in order to be both productive and energizing. What makes the most sense in an abbreviated, casual offsite is to select a single goal, problem, or theme. By scoping the meeting around an issue that really impacts the team, you can focus their energy and provide boundaries that you want to innovate within.

Regardless of the form that makes most sense for your project team or what the area of focus is, here are some tips to aid government managers in designing a summer vacation strategic offsite meeting.

Check Assumptions

Your team is likely already periodically gauging their performance towards the agency’s strategic goals. One thing you could decide to focus on at the offsite is revisiting any starting assumptions about those goals and assess how changes in the environment over the past 12 months may impact the mission in the future.

Reconnect With Your Customers

Most strategic offsites are inwardly focused, meaning they look at program operations instead of program outcomes. To shift this mindset, as part of your offsite, you could invite government customer groups (government-to-citizens, government-to-government, or shared services) to participate by delivering an opening keynote, exploring their use of your products and services, or role-playing a new service design prototype.

Take Some Risks

Strategic offsites should be a safe place to take risks, explore options, and share new ideas in the spirit of expanding the team’s horizons. Consider trying a Collaborative Game, World Cafe, or a Design Sprint to explore new ideas in an environment with a low risk of failure. Even better, embrace the failure for its learning potential like we recently did at Technical Assent’s first Failure Fair.

Actually Go Off Site

An offsite held in Conference Room B following the Monday budget meeting won’t have as big of an impact as getting outside of the building. Seek out public outdoor spaces, reservable locations at interesting sites (like a library or a museum), or even locations frequented by your agency’s customers. Space plays an important role in triggering your team to think outside of their daily routine and look for other patterns.

Wear Your Big Hat

Opportunities to come together as a team and think big picture are increasingly rare. Make the best use of this time by setting an early ground rule that encourages everyone to think with their Big Hat (thinking in terms of the agency mission and the customer impact of that mission versus the what’s best for my team mindset that is associated with Little Hat thinking). For example, this is not a time to debate which projects should suffer the biggest percentage of budget cuts, but to validate that these projects are delivering the right benefits to the right customers.

Have Some Fun

It is easy to get caught up in the seriousness of government work, but it is still a human-driven system. People benefit from the opportunity to build community, network, connect. One of the best outcomes of an event like this is enabling colleagues to find common ground outside of work, which translates to better working relationships. Some ways to add fun into an offsite meeting include casual dress or connecting the offiste to an after-work activity that everyone can participate in, such as a paint-and-wine activity, group bike ride, tour, or family barbeque. You can also intermix group activities such as games, scavenger hunts, or contests. These can be designed to directly contribute to the focus of the offsite, or be unrelated. Warren Buffet, for example, has a contest at his annual shareholder meetings where contestants throw a rolled up newspaper from 35 feet to see who can get it closest to the door.

What are the challenges you’ve observed with government offsites? Tell us more about it in the comments below.

hot air balloon provides an escape similar to innovation series

Technical Assent’s Inspiring Service Summer Series

At Technical Assent, we believe that a key component of providing exceptional service is rooted in providing an exceptional customer experience. In May 2016, we launched a four-month design thinking effort called Inspiring Service Summer Series, or ISSS for short. ISSS was professional development, but it was also our tool for looking in the mirror and working on our own service delivery as a company. Or, in other words, working “in a problem, on a problem.”

We included all staff members in this effort, with non-client-facing staff and consultants learning and contributing equally. Additionally, ISSS had a secondary purpose as a forum for testing virtual collaboration and facilitation methods our company developed.

Why we did this

One goal was to ensure that all Technical Assent employees are well-equipped to deliver “Services that INSPIRE” to our clients, including access to the necessary knowledge, skills, tools, and other resources. We also wanted to continue to build employee comfort with design-thinking tools—especially in a virtual environment—and learn more about ourselves. Ultimately, we wanted to create something of value for our customers by improving ourselves.

