I don’t often spend eight hours of my weekend on a train, but this weekend I did just that.  Twenty years ago, I cycled 450km around Cuba with 60 amazing people - a core group of us has kept in touch ever since, and we’ve just enjoyed another reunion.  

Eight hours provides a lot of thinking, and listening, time, so I read Lou Downes’ “Good Services” whilst listening to what reminds me of my millenium trip - Buena Vista Social Club, Celia Cruz and Afro-Caribbean All stars, to name a few.  

Three ideas in the book particularly caught my attention - “don’t just design the steps of your service, design the space between them”, “understand what expectations people have of your service” and “collaboration is the new operating model”.

Focusing on the spaces between things is both familiar and unfamiliar to me.  The famous Debussy quote is that “music is the silence between the notes”, and Miles Davis said “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play”.  My own enjoyment of music (there is a LOT of music in our house) confirms that it is the pause before a drum kicks in again, before a sample loops around again or before a classical chorus repeats and builds, which most effectively grabs my attention, and my emotions.  Silence in music can build anticipation like little else - and magnify the joy, sadness or terror (Jaws!) that it invokes.  Without silence, we’d get ear fatigue, or overwhelm, and stop listening.  

In my daily work, I’m learning to build in more spaces.  I’ve recently finished a leadership development course that challenged me to be clear and honest with myself about how I operate, and invited me to expand the options open to me.  Here too, one of my key learning points has been “the importance of the pause”.  Until recently, “doing” has been my comfort zone, and I’ve been guilty of that classic “new-to-design” habit of solutionising - rushing past the discomfort of “no tangible outcome (yet)” and onto the perceived safety of “we’re rolling!”  

I’ve also pressed “go!” repeatedly with the programme team I’m working with and rarely invited them or myself to “pause”.  Sometimes, a call to action is exactly what is needed - but working with another group, of customer champions, has shown me that we can achieve more, and have a more enjoyable time together, when I create and protect more space for all of us to properly process information before making decisions and when I welcome more silences in which further ideas can germinate and find their voice.  

When it comes to customers, I’m looking forward to identifying where we could add steps, and/or pauses between steps, to improve the customer experience. We know that speed is not what all our customers prioritise, and I love the concept of spaces with purpose - to give users visibility and control of decisions they need to make.

The second “hook” for me in Lou Downes’ book was around setting customer expectations.  In some ways, that’s already bread and butter work for my front line teams, and we certainly experience how rapidly and strongly emotions are triggered when expectations are not met (and when they’re exceeded).

This got me thinking about musical consonance and dissonance. In the West, we’re “trained”, via listening to music from when we were very young, to expect certain chord progressions, and to feel that certain notes sound “right” (and enjoyable) when played together at the same time.  

Conversely, notes that are dissonant can sound “wrong” (i.e. against our expectations) and can generate a feeling of significant tension.  I find myself waiting for music to pull towards the chord that “resolves” the dissonance and I have a strong, negative, reaction to musicians that play around with not doing that - prog rock for example!  

At A&W, I think we already set customer expectations at the point of delivery of some services.  We’ve also started to undertake user research at the beginning of our service design projects.  But I think we could do even better if we asked more about customer expectations right at the start, and took the time to understand what generated them.  Expectations are the things that lead to customer emotions about what we do or don’t do, and which can lead them to label our services as feeling “right” or “wrong”, so we need to check these out carefully.

Finally…. collaboration.  I’ve always thought that being part of an orchestra, band, or choir is the ultimate example of collaborative working.  I don’t have that experience myself - but my cycling group in Cuba was one of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of.  We had a clear purpose, we were committed, we worked together, we paused (for beers) together, and we trusted each other to get one another through the tough bits.  Twenty years on, we still want to be a team and we’ll travel long distances to spend time together.