Three theories to help overcome change resistance in service design implementation

By Ricardo Martins

Ricardo Martins (biography)

How can service designers improve implementation of their projects and overcome resistance to change?

According to the Service Design Network, “Service design is the activity of planning and organizing people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service to improve its quality and the interaction between the service provider and its customers. The purpose of service design methodologies is to design according to the needs of customers or participants, so that the service is user-friendly, competitive and relevant.”

Although service designers have hundreds of methods to map the current state of a service, to elicit requirements from stakeholders and to propose new processes for services, they often spend little effort on implementing the ideas they generate. Many service designers ignore the implementation challenges they will face, especially resistance to change.

Resistance to change is a well-known phenomenon. It is natural to resist modifications since they can mean more risks, upsetting the established balance and emotional stress. Another, sometimes hidden, set of factors causing organizational inertia is politics, conflict of interests and power struggles.

Three theories from the organizational change literature can shed some light on these factors. They are also helpful when thinking about research implementation.

Frames to overcome symbolic and political obstacles to change

Four useful perspectives or ‘frames’ were described by Bolman and Deal (1991), who argued that change must take into account not only structural and human frames, but also political and symbolic ones.

  • Structural Frame — Refers to the skeleton or the bones of an organisation. It focuses on how to organise and structure groups to improve performance.
  • Human Resources Frame — Refers to individuals and how they interact with each other to meet their needs and desires.
  • Political Frame — Considers the organisation from the standpoint of power and conflict, as well as the dangers presented by external factors.
  • Symbolic Frame — This involves the culture of the organisation and how meaning is made.

Power games

Crozier (1979) highlighted that when a new change is implemented in service design, new rules and regulations are created in the organisation. This may result in new skills becoming essential, new political alliances and new local coalitions. Relevant areas of uncertainty and control of resources are redistributed. There may be resistance amongst people who feel they are losing power. There, therefore, needs to be an understanding of what happens to people’s personal interests and their power.

Networks of humans and resources

Latour’s actor-network theory (2005) draws attention to social relations that come into play in a change process. These are the effects of networks that include humans as well as objects, money, machines and the environment. The changes that service designers generate on such resources affect the people who control them, so that consideration must be given to modifications to resources and their links to the rest of the social system.


The value of these theories is to offer conceptual tools to deal with politics and power struggles. The political interests of those involved in an organisation being changed are usually hidden. This complicates the work of service designers who may create projects based on assumptions that do not always reflect the real circumstances in the organisation. Theories about power and social relations can help designers more effectively implement their projects.

What do you think? Are there other theories that you have found to be helpful?

To find out more:
Martins, R. (2016). Increasing the Success of Service Design Implementation: Bridging the gap between design and change management. Touchpoint, 8, 2. Online:

Bolman, L. and Deal, T. (1991). Reframing organizations. Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco, United States of America.

Crozier, M. (1979). On ne change pas la société par décret. Grasset: Paris, France.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford University Press: Oxford, United Kingdom.

Biography: Ricardo Martins is a Brazilian business consultant, specializing in business intelligence, process innovation, project management and branding. He is also a marketing and design professor at the Federal University of Parana in Brazil. He has received Samsung Design Awards and Apple Creativity Awards. His areas of interest are service design implementation, process re-engineering, change management and power games.

1 thought on “Three theories to help overcome change resistance in service design implementation”

  1. Yes, power and culture ‘the way things are done around here’ are closely linked. It is useful to have a starting point to grapple with these things, such as a way of identifying potential organisational cultures, how they interact and what their preoccupations are: Simplistic models like this one do not hold all the answers, but they are a way into things.


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