Holonomic Thinking and Service Design

Service Design NetworkI would like to start this post by letting those of you in Brazil know that this year’s Service Design Talks will be on 4th October in São Paulo. These will take place at Escola Design Thinking (The School of Design Thinking), and I have been invited to talk about Holonomics, holonomic thinking and the relation to service design.

For more information and registration please check out: www.eventick.com.br/sdt2014
Service Design Talks 2014

This gives me a chance to share a few thoughts on how holonomic thinking can help transform the way we approach service design, especially when we are involved in the analysis, specification, design and implementation of complex services.

I had a great time on Wednesday at the São Paulo Service Design Network meet up, which brings together service designers, user experience designers, customer experience designers and product designers in an informal atmosphere where we can share insights, ideas and also support each other too. I was asked about Holonomics, and the main insight I talked about was how half of our book is about the dynamics of seeing.

Understanding the dynamics of seeing is for me what separates a true designer from say managers whose work is in some way related to design, for example business development. It’s all about understanding lived experience, and while service designers are steeped in getting into the customer experience, those executives who are the ones who have strategic and operational responsibility for the service usually have no idea at all about this aspect of design.

The Holonomics Platform

The Holonomics Platform

And so if we start with the holonomic platform, we see that there are three core elements – mental models, systems models and business models. Our treatment of mental models is not cognitive as such, it is phenomenological and hermeneutic, it is about the way in which we experience our lives as meaningful.

Seeing demand

The slide above comes from my systems thinking module for service design, and as you can see, the theme of ‘seeing’ runs all the way throughout. There is no point moving into systems thinking, or rather, attempting to introduce systemic solutions if the managers and executives responsible for the service can not see the system. Literally. I am speaking literally.

This is why I spend a huge amount of time with students and clients exploring mental models and the dynamics of seeing. because once they get the way in which we have a direct experience of ‘meaning’ (we do not perceive objects and then add on the meaning afterwards), then they are able to start to understand the concept of flow, how work flows through a system, and how systemic elements can result in good people performing badly.


Holonomics is all about people and planet, and when we design services badly, we end up with a monumental amount of waste:

  1. Physical – resources, equipment, travel, meetings, documentation – you name it
  2. Marketing – a company has to spend around 6 times more to win a new customer than what is needed to retain a happy customer
  3. Psychological – the psychological toll a badly designed work environment can have on a workforce, harming their motivation, health and well-being

In a recent post on storytelling and sensemaking I spoke about much of this waste in high level IT projects in the UK. It is worth repeating:

  • Rural payments agency (subsidies to farmers) spent £32 million on a failed system. They then rehired the same IT company to do more work.
  • HMRC (UK tax office) spent £9 billion on an IT led change. 2m pay have paid too little tax, 4m people have paid too much.
  • 160 out of 9,000 health organisations are using a new patient record system costing the NHS £12.7 billion.
  • A project that was meant to save the Department for Transport (DfT) about £57m eventually cost £81m
  • The BBC abandoned its Digital Media Initiative (DMI) at a cost of £98.4m last year.

Freedom from Command and ControlCan you imagine the insane levels of waste in all of these projects? What was missing was a holonomic understanding of the projects as a whole. One of the great writers on this topic is John Seddon, who has translated the Toyota Production System for service organisations, and just as in Holonomics we explain the dynamics of seeing, in his book Freedom from Command and Control, chapter 6 is titled “Learning to see, leaning to lead’.

So this is the challenge for service designers, the fact that they are attempting to implement changes that leadership simply cannot see, and therefore cannot appreciate. Where Holonomics comes in, is that it explorers leaders, and in fact every single member of an organisation, a value chain or ecosystem, with an expanded level of consciousness, so that they start to understand their systems as an authentic whole.

Holonomic Thinking

Those leaders who are inspirational are the ones who give meaning to our lives. Those business leaders who inspire us help us understand our contributions to the whole, and ensure that our work is meaningful. They also understand that there is now a huge shift towards conscious consumption, and businesses are responding with conscious innovation which itself is a part of a shift towards conscious capitalism.

Human Values

The final aspect of Holonomics I do of course need to mention is the role of universal human values. While there is this shift towards conscious capitalism, innovation and consumption, there is a huge difference between discussing these concepts and actually implementing them. The difference between those great organisations I have had the pleasure to know and work with, and those who are still struggling, js the presence or absence of human values – peace, truth, love, non-violence and right action.

When these values are present, an organisation becomes sustainable, resilient and agile. People know what they need to do, they know what is best for the whole, and they act with full consciousness and consideration for others. The next generation of service designers will be designing with a very different logic, an organic logic that understands a service from the point of view of process, flow and meaning. You understand both your own contributions and the impact and effect of your actions on others. This has huge implications for sustainable brands, because service designers will de designing for authenticity, and this can only be done from when you have a holonomic understanding of the system.

I really looking forward to the service design talks. It is brilliant to see service design taking off, and it has been great to meet and share ideas with guys here in Brazil who are at the cutting edge of service design, UX and customer experience design. i will be sharing some of my experiences which relate to the history of smart phones and the mobile internet, from the perspective of holonomics. I am also really looking forward to hearing the other talks in the morning, and taking part in the workshop in the afternoon too. I hope to meet some of you there. It’s going to be good 🙂


Service Design Network Brazil

Related Articles

Some notes on storytelling and sensemaking

Developing Sustainable Leadership and Holonomic Thinking

Complexity, Flow, Mindfulness and Holonomic Thinking

Some notes on Business Design, Customer Experience and Systems Thinking

The Human Factor: BT’s Design Thinking and Business Design in the early 1990s

BT’s OnePhone – Understanding the difference between the customer experience and design thinking

Holonomic Brand Values: What can we learn from a Brazilian gym?

A Brief (and Personal) History of Mobile Telephony 1992 – 2002

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