The graphic below summarizes our #ISSS virtual design journey.

What emerged from the effort

Our starting point, as always, was our customers, because our solutions will ultimately be measured by their impact to them. Based on customer input, we spent considerable time reflecting and defining what they need from us, what they really want, and how they want it delivered. That definition of inspiring service became the foundation of everything that came afterward. We identified focus areas based on client needs and our corporate goals, brainstormed over 70 ideas to make ourselves better, and assembled prototype teams to bring select ideas to life.

So now, after nearly four months of work, we emerged with three completely different innovations we’re now in the process of implementing.

We are sharing our design journey because it is something that can be repeated. As with any of these types of efforts, it was less about the specific technique or method and more about the richness of the dialogue that evolved.

Overall, the exercise was a great success and as a result, we’re confident our entire staff is better positioned to provide the kind of inspiring service our clients most need. We learned a lot along the way, and we look forward to sharing some of those insights in the future.

IN the mission and ON the mission

Driving High Customer Satisfaction Requires Investment IN the Mission and ON the Mission

Working IN the Mission and  ON the Mission

There are two primary ways that Technical Assent delivers value – working ON the Mission and IN the Mission. Working ON the Mission means that we serve as advisors or consultants to our clients, analytically observing how well operational systems achieve their customer’s outcomes. These observations drive our recommended solutions. On the other end of the spectrum, IN the Mission services happen when Technical Assent teams become an integrated service partner, taking responsibility for service delivery and are held accountable for achieving customer outcomes. The reality is that many of our engagements require a mix of both, and we prefer it that way.  IN the Mission work of service delivery helps us sharpen the saw, reminding us what it really takes to deliver exceptional customer experience each and every day, while our ON the Mission consulting services enable us to see the big picture and transfer best practices among our clients.

Improving the Employee Experience at Veterans Affairs

At the Department of Veterans Affairs, we support a government-to-government (G2G) service provider that  aligns with the myVA goal on improving the employee experience. While our day-to-day efforts are largely IN the Mission, we regularly step back and provide recommendations for how to improve the customer experience of our services. This past summer, we implemented a number of process-level improvements that were intended to handle increased transaction volume and maintain the existing level of customer satisfaction. To establish this baseline of customer experience, we conducted post-engagement surveys with every customer that we worked with.  At the end of 45 days, the team analyzed the results and discovered an interesting twist. Project Manager Dawn Johnson, explains…

“Because we wanted to establish a baseline, we originally planned to run the survey late in the summer because the team would see a historically average number of transactions. Unexpectedly, we hit our historical average in the first week alone and the momentum carried through the entire period.”

By the end of the survey period, Johnson’s team managed 180 customer transactions, which is more than 300% surge in volume!  Johnson and her team had been reviewing individual surveys throughout the period so they could immediately address any identified deficiencies. At the end, they tallied a 93.3 customer satisfaction rating based on whether a customer felt their request was processed in a timely and effective manner… an excellent score by any measure.  Again, I asked Johnson for her reaction…

“Well, I am thrilled – the team performed admirably! Our customers really responded to the survey and their incremental feedback gave me the confidence that the process improvements were working as designed…

We also learned a few things too… by signaling to our customers that we cared about their satisfaction, it opened up a new dialogue for constructive feedback. Working with our customers, we identified a few areas where the designed process fell short, and the immediate feedback allowed us to jump on the fixes right away.”

This is hugely insightful. In the beginning, the team viewed customer satisfaction as an end but learned how important it could be as tool for managing the delivery of the service.  In other words, customer satisfaction became a way for the team to drive higher levels of performance of the service and help the customer achieve their desired outcome.

What’s Next

While we are thrilled with this achievement, we also recognize there is more to be done.  Helping our clients open a channel for dialogue with their customers and measuring customer satisfaction is really just the first step towards building a better customer experience. Customer satisfaction provides a point-in-time metric after the service is provided – it helps us understand what happened but not why. To answer the latter, we need the kind of insight that comes from an ongoing conversation with customers throughout the engagement lifecycle and the ability to respond in real time when they run into an obstruction.

