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How Wells Fargo Uses Service Design as a Strategic Function to Impact Decisions

On October 15-18, Service Design Week presented three days of dynamic, engaging speakers, workshops, and activities in Boston.

As co-chair of the Financial Services Focus Day, I had the privilege to introduce a series of leaders who have created and sustained meaningful, human-centered change in their organizations. Topics included the rising importance of service design to the financial services industry, how to overcome barriers to innovation, and designing for financial services in 2020 and beyond.

I recently connected with several speakers to learn more about their backgrounds, how they’ve integrated service design into their organizations, and what they see as critical for the future success of financial services.

In this first interview, I spoke with Elizabeth Trudeau, Founder and Head of Strategic Design at Wells Fargo. Liz was our first speaker on the topic “How Can a Strategic Design Function Impact a Financial Services Organization?”

Tell us a little bit about your background?

Elizabeth Trudeau
Elizabeth Trudeau

I lead an enterprise team called Strategic Design at Wells Fargo. We work as an internal professional services organization and take on complex problems for different businesses across the company. Our approach brings together business perspective and human-centered design.

How do you explain design thinking and service design inside your organization?

Elizabeth Trudeau
Elizabeth Trudeau

I don’t talk much about design thinking or service design beyond our team. I talk about solving problems or going after opportunities because that’s what people care about. Beyond design teams, I tend to focus on just a few aspects – curiosity, experimentation, empathy and discourse-driven collaboration. I should note that I didn’t bring design thinking and service design to the company. Customer-facing design and research teams have been at this for a while. However, it’s often downstream from where many strategic decisions and priorities are set. By the time that something gets to implementation, the amount of wiggle room you had was very small. The opportunity I saw was: if we could bring those skills and thinking to earlier-stage work, we could have a greater impact on what ends up hitting the customer or team member. We could also start to change the business practices and mindsets - about the way that we work and the type of company we want to be. My hypothesis was that we would get better outcomes and become a more engaging place to work. When I founded this team, it was a team of one (me). Then we started to add one person at a time. Now we're a team of 10, and we still continue to grow as a result of the impact we are making.

To get started, I didn’t lead with design or design thinking. The case I made to the organization was there is a need for us to have better innovation and problem solving capabilities. Why? Because the world is changing so quickly and we are not prepared to deal with the level of complexity. So we have two choices. We can either over simplify complex challenges and therefore create overly simplified and ineffective solutions, or we can amp up our innovation and problem-solving capabilities. I then positioned the team as the solution for businesses looking to accelerate progress and reimagine possibilities around hairy challenges.

Shaun Gummere
Shaun Gummere

You described that beautifully. Simple approaches yield simple solutions versus it's complicated. You have to embrace complexity. Is that a fair reflection?

Elizabeth Trudeau
Elizabeth Trudeau

Yes, a fair reflection. We first have to get to the effective outcome. And then we can simplify it.

You’re an innovation design thinking leader but how does service design fit into that world?

Elizabeth Trudeau
Elizabeth Trudeau

Our work connects to the more formal definition of service design. Generally speaking, service design is the combination of upfront innovation, fuzzy front end strategy, physical experience design, digital experience design, and process design. All of those things have to work together. Most of our capabilities are in the fuzzy front end and that leads into experience design. The people on the team are great researchers, full-brain thinkers, and most importantly can handle an immense amount of ambiguity. When you’re working across the entire company, there's ambiguity at every layer of the problem.

Shaun Gummere
Shaun Gummere

We call this contingent thinking - being able to hold a lot of possibilities at once and then precipitate out of direction to test.

Elizabeth Trudeau
Elizabeth Trudeau

I like that. Our model has been: bring us your biggest problem and we will help you solve it.

As you look out over the next couple of years, what are the biggest challenges to overcome?

Elizabeth Trudeau
Elizabeth Trudeau

There's a lot of unknowns and large organizations are having to depart way from how they have historically done business in the past. In its simplest form, an organization is just a collection of people and norms. Shifting the way people behave and think is incredibly difficult. One of the biggest challenges is getting people to behave differently at scale and change the way the company thinks. But there are other challenges like having to contend with legacy systems, competing priorities, and the value tension between multiple stakeholders that a large company serves.

Shaun Gummere
Shaun Gummere

It's a big culture shift in a way. Would you use that term?

