Liedtka, Leaving and Love


The beautiful Unifying Spine of Service Design.

With less than 12 hours left in New Zealand and many things still on my ‘to do’ list under the larger heading ‘Change Countries, Life & Career’, I wondered if I really did have time to attend Professor Jeanne Liedtka’s address to the Wellington public sector and design-thinking community tonight.  As part of the New Zealand Treasury’s Academic Linkages programme, Professor Liedtka (B.S. Boston University, MBA, Harvard University; D.B.A, Boston University) was here to talk about designing for social good and how to apply design thinking to government and the social sector. She was warm and engaging (and patient with the ear-splitting feedback squeal of the failing technology and ‘poor design’ in the room – a sad irony not missed by the room full of design thinkers and practitioners).  Professor Liedtka ran over some design methodologies and introduced the audience to the characteristics needed for design thinking. Three things stood out for me from her talk.

  1. A truly wonderful real case study which beautifully articulates everything good about service design at every level and made me literally purr with excitement that this is the world I’m entering as I fly off tomorrow. The Good Kitchen redesigned a food service for senior citizens in Denmark and is worth reading about to understand what lies at the heart of service design.
  2. Professor Liedtka kindly articulated something I’ve witnessed a thousand times over within the public sector, but haven’t been able to put my finger on.  Firstly that many people (she was referring to staff in a single organisation), however skilled, experienced and knowledgeable very often “cannot talk across difference”, meaning that stakeholders across an organisation cannot agree on the problem, let alone the solution. The second part is how often people come to the problem, being led by their already-decided upon solution.  I can cite many examples of this, particularly from leaders or managers or Ministers who want a particular end result and refer to their idea as a ‘solution’ (when it’s really just an idea) and often demand their staff, organisation or teams reverse engineer the problem to fit their pre-identified solution. It was a lovely ‘Yes!’ moment of recognition.
  3. Thirdly, Professor Liedtka’s analogy of service design methodologies, frameworks and theories, not being a confining system of rules (which would seem counter intuitive to the open thinking required for design thinking), but instead a ‘spine’ which unifies disparate people, skill sets, expertise, culture and mindsets across an organisation so that they can find ways to ‘talk across difference’ – was illuminating and instantly clear.  Engineers, operational staff, leaders, specialists, IT, systems, finance, sales and policy people can immediately get into alignment in order to offer the most from their perspective and find a common ‘idea’ language. Wonderful stuff.

I leave New Zealand tomorrow for a year in Italy studying Service Design at the Politecnico di Milano and in the last few months, I’ve been so focussed on my to do list that I began to mistake my tasks for the solution – do them all and I win!   Taking an hour out to listen to Jeanne with wonderful friend and excellent service designer Karyn McLean from Wellington’s ThinkPlace on side and UNESCO colleague and friend Vicki Soanes on the other whispering “that’s how you already work!” and “this is so the right thing for you to be doing!”, reminded me of the bigger picture – leaving New Zealand and my wonderful friends, family and community and I life I love, feels uncomfortable, tricky and sad.  But my appetite to contribute more, to make things better and improve the world even in little ways makes me want to get on that plane right now.


(This post was first published September 26, 2016)