The problem with product-led thinking in a service-dominant world

We are well into the service age but it’s taking a while for us to catch up. Product-led thinking still guides the operating structures of many large organisations, even though the successful delivery of their services requires them to act differently. Could it be that traditionally-structured companies have ceased to be an acceptable method through which to organise work in a service age? Or perhaps it’s just the way that they are communicating and sharing knowledge which needs rethinking.

Lynn Shostack talked of the problems inherent with entrenched business practices way back in 1984 when she said “these procedures (Gantt charts etc) provide managers with a way to visualise a process and to define and manipulate it at arm’s length. What they miss is the consumer’s relationship to, and interaction with, services. They make no provision for people-rendered services that require judgement and a less mechanical approach. They don’t account for the service’s products that must be managed simultaneously with the process” (Shostack, 1984).

If as Shostack suggests, a less mechanical approach is required to deliver services, what would this look like?


Artisans vs operatives of the industrial age

Ingold invokes Franz Reuleaux’s 1876 work The Kinematics of Machinery to differentiate the way an artisan works compared to the work style of the industrial age. Where the artisan is guided by stories of past use to guide their making, the industrial worker is “bound to the execution of step-by-step sequences of determinate motions” (Ingold, T. 2006). This breaking down of the task into discrete steps with a beginning and an end differs, says Ingold, to that of the artisan who achieves their goal throughout constant adjustment based on the emerging situation. According to Ingold the artisan is also engaged in conscious thought, not like the automatons of the factory. This is the ‘flow’ of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Another aspect to this ‘flow’ of the artisan is introduced by Robert Chia and Robin Holt in their book Strategy Without Design in which they make distinct the modes of ‘navigating’ and ‘wayfaring’ and how this distinction affects the creation of strategy. Chia and Holt are of the view that careful and minute adjustments based on emerging situations (wayfaring) is a better methodology than fixed directional strategies (navigation), especially in a rapidly changing world (Chia & Holt, 2011).

How might we stimulate and support ‘flow’ within organisations? Perhaps we could return to an artisan way of approaching problem solving in our organisations rather than trying to use industrial logic of production which relies upon repeatable mechanisation. What would an service artisan look like? Would it involve the creation of guilds and a re-establishment of apprenticeships so that a craft could be handed down from a skilled craftsperson to an apprentice? (for more on apprenticeships see Fred Beecher’s piece on Boxes & Arrows).


Whilst researching the idea of the artisan I came across a 2013 Sitra publication Legible Practises which proposed the idea of ‘stewardship’ to achieve systemic change. The authors of this paper prefer the word stewardship to the words commonly used in business like ‘implement’ and ‘execute’ which imply for them too clean and linear a progression: something they feel is out of place in the messy, modern world (and much too located in industrial-age approaches).

For me the idea of a steward better correlates to a service situation than an artisan as it implies the care of others in a group rather than an individual’s pursuit. Although it’s worth acknowledging the role of the guild here as a collective of artisans, I’m not sure it’s suitable for an organisational context—at least for larger organisations where multiple people need to orchestrate their work.

Sitra’s checklist for a ‘steward’ to me reads as a checklist for a successful organisation. According to Sitra, the steward:

  • acknowledges things will change so favours agility over strict adherence to a predetermined plan;
  • works with others collaboratively;
  • continuously calibrates project goals against emerging contexts; and
  • maintains a positive outlook and a willingness to pivot when success is diminishing along the current path.

Acting locally

One missing item on Sitra’s stewardship checklist might be the importance of acting and thinking locally. Something which might also be important to organisations, not only in the geographic sense. Acting within one’s local environment (whether physical or digital) affords more immediate feedback loops than one operating at a distance, as you can more easily see the impacts of your choices.

Bringing it back to organisational structure, the theory of Holocracy is somewhat shaped around the idea of localism in that it promotes decision making within small circles over traditional, top-down approaches to management. Leaving critiques of Holocracy aside, this approach of small, overlapping circles is really just about the smooth flow of information. This is possible without having to change an operating model as radically as with Holocracy.

Open communication

A post-industrial society is one which places increased value in knowledge. But we frequently see examples of people in organisations saying they value knowledge, yet appear to be deliberately hiding that knowledge from those whom it would benefit most. Whether or not this ‘hiding’ is intentional is not important for this post, but its impacts are. When people within a system do not have all of the information they need to make informed decisions, mistakes are made. In large organisations, people who make the decisions are often too far away from the points of intelligence gathering and when communication signals are weak, decisions are poorly made. This doesn’t mean “breaking down silos” but rather increasing lines of communication and connections across boundaries (interesting read about this from Dave Snowden here)


This article begins to explore a new approaches to working in organisations that might be more conducive to the delivery of services. It proposes that an artisan or stewardship model of being could be the way forward. This model is highly collaborative, less mechanistic that legacy ways of working, and aims to lessen the distance between data and decisions. The increased access to intelligence through timely communication should result in the delivery of more joined up services to citizens and customers alike.


  • Chia, R & Holt, R. 2011, Strategy without design: the silent efficacy of indirect action. Cambridge University Press.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
  • Ingold, T. (2006). “Up, across and along”, Place and Location: Studies in Environmental Aesthetics and Semiotics, vol 5, pp. 21-36.
  • Snowden, D. (2005), “From atomism to networks in social systems”, The Learning Organization, Vol. 12 Iss: 6, pp.552 – 562.
  • Shostack, G.L. (1984), “Designing Services that Deliver’, Harvard Business Review, vol. 62, no. 1 January – February 1984, pp. 133–139.
  • Boyer B., Cook J.W., Steinberg Marco (2013) Legible Practises. Six Stories About the Craft of Stewardship. Sitra.
  • Dom

    August 3, 2016 at 1:36 pm Reply

    A lot to ponder here and an insightful reframe on what a good organisation looks like – it made me think about the workshops and themes that emerge in our work. The big one is around consistency of processes as a way to increase efficiencies (and profits) in an organisation. This theme also emerges as a solution to improving the experience of customers because service providers are great sometimes, but not all the time – and we all want to be at our best all the time! I’m curious to see where we can delineate consistency as a solution versus inconsistency (or perhaps, craftsmanship) as a thing to be celebrated. Thanks for getting the wheels churning 🙂 Great post.

  • Kimberley

    August 3, 2016 at 1:59 pm Reply

    Thanks Dan and Dom

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