To deliver a better customer experience, we need to get closer to the customer decision process. Initially, this comes down to understanding how much effort the customer has to exert in order to do business with our client’s services and finding ways to make it easier. As we get closer to the customer and understand why they make certain decisions, our team will be positioned to make more poignant recommendations about where improvements to customer experience can better help customer achieve their outcomes.

customer experience improvement program

Bouncing Back from a Failing Grade in Customer Experience

As kids head back to school this fall, many will hear a familiar lecture reminding them of that last report card before summer and encouraging them to start off this school year on the right foot, creating good habits from Day 1. Nextgov’s Frank Konkel had a similar message for government in his recent interview with Forrester’s Rick Parrish. Forrester Research’s 2016 Customer Experience (CX) Index indicates that federal government agencies were collectively rated has having the worst customer experiences compared with 300+ consumer brands that included underperforming cable TV providers, internet service providers, and airlines. Furthermore, these poor ratings occurred despite the White House’s emphasis on improving customer experience over the past five years.

But the message is not all bleak – Konkel also noted a few bright spots, notably where agencies have demonstrated marked improvements in their CX Index demonstrating “money and resources currently being spent at those organizations is shifting customer perceptions.”

So, as we head back to school, we offer three habits that to focus on to improve customer experience grades in government throughout the year ahead.

Building Good CX Habits

Follow the Outcomes.  The business case for customer experience is about improving the performance of government services. High performing services — whether provided by government or commercially — are measured on how well they help their customers achieve a desired outcome. Just like we scoff at automating bad processes that deliver the wrong output faster, customer experience is another means towards the end of delivering a better customer outcome. Agencies need first be aware of what outcomes their customers are trying to achieve before they build the service to assist them.

Customer Satisfaction Customer Experience.  As Parrish notes, that while many agencies conduct traditional customer satisfaction surveys, they need to better track their customer behavior. Measuring only satisfaction at certain touch points (e.g., directing them to the correct phone number, correcting a problem in an online form, or responding to a phone call within the estimated response window) is insufficient because it does not inform the service provider whether their action contributed to the outcome. Understanding the decisions that customers make throughout their journey, whether to continue or abandon the service, is the key to better performance.  We need to create services where customers continually opt-in to the next step of the journey. This happens when services solve real problems, provide a customer experience that is consistent with American values, and meet customers’ expectations for aspects such as ease of use, availability, reliability, and security.

The Incentives for Better Government Just Aren’t There. One commenter to Konkel’s article noted that government is not incentivized to change because it lacks competition for its services; Government has a monopoly. Essentially this implies that customers have little choice of whether or not to do business with the government. After all, where else can you go for services like food stamps, airport security, or a subsidized home loan? Though this may be a dominant perception within and about government, it is also the most ripe for disruption.  Just as with commercial services, customers perceive a cost of using government services, even when they are being offered for “free”.

Am I sacrificing my privacy by giving up this information?

Who is really going to notice if I don’t pay my taxes?

This isn’t worth it, we will just get by without

It won’t harm anyone if I bypass this security measure

I had to take time off work to stand in this line to vote

These are all examples of customer sentiments measuring the opportunity cost of their alternatives and trying to figure out if its worth it.  When government understands its customers and the value of those other opportunities, it will clearly see the need to deliver a competitive customer experience.

Our team at Technical Assent works with government Program Managers to develop these habits from the start – building services that drive customer outcomes and position government services as the preferred alternative. We have found over and over again that government agencies who focus on their customers first, deliver higher performing services at better value for the taxpayer.

amazon is a leader of customer-driven strategy

To Find a Differentiator for Long-Term Success, Look to Amazon’s Customer Obsession

By John DiLuna and Jonathan Miller

For anyone who has ever studied Amazon or its founder, Jeff Bezos, one thing is absolutely clear: the customer is king.  Amazon’s focus on customer experience success was a founding principle for Amazon and remains deeply embedded in the company culture today.