Elizabeth Trudeau
Elizabeth Trudeau

I would say it is. It's a big culture shift, but I think it comes down to whether or not somebody is willing to swim upstream and try doing something different.

We run into some of the same implementation challenges that professional services companies face when working with large organizations. It's great to come in and do a project but the minute the project is over, people want to go back to the way things were. That’s why so much consulting work ends up sitting on the shelf.

Bridging the gap between the good idea and getting it to stick is critical. Do you have any key advice for making that happen?

Elizabeth Trudeau
Elizabeth Trudeau

We try to build it into the way that we pick projects. My team spends a lot of time figuring out how do we design for feasibility or design for implementation. Therefore, throughout our engagement, we’re constantly asking ourselves: how does this organization work? how do they make decisions? who has the power? what is their worldview? And what do they need to believe? The only way I've seen change happen is when people see they can do it themselves. The goal with every project is to have a story that can inspire change.

You mentioned wanting to change the way the company thinks. If you could wave a magic wand and arrive in the promised land, what would that look like?

Elizabeth Trudeau
Elizabeth Trudeau

Broadly speaking, the first thing I would notice: Is there a level of openness and vulnerability in the way we talk about the work? I think that's critical. One of my favorite authors is Brene Brown. I think she's spot on regarding the level of courage and vulnerability that it takes to lead change. We have to be change organizations, not just an organization that’s going through a change initiative.

We need people that promote change around us constantly. That's the only way we can thrive in the future. And I think that takes a remarkable amount of candor and vulnerability.

The other thing I would see: are people perpetually testing their assumptions or are they getting caught in the perfection trap early on? How many iterations are we doing? How many ideas are being killed? Those would be a great measure of progress. It sounds depressing, but I think it's so much more depressing to spend time on things that aren't worth it.

Shaun Gummere
Shaun Gummere

You made me think of one of the nicer compliments I got many years ago. He said, "Shaun, you're one of the people who say, “I don't know” in a way that makes it sound like it's not a bad thing, but a really good thing." I think the vulnerability you're describing resonates for me so much.

What is your recommended reading list for service design transformation or innovation?

Elizabeth Trudeau
Elizabeth Trudeau

Beyond the usual lists that you can pull from anywhere, I've really enjoyed Learn or Die by Ed Hess. It's about becoming a learning organization. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown is also great. I also like anything and everything related to behavioral economics. A good but heavy example is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. There are also great how-to and reference books like Mapping Experiences by Jim Kalbach. Jobs-to-be-done—I feel like we haven’t done enough with that.

What didn't I ask you that I should have?

Elizabeth Trudeau
Elizabeth Trudeau

How do you keep a team of 10 doing this work in a huge company? How do you build and maintain a healthy team?

Shaun Gummere
Shaun Gummere

That's a great question especially in a big organization where you're swimming upstream in a lot of ways. What advice do you have there?

Elizabeth Trudeau
Elizabeth Trudeau

What's worked for me is having a vision and getting people excited about it. That is the only reason people have joined this team – and I have an amazing team. And the only reason that people stay on the team is creating an environment that really embodies what you hope to see in the organization. We’re not waiting to have it happen—we’re going to be that team. You have to go out on a limb for the team and be willing to push boundaries.

Shaun Gummere
Shaun Gummere

That's terrific. Recently, we rearticulated our design principles and one of the ones we included was "Be Brave," because people pay us to tell them the truth. It’s often hard enough to bring a consultant in, and then they tell you what you already know or what they think you want to hear — you have to be really brave. That goes along with everything you’ve been saying, it’s like the two sides of a coin. On the end there's vulnerability, on the other end there's bravery. And then there's positivity of culture and purpose. It all comes together.

Elizabeth Trudeau
Elizabeth Trudeau

That’s spot on. It is that bravery - that double-sided coin where you have to simultaneously empathize with clients and then also push back on them, and tell them when you think they're wrong. I had a team member tell me yesterday that one of his most memorable professional moments was when I stood my ground for the team during a meeting with a client. I had no idea that act would be so meaningful to my team but, apparently, it was incredibly meaningful to them.

Shaun Gummere
Shaun Gummere

Thank you for chatting with me today and I look forward to hearing you speak at Service Design Week in October.


If you are interested in learning more about our Experience Strategy and Service Design practice, please reach out to us at hello@cantina.co or use our contact us form.

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