Accountability is a buzzword in business, but is the traditional notion of assigning ownership to a single individual the most effective approach? In this episode of the Unlearn Podcast, Barry O’Reilly is joined by Kate Tarling, author of The Service Organization: How To Deliver and Lead Successful Services, Sustainably. Kate is the founder of a services company and a service leader and designer who has made a significant impact in public and private organizations, especially in the UK Government. Kate shares her experiences in creating high-performing services and teams and establishing accountability in large organizations. Kate and Barry discuss the challenges of getting different teams to work together effectively and the importance of intentional effort and investment to create end-to-end services and improve the customer experience.

Great customer experiences

Creating great services is a better way to market products than relying on promotions and discounts. Kate says of the pivotal moment she realized this: “… if we just design this to work really well, if people love using it, then I feel like that is a way into marketing rather than having to offer promotions.” Her varied career experiences – in roles from operations to marketing to product – led her to realize the connecting thread in her work was a focus on service ownership and design. She tells Barry that she was working in service ownership before she even knew it was a thing. [Listen from 02:55]

Kate Tarling shares insights on creating high-performing teams and services, accountability, and end-to-end services for better customer experience.


Lessons learned from Lean Startup Weekend

Kate shares her experiences from a Lean Startup Weekend over a decade ago, where she worked on designing a solution for care homes. This was an example of a high-performing team coming together to iterate towards success using a user-centered design process. While this process is useful for designing products and services from scratch, Kate found that scaling this process to larger organizations presented a different set of challenges. She began to capture the questions and challenges faced when applying these principles to organizations, such as the way governance and decision-making structures work, the flow of money through the organization, and team structures. [Listen from 5:40]

A new notion of accountability

When trying to build high-performing teams and establish accountability within an organization, it’s important to have clear goals and a shared sense of what the team is trying to achieve. Kate stresses the need for structures and processes to support this, while also challenging traditional notions of accountability and ownership. Rather than having one person who is ultimately responsible for everything, Kate advocates for a model of guardianship where everyone is responsible for achieving the shared goal. This involves putting decision-making and work as close to the learning and problem-solving process as possible, while still maintaining the need for oversight and assurance. Barry shares his experiences of the best teams he has worked with, where everyone had a clear understanding of what needed to be done, and everyone owned their piece of the puzzle. He stresses the importance of establishing guide rails and structure to ensure that people can step up and take responsibility when opportunities arise. [Listen from 10:05]

(Listen to Lessons Learned from Building our Venture Studio, Nobody Studios with Mark McNally)

Principles and techniques of creating successful teams

In large organizations with multiple teams, it is essential to have a sense of what brings them together and a clear understanding of what they are moving towards. Kate and Barry discuss how to create successful teams in large organizations, particularly those aiming to demonstrate new, modern, agile ways of working. Kate emphasizes the importance of having a clear sense of what is being aimed for, not in terms of target states, but a clear strategy and performance indicators. She says, “Having a sense of what you’re aiming for, not so much a target state, but a set of ideas or some performance indicators or something can help, but it really takes everybody to know what that is.” She stresses that everyone must work together for the good of what they are driving at, rather than just focusing on their individual roles, profession or teams. [Listen from 15:40]

Sometimes you need to take a step back and focus on the core activities required to run a particular product or service, Kate suggests. By doing this, you can compare it with reveal how things are currently working and identify some fundamental questions that need to be answered or opportunities to change it. Kate emphasizes that you don’t need to answer all of these questions immediately, but to have a roadmap and sequence for what you need to learn, to shift away from the scary idea of a complete reorganization. [Listen from 17:40]

Reorganization often feels like the ultimate antidote, Barry comments, especially when companies are trying to digitally transform. However, he believes that most people in these organizations do not really know what digital transformation means for them. He argues that changing the way teams behave can shift their mindset, as they start acting differently and see the world differently. He believes that putting teams in cross-functional contexts can lead to profound changes in the way they think and work. Kate agrees, stating that bringing people together from different areas of the organization brings new insights and perspectives. “It’s a whole new different way of working. You don’t have to do it all overnight,” she remarks.They both acknowledge that this process can be challenging, particularly when there are large, slow, siloed processes involved in planning and budgeting. [Listen from 18:50]

It takes intentional effort and investment

It takes intentional effort and investment to create end-to-end services and improve the customer experience. Barry and Kate discuss the challenges of getting different teams to work together effectively and the importance of end-to-end thinking. They highlight the frustration that comes with constant change programs that lack a clear purpose, and the need for intentional effort and leadership to support collaboration. Kate cites the example of the universal credit program from The Service Organization book, where they release operational staff from regular duties for two hours each week to discuss changes and new ideas. They also created new roles to manage the flow of information and foster collaboration between teams. Barry emphasizes the importance of investing in communication and feedback from frontline workers and learning from their insights. [Listen from 21:40]

The Service Organization: A playbook for better collaboration

Barry asks Kate about her vision for the future of the space and how she plans to contribute to it. Kate believes that her book is a playbook for addressing the big and valuable problems that arise when trying to get everyone in an organization to work together effectively. She hopes that it can save time, energy, reduce frustration, and improve working conditions in some of the largest organizations as well as the public sector. Kate sees a shift happening from the last ten years where we have gotten better at building software and incorporating user-centered design. Now it is about scaling it and doing it sustainably, so it becomes the norm rather than the exception. Barry is impressed with Kate’s practical approach and recommends her book to anyone interested in building startups or working in large and small organizations. [Listen from 26:30]

Democratizing wealth creation through Nobody Studios

Barry O’Reilly shares his excitement about co-founding Nobody Studios, a venture studio that aims to rapidly create new companies and derisk pre-seed stage business ideas. The studio’s goal is to start 100 companies over the next five years and democratize wealth creation and distribution. Barry invites those interested in changing the way work is done and products are created to get involved in Nobody Studios. [Listen from 29:30]

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