After last week’s record earnings report, we wanted to see for ourselves where customer experience was integrated into Amazon’s operating model – not just as a corporate talking point but where it was really driving business decisions.  We studied 20 years of shareholder letters for evidence about the role that customer experience plays in the long-term financial success of the company.  What we discovered was an intrinsic interaction between customer experience and long-term financial thinking that acts as a catalyst for future financial success.  We identified three general principles that we hope will be helpful for organizations hoping to mirror Amazon’s customer experience momentum.

Obsessing over customer experience is the long game

Amazon unleashed something powerful by placing customer experience success at the core of their business strategy.  In addition, Amazon has always had a perspective of long-term success rather than short-term profits.  Bezos has highlighted this perspective in his shareholder letters since the first letter in 1996.  In his 2008 letter, he explicitly connects this concept to the customer:

“Long-term orientation interacts well with customer obsession. If we can identify a customer need and if we can further develop conviction that the need is meaningful and durable, our approach permits us to work patiently for multiple years to deliver a solution.”  

By investing in the long-term satisfaction of customers, Amazon has created a relationship which drives lifetime customers.  Early in Amazon’s life, the team identified three key things their customers valued in a retail experience: price, selection, and convenience.  Since then, everything Amazon does focuses on lowering prices, improving selection, and maximizing convenience.

In the early days when Amazon was solely an online bookstore, their business decision to present new books side-by-side on a web page with used versions of the same items was initially criticized, but it makes perfect sense when viewed through their customer-centric lens.  By creating this new environment of new and used books intermingled, they provided access for a wider audience of customers to be reached through price, selection, and convenience. It is the same for Amazon’s current experiments with drone delivery and same-day shipping.  Antagonists are unsure as to the current feasibility of these services because they have never been done to this extent for customers, but Amazon, true to providing the type of service their customers value most, is pursuing both for one reason: convenience. From the 1998 shareholder letter:

“We must be committed to constant improvement, experimentation, and innovation in every initiative. We love to be pioneers, it’s in the DNA of the company, and it’s a good thing, too, because we’ll need that pioneering spirit to succeed.”

Through the bull and bear markets of the last two decades, Amazon has remained steadfast in its commitment to provide exceptional customer experience.  This unwavering resolve to innovate around customers is a unifying force that helps the company push through the lean years when others may crumble or change course at the cost of their customers.

Use data to work backwards from customers and build customer experience success

When the entire workforce believes in customer experience success as the primary growth driver for your business, then it only makes sense that corporate strategy, business initiatives, and day-to-day operations fall in line.  This is the way it works at Amazon.  In many ways, this unified, corporate-wide belief simplifies governance and decision-making because culture provides a consistent framework to gauge the potential impact of new ideas.

Baked into the Amazon culture is the predisposition to work from the outside-in as well as to validate those decisions with data.  Bezos highlights that just about every important decision can be made through data. From the 2005 shareholder letter:

“There is a right answer or a wrong answer, a better answer or a worse answer, and math tells us which is which.”

Starting with the desired customer outcome, quantitative methods help sort through alternatives and establish priorities around what should be done first. We see this exhibited in the analysis Amazon conducts prior to making any foundational decision, which confirms that the solution drives the intended customer behavior and is financially viable.

Amazon has remained steadfast in their decision making process by holding uniquely to their core values of building solutions based on their customers. How Amazon makes these types of decisions is highlighted in the 2005 shareholder letter:

“To shorten delivery times and reduce outbound transportation costs, we analyze prospective locations based on proximity to customers, transportation hubs, and existing facilities. Quantitative analysis improves the customer’s experience and our cost structure.”

