17 February 2012
Mark Fonds & Jesse Grimes
Mark Fonds & Jesse Grimes

Overcoming the ‘Monkeysphere’ Challenge

Supporting organisational change in the jungle of a large organisation

In early 2009, the Dutch government laid out new requirements for its federal agencies, aiming to put in place cost-savings and efficiency measures. For the UWV (‘Uitvoeringsinstituut Werknemersverzekeringen’) -the agency responsible for employment– these triggered the start of a series of organization-wide changes that would dramatically improve the way it served its clients.

[Reprint from Touchpoint Volume 3 no. 2, september 2011]

Supporting those changes was the implementation of service design tools, techniques and thinking, put in place by a small team from our consultancy. In particular, we came to recognize the tremendous value of ’mini-networks’ that were initially created as a by-product of our workshops. These networks – made of staff that serviced the same clients but sometimes had little or no contact with each other – have broken down barriers and improved the service offering.

The UWV is staffed by more than 20,000 employees, with offices spread across the country. Its remit includes work placement for the unemployed, income support, and integration of disabled people into the workforce. It was with a subsection of this last user group – those with physical or mental disabilities that ruled out mainstream employment – that a pilot program of service design was put in place in 2009.

Years and years of politically-driven changes in the structure of the UWV, the roles and departments within it, the processes and administration required to support clients, and the changing obligations it must meet, have led to frustration, confusion and inefficiency amongst its staff. What was urgently needed was to bring a better understanding of the provision of the UWV service to those that were actually providing it, directly or indirectly.

Introducing Service Design at Every Layer of the Organization

Our initial work focused on Wajongeren, a user group of more than 200,000 young people with disabilities. Medical consultants, work advisors, and others maintain years-long relationships with these young people, and during this time they are offered training, work placement, income support and additional services.

The coordination of all the roles within the UWV responsible for delivering that service was complex, time consuming and expensive. Furthermore, poor communication meant that clear opportunities for improvement existed.

Through comprehensively researched personas and detailed journey maps, we started to bring a true understanding of these users into the organization, beyond just those front-line workers who met them on a daily basis. Further work took place to identify and influence the service touchpoints, and to design and develop a website and portal for both clients and potential employers.

By the end of the first year of work, we had expanded the scope of the project, developed journey maps for other client groups of the UWV, and created an adaptable workshop aimed at clarifying and improving the overall service. During the workshops, we introduced detailed personas, and encouraged participants to create user journeys with them. In doing so, shortcomings in the current service – and opportunities for improvements – became clear. And finally, with the combined effort of all participants, we developed solutions and innovations to improve the service.

However these service innovations were not the only outcome: to our surprise and pleasure, we noticed that the networking that took place in the workshops bore fruit for weeks and months after the participants had departed. We were told of many cases where problems and issues were solved by being able to pick up a phone or send an email to a new contact in an otherwise unknown department. Furthermore, each workshop we held contributed to a larger and more detailed collective mental image of the service: something that hadn’t existed beforehand.

Workshops, Networking, and the ‘Monkeysphere’ Phenomenon

Amongst all the service design-related activities that we carry out, workshops have proven to be the most successful tool in supporting the organizational change that the UWV is undergoing.

In a workshop context, we carefully analyze specific situations that take place during the service experience, such as how information and assessments about a particular client are transferred between people or departments, and how the client experiences this. We then encourage the participants, who come from a wide cross-section of the agency, to work together to find solutions, adding our insight and expertise as well.

This shared approach to problem solving – in which the participants share a common goal, but have initial confusion about the roles and activities of parts of the agency outside their domain – leads to the creation of informal networks, whose benefits continue long after our flip charts have been taken off the wall and conference room doors have been closed.


During each workshop, polaroid photos were taken of the participants and annotated with their contact details. These were collected and distributed to everyone, serving to build long-lasting ‘mini-networks’ that supported the organizational change programme.

The networks serve to reduce the opacity and anonymity that’s an inevitable result of working in such a large organization, and relate to an issue dubbed the ‘monkeysphere’ limitation, or ‘Dunbar’s number’.

Originally theorized by an anthropologist, it states a theoretical maximum number of relationships that any one person can stably maintain and pegs it at around 150. Although the research itself described social relationships, we feel it’s applicable in huge organizations as well. Not only are those working in different departments and other offices outside one’s familiar network, they may well be viewed with distrust or anxiety. This not only makes an organization inefficient, it jeopardizes the seamless delivery of a service. So by encouraging cooperation in a workshop setting, and building enduring mini-networks, we’re not only providing some much needed ‘glue’ as the organization restructures, we’re helping ensure that it provides improved services as well.

And it’s not just the networking function of our workshops that support the change program; the outcome of each of these workshops (service innovations, for example) are gathered together and analyzed. Those which represent systemic changes to the way the UWV does business are then fed into an existing change management function at the highest level of the agency, and in turn ministers within the federal government. In this way, we’re providing a direct channel for change, from those directly providing the services, to those managing multi-million euro budgets and plans.

Our expectations – and those of our direct sponsors – have been surpassed by the success of this engagement. Our long-standing relationship has provided us with broad insight into how the UWV conducts core parts of its business, and we have earned the trust of and established a rapport with key figures throughout its hierarchy. And we also derive satisfaction from knowing that we’re helping to greatly improve the experience of the clients whom the UWV serves. Demonstrating faith in our approach, plans are underway to scale our work across the whole agency, province-by-province. This means improving the service for additional user groups, and building further connections between management levels and the service providers themselves.

Eleven tips for supporting change through service design techniques

  1. Support the creation of mininetworks to overcome the ’monkey brain’ phenomenon;
  2. Encourage people to get to know each other’s jobs and functions;
  3. Build recognition that they have a common responsibility to serve their clients;
  4. Get them to share their client group through the creation of personas;
  5. Identify problems in the service together and create solutions together;
  6. Gather problems and solutions from workshops across all locations and feed these back into the improvement program of the company to solve these problems;
  7. Help build a mental model of the total service, for management through to all other workers;
  8. Agree on the service elements;
  9. Use techniques such as workshops as quality monitoring tools
  10. Actively engage workers in the improvement of the service rather then have management conduct changes ‘from above’;
  11. Inspire people to bring about change by making them experience things from their clients’ perspective.

Download reprint:

Touchpoint 3.2, sept. 2011 Pdf icon botw

The authors

Jesse Grimes is an editor of Touchpoint, and has twelve years experience
as an interaction designer and consultant, now specialising in service design. He has worked in London, Copenhagen, Dusseldorf and Sydney, and is now based in The Netherlands with Dutch agency Informaat.

Mark Alexander Fonds (MA) is working as a service design consultant for Informaat in Holland. Mark has been working in the design field for over 25 years. His experiences include working for large international corporation like NASA, NOAA, E*Trade Financial and Cirque du Soleil. He is trying actively to apply service design thoughts and tools into the workforce of today’s service industries.

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