Planning for Uncertainty: The Leader as a Service Designer

Uncertainty is inherent to software development and our uncertain world is more uncertain than ever… What happens to planning when everything goes to hell?

When looking at the marketplace from the perspective of power, we have been experiencing an earth shattering shift: from power being in the hands of the seller, to it being in the hands of the customer. From companies making and selling products and services that customers were predicted to want, to customers holding increased leverage in the marketplace.

As a leader, this is your chance to shine as a Service Designer

In a time when we speak more and more about organizations without managers, it would be understandable for you to feel insecure about your future as a leader. Good moment for you then, to become aware of the different roles you can embrace, so you can help your organization in the transition towards present-day effectiveness.

One such role is that of Facilitator. Another, and the one I will be focusing on in this post, is that of the leader as a Service Designer. Regardless of your formal tag, by embracing this role, in helping your team and your customers, you will be also helping yourself, providing yourself with continuity of employment.

Scaling in the Digital Era

Many businesses’ management structures and development teams today still look like an assembly line from the previous industrial era: they exist of pieces that do not communicate among themselves or with customers, they continue to worship tools and contracts that make neither the businesses themselves or their customers truly successful, and they insist on efficiency-centric management practices as if still able to rely on predicting what clients want and reproducing it in large quantities.

The truth is, clients do not want those products anymore. None of that is an effective strategy in the digital era, and definitely not in a volatile world. Building scaling businesses today asks for a different management paradigm, one designed to help enterprises adapt effectively to what is actually happening, in real time.

Successful management practices today include the client in the production process, empower employees, and leverage adaptive technologies and processes. This is not the time for more binary thinking, power being either in the hands of sellers extracting value from customers or in the hands of potential buyers that remain exactly that, potential buyers. This is the time for a new paradigm with seller and buyer co-creating value.

Thinking and Managing as a Service Designer

In the role of Service Designer, you:

  1. Understand building a product and managing a team exposes you to a complex system, and managing complex systems is not a zero sum game.
  2. Co-create value with your customers, as opposed to extracting value from them.
  3. Know people interaction is the game, interaction both within your organization and with the customer. You want to provide your team with as much access to data and customers as possible so they can learn and adapt as quickly as possible.
  4. Happily provide access to data. Today, data is a utility!
  5. Manage for outcomes, not outputs, while being aware that you are successful when your customer is successful as well. Are you building an app for your client and is the aim of your client to increase sales in a new continent? Only when sales go up for your customer in that continent, can you call yourself successful.
  6. Evolve towards a new type of contract that includes both features and outcomes, while emphasizing outcomes are more relevant today. Obsessing about features and specifications is previous era thinking. Yet another role for you as a leader, that of educator!

The Issue of Uncertainty: A Page From Other Industries

They say, if we see it, we can achieve it. Stress around uncertainty often pushes leaders to seek even more detailed requirements and specification documents, intensify command and control, and perpetuate hierarchies of authority, all of them practices of the predict-and-reproduce industrial era. This is an impulse that might seem difficult to stop, but trust me, it can be done. Others have done it.

There are at least two sectors that know how to navigate uncertainty successfully. Sense and Respond author Jeff Gothelf refers to military commanders’ ‘mission command’, a system of leadership that specifies what needs to be done but leaves the decision making to the people doing the fighting.

The other is the contemporary music world in the Netherlands, where contemporary music pros use a model of leadership based on graphic music notation. Just as in ‘mission command’, this graphic notation specifies what needs to be done, while leaving the decision making to the people doing the actual performance.

Whether it is a battle on the field or on the stage, ‘mission command’ and contemporary graphic notation are flexible systems that allow leaders and composers to set goals and objectives while leaving the decision making to the military doing the fighting, or the performers doing the performing. In the Netherlands this system of leadership has been extrapolated by the same musicians in order to create markets for high tech productions of contemporary music.

Final Thoughts

What does this mean specifically for you and your team? Two things: you specify the outcomes you seek without fixating on features, while giving team members substantial space to make their own decisions, and you get comfortable knowing that it is ok today to adjust plans as they are pursued.

If this sounds scary, remember that you as a leader, can navigate different levels of authority. There will be moments when you push and decide, and moments when you pull and align. Be mindful about this, and be deliberate communicating to your team in which situations you do one thing or the other.

What does this mean for you and your customers? From a perspective of power, by co-creating value with your customers you can be in the driver’s seat towards creating a healthier market, achieving continuity in business, and having clients that are not just potential clients, but real ones.


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Sonsoles Alonso – I help CxOs and Founders Build Highly Efficient Happy Teams in 6 Months or Less with the Right Hires, using Systemic Tools and Serious Games.

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