By methodically approaching expansion locations, Amazon highlights the need to be there for their customers while at the same time improving their own cost model.  Understand that the mindset Amazon uses embodies exceptional customer experience, an approach that leads to a repeatable pattern of customer driven decisions.

Customers benefit from improved service infrastructure

Continuous improvement is the third principle Amazon consistently emphasizes to create an exceptional customer experience.  When Jeff Bezos says “continuous improvement,” he is not referring to the catchphrase that is commonly used in business marketing materials.  His version of continuous improvement is fundamentally connected to customer experience and essential to Amazon’s business model.

Bezos explains this concept as driving the cost structure-price loop.  Quite simply, by continually lowering the cost structure of the business, Amazon can maintain downward pressure on prices.  Amazon’s customers like low prices, which keeps them coming back to the site.  The growing demand of potential buyers is attractive to sellers who actively seek to offer more selection. Amazon’s customers like more selection, which not only retains current users but fosters new ones and keeps them coming back to the site day after day, fueling the growth of the company.

In the Amazon model, driving the cost structure-price loop to continuously improve the underlying service infrastructure is both good business and a boon to their customers.  By systematically eliminating waste and scaling the value of their assets across the enterprise, Amazon also gets better at delivering new capability faster.  By focusing these efficiency efforts squarely on the needs of their customers, Amazon is better able to translate latent customer demand into real solutions and differentiate themselves from competitors.  Amazon has scaled this business for their long-term profitability through selection. In the 2003 shareholder letter Bezos explains:

“Increased volumes take time to materialize, and price reductions almost always hurt current results. In the long term, however, relentlessly driving the “price-cost structure loop” will leave us with a stronger, more valuable business.”

Every business system has some amount of waste, process variation, or inefficiency.  For customers of an online retailer, waste can be seen in the form of hold times, extra mouse clicks, confusing checkout options, or cumbersome return policies – the list can go on.  Waste results in effort a customer must expend in order to complete their order; and the more effort a customer has to exert, the less likely they are to come back a second time.  Amazon pushes to reduce customer effort; their One-Click ordering feature is the epitome of simplicity, automating a complex order and logistics process into a single mouse click allowing customers to receive satisfaction immediately.  Amazon’s continuous improvement initiatives reduce customer effort by improving the people, processes, and technology which have a direct and measurable impact on customer experience.

Final Thoughts

Bezos captures these three principles of customer experience success as foundations of “Operational Excellence.” Focusing on customer experience first provides a consistent framework for making strategically-aligned business decisions and a perfect filter for removing non-value add goods and services (things your organization does that customers generally don’t really care about).  Through the disciplined, data-driven application of these principles, Amazon increases asset velocity, revenue, and margin across the business.

And Amazon is proving that the model works.  Just last week, after nearly 20 years as a publicly traded company, Amazon announced Q1 earnings that shattered market expectations and raised stock prices by 12%.  Here at Technical Assent, being a company that values customer experience as an engine of growth, we couldn’t help cheering as they reached this benchmark of success. Indeed, the customer is king.

From Amazon’s 1998 shareholder letter:

“We intend to build the world’s most customer-centric company…Our customers tell us that they choose Amazon.com and tell their friends about us because of the selection, ease-of-use, low prices, and service that we deliver.”

SECDEF Ash Carter reviews DOD innovations

The DoD: Becoming a Good Neighbor in the Community They Started

I’ve lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for over a year now and I continue to be inspired by this geographic center of mass for innovation. It is no wonder that both the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Homeland Security have both recently announced new programs with offices located in Silicon Valley to tap into that innovative spirit.

The Secretary of Defense’s program is the Defense Innovation Initiative (DII) with the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) positioning the DoD to be more open to the infusing of non-traditional technical ideas and talent.  The DIUx set up its Mountain View, Calif., office in August.

Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in a Center for New American Security workshop to provide recommendations to the Secretary of Defense about how to capture and infuse some of the Silicon Valley magic into the Department of Defense.  The group of people included members of the DIUx, defense industry associations, think tanks, and entrepreneurs.

The primary observation from the attendees focused on the increased requests from senior federal executives to tour innovative companies which has devolved into little more than a rote parade of military VIPs.  While “jumping through hoops” and “dog and pony shows” are common jargon in government, Silicon Valley innovators are fueled by taking action on real problems and quickly pivoting until they discover the optimal solution. However, the aspect that is most ironic to me is Silicon Valley itself was launched by DoD initiatives (See Steve Blank’s talk on the  Secret History of Silicon Valley), which means, at least at one time, that DoD knew how to effectively engage innovators and how to channel their spirit into meaningful work.

DoD can’t be an absentee owner of their new vacation property in Silicon Valley; they need to be a fully integrated member of the neighborhood.  To be enfolded in the epicenter of innovation, the DoD will have to start out by fitting in with the culture.  I’ve seen this opinion echoed in articles online, like Colin Clark’s “Can SecDef Carter Win Over Silicon Valley?”.

One thing I have noticed in my time living in the Bay Area is that many people close out their meetings with the same question:

“How can I help you?”

I have found something hugely powerful in this question as it seems to embody part of the culture that has made Silicon Valley companies so successful. In the asking of this question, it implies the asker is willing to take action and it supposes the receiver knows what they need.

Perhaps the DoD’s path to an invitation to the neighborhood block party is in recapturing the very spirit that helped build the neighborhood in the first place and being ready to answer “How can I help you?”

Photo of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington D.C. MyVA is a customer-experience focused government service strategy.

Is MyVA the Future of Government Service Strategy?

Since its release this week, I have been absorbing and digesting the MyVA Integrated Plan published by the Department of Veterans Affairs. For those who haven’t seen it yet, it is the government service strategy for the transformation of VA to become more veteran-driven and ensure the veteran experience is predictable, consistent, and easy.

The MyVA Task Force has accomplished a lot since it was chartered just last year and the document does a nice job of bringing together all of the moving parts in an organization as big as VA. Here are a few highlights that stood out to me as evidence of progress:

VA took a look in the mirror

Using Secretary McDonald’s model for a high performing organization, the MyVA Task Force assessed the current state of the organization – successful outcomes and blemishes included. They looked at the operations, budget, and political environment in the context of their strategy to really understand the constraints they need work within going forward. This upfront transparency will go along way in communicating honestly with VA stakeholders.

VA is translating their government service strategy vision into action

The Plan translates VA’s customer-centric vision into action through five priorities,  Veteran Experience, Employee Experience, Support Service Excellence, Performance Improvement, and Strategic Partnerships. Each priority is supported by several initiatives focused on improving specific aspects of VA – this provides a clear thread between their vision and the actions being taken.

VA is holding themselves accountable

In the Plan, they highlight specific, measurable target outcomes. They talk explicitly about what changes to look for – a single customer-facing website, expanded training and leadership development for employees, and vastly improved internal support services – as evidence of change.

There is one statement, however, that rubbed me the wrong way. It comes in the final paragraph:

“If we do our jobs well, Veterans won’t think much about what we’ve done or how we’ve done it. They will just know they’re receiving some of the best health care anywhere in the world. They’ll know it didn’t take too long to apply for and receive their deserved benefits. They’ll enjoy the home we helped them to finance. Their lives will be richer because of educational opportunities and community connections VA helped to create. And their families will know they’ve been given the utmost respect and final honors when laid to rest.”

VA is selling themselves short, especially with the first sentence. Perhaps as they begin achieving success, the MyVA team will readjust their aim with their government service strategy so that Veterans will ultimately look to VA as the preferred service provider for healthcare, benefits, and memorial services. They will see the service quality they receive as honoring their decision to serve in the armed forces. And they will see all 300,000+ VA employees as advocates in their corner as they transition into civilian life.

