Intelligent Disobedience – A Service Dog idea for Service Management

guide dogOne of the interesting consequences of ever increasing self-service across the ITSM spectrum is the – unnoticed in many organisations – increasing average complexity of those tasks that do require human involvement.

Routine calls to the desk – from password request through to a new PC are dealt with by modern software without the need for people. Answers for foreseeable questions and actions for foreseeable situations are built into the software beforehand; decided once and then applied at (almost) zero further cost.

But what that means is that when a call to a person is required, the issue is complicated, the pre-programmed normal rules do not apply and significant skill level is required to understand and address the issue. This kind of exception work* requires not only skill and knowledge, but also empowerment to make decisions required in what are often unforeseen circumstances.

We saw many years of organisations de-skilling front line tasks. We now see major moves towards self-service and automation of the routine. Those two ideas are not compatible and as self-service automation takes hold, the result is a need to upskill the remaining customer facing roles.

All this calls for a new attitude to our front line staff; one based on genuine empowerment, which means:

  • Authority – to make decisions and implement non-standard actions – including the cost and consequences of those decisions
  • Knowledge – built and maintained – to help make those decisions correctly
  • Trust and support for decisions made– especially being aware that, at best, they will only be right most of the time for most customers.

A useful and powerful concept, essential in the training of guide dogs, is the need to foster “Intelligent Disobedience”. Put simply, this is knowing when the rules you generally work by are not appropriate and what is actually called for in a particular situation is something that would normally be against the rules.

The traditional example is the guide dog not crossing the street when the pedestrian light comes on because they see a car coming at speed that will not stop. We see examples in all the skilled professions too from sport to surgery. In fact our television series seem to worship the idea, but in them success depends on the star rating of the perpetrator.

But this idea is applicable much more widely than service dogs, in fact it is applicable to all kinds of service support. Realising the benefits requires an environment in which it can be practised, and in many organisations that will need a change in management style. Training managers to embrace intelligent disobedience is often the hardest part!

Getting the right balance in real life needs a good and meaningful practice environment. This doesn’t have to be expensive – we are talking about people not vast technological test environments. In fact the approach is basically the same as that used for doing service rehearsals before go-live.

Of course the data and information input is critical – and it is here that modern technology needs to play its part alongside the traditional human skills. Knowledge management is central to success in solving complicated questions and in triggering and supporting intelligent disobedience decisions.

* And the whole landscape of normal vs exception is set out better than I ever could by Rob England in his ‘Standard + Case’ book. I acknowledge gratefully learning much from his writing and trainings. More information here:

3 thoughts on “Intelligent Disobedience – A Service Dog idea for Service Management

  1. Matt Hooper

    Interesting post Ivor.
    When I saw your interview on at the KNOW15 conference, I thought I understood your position. How I took it was: We must be willing to let smart people figure things out and stop trying to script policy or rules on them.

    However, after reading your post I am confused. It sounds like you are saying we need to let the front line handle the complex issues and figure it out. If that is the case, I wouldn’t necessarily agree. By front line staff I assume you mean the ServiceDesk. These individuals, while bright tend not to have the experience and rarely have the systems perspective needed to effectively and sometimes safely work off script.

    Those with the aptitude and experience don’t last long in this role. It should be a goal of every organization to keep finding more and more scenarios where standards can be automated. Create a culture of collaboration so that knowledge sharing can empower the front line to work within the policies, or to know where it’s more of a guideline then a rule.
    Or maybe that was your point, teach them to know when to break the rules without doing harm…

    Thanks for your thoughts

    1. Ivor Macfarlane

      HI Matt,

      Good points – I think we may actually agree about things, let me say how I see it.

      We surely should be encouraging bright guys to use their judgement when that is appropriate – and set up situations where they know their degree of flexibility. So – no argument there I trust.

      The points initiated by your second paragraph are manifest and interesting. Underpinning them all is the question as to whether the service desk as it is now will survive. What I was trying to explain is that as self service and automation becomes pervasive and the mechanism of choice for most situations, the nature of tasks the service desk deals with will change. Whether that means we change the nature of the service desk is an inevitable question. There is already entertaining debate around that question, I suspect it will continue for a while.

      So, personally I do think the role of front line staff (be they service desk, customer support or client satisfaction officers) will change and become harder, more requiring of innovation and less like the servicedesk of today, because the traditional role is passing over to the machines.

      The real point of my message is as the need for low skill roles is disappearing fast and that means we need to ensure we have a means for recruiting, retaining appropriately skilled staff to do the more complex role. And we need to give them space to work well, and manage them in a way that allows them to do the job to the best of their abilities and deliver the best customer focused service.

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