Decades from now, I hope we look back and see this initial effort at VA as transformational for government writ
large. As VA learns, adapts, and succeeds, it will become the framework for how we design, implement, and manage government services in the future. Government agencies will look to customer experience as a way to ground their organizational strategies, engage their employees, and better accomplish their mission.

seeing through the noise to discover government's service portfolio

To Improve Your Team’s Performance, Start with Experience

In our view of the world, Customer Experience is the starting point for improving the performance of services. Adjust the angle of your head slightly and the concepts, tools, and methods being used to design better services can also be applied to improving business functions, programs, and operating units. Positioning yourself as a service provider immediately transforms why, what, and how you go about your work.

Here are three ideas to get you started.

Find Your Customers

Services only exist when there is a customer so the first step is to seek out the customer – the people who receive the benefit of the service. It seems like a simple enough concept, until it’s not… in a simple consumer service transaction, the customer is the person who pays for the service.  As transactions become more complex, the term customer can be confused with words like “stakeholder,” “management,” “buyer,’ or “oversight committee.” The ultimate goal here is to deliver services that provide real value to customers – the people who receive the benefit of the service – despite all other distractions.

See Services Where Others See “Business as Usual”

Take a look at the image below; 3D stereograph posters like this were once littered across shopping malls. They enticed shoppers to stop and look; separating by-passers into those who could “see” and those would keep walking because they tried before and it wouldn’t work. I fall into the latter category, but the idea is that you stare at the image deep enough and long enough and a second image will appear out of the clutter – usually a sailboat or a pod of jumping dolphins.

In many cases, looking for services in established organizations can be very similar to seeing the sailboat. It takes some practice at first, but once you get it, it is even harder to unsee it. Government Agencies and Businesses are functionally organized around the work being done, like Operations, Marketing, Finance, and IT. Service Designers must be able to see through these structures and pick out the services that are delivering real value to customers, i.e. outcomes. These are easy to find when a customer buys something – the transaction itself serves as the indicator that there was an exchange of value. It gets more challenging as we dive into the inner workings of organizations – the monthly budget analysis, the provisioning of services for a new customer, or the installation of a new network drop. Each can also be viewed as a service even though no money changes hands. When seeking out services in your organization, look for these 5 attributes:

  1. Intangible – in a pure service, the “thing” of value that is produced is intangible. We often “productize” these things – a dashboard, a report, a legal brief – but the real value is what went into delivering these in the first place.
  2. Inventory – There is none. In a service, the exchange of value happens at the point in time where it is transferred to the customer. The value is perishable in the moment that the service provider transfers their expertise, experience, or insight to their customer.
  3. Inseparable – Just like you cannot have a service without a customer, it is equally impossible to separate the service from the service provider.
  4. Inconsistent – Services are subject to variable demand and are provided on an as-needed basis.
  5. Involvement – There is a certain intimacy involved between the customer and provider where both have the opportunity to influence and customize the outcomes.

Practice applying these filters in your organization and you will quickly see your service portfolios emerge and how well they perform.

Follow the Customer Journey

With both the services and customers accounted for, the next step is to follow the customer journey – the series of decisions and actions that a customer makes from the time they first become aware of your service to the point where they retire it.

As a service designer, taking responsibility for a customer journey may seem overwhelming at first as it will likely the organizational structure. Customer journeys don’t necessarily align with siloed business functions; customers easily move from installation to a technical help desk call to a billing question and expect a consistent service experience throughout. This customer journey exercise often highlights gaps in existing technologies, employee knowledge, and processes in systems that have multiple owners.

Embrace the opportunity to work cross-functionally; the focus on improving customer experience is an invitation to put on your “big hat” and find opportunities to better integrate services that deliver more of the outcomes that matter most to your customer in the ways that are most relevant to them.

 

 

 

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