How I learned to stop worrying and love the jam

A lightning talk at Service Design in Government

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There’s a growing interest in hacks and jam events in the public sector. Over the past months in Leeds alone, we’ve seen events around open government data, mental health, cycling and public transport.

Great stuff can happen at these events, yet they can also be unfulfilling for participants and organisers alike. After all the pizza-fuelled excitement of the weekend, everyone gets back to their day jobs and wonders what, if anything, has changed?

I’ve felt that sense of disappointment myself. As co-organiser of events under the Service Design Leeds banner, I’ve tried to fix it in various ways. I want to share the conclusion I’ve come to about what hacks and jams are for, and how to make them work.

It’s easy to see the reasons why these events are so popular – but I think they’re often the wrong reasons.

People in the public sector are hungry for ideas – they’ve always wanted to make things better for the people they serve, but now they have to do so with diminished resources and less central support.

These diminished resources make shortcuts and quick fixes very tempting. One of my collaborators jokes about the magical thinking surrounding startup pixies – mythical creatures who just appear and solve problems overnight in return for beer and pizza.

The pixies don’t exist. And even if they did, they couldn’t solve anything overnight because that’s just not long enough to engage with real users, to gain their trust and understand their concerns. Co-creating service with users is a long-term relationship not a one-night stand.

Yes there may be rare examples of hack day projects that go on to greater things – projects like Snook’s MyPolice. But the strike rate is far too low to justify the enormous amount of time and effort that everyone else puts in, often for free.

The true value in hacks and jams doesn’t come from the ideas and projects they generate. It comes down to the social capital we create, and new ways of doing things that we practice by working together for the first time.

My favourite definition of innovation is a throwaway line by Bruno Latour that “a project is considered innovative when the number of actors is not known from the outset.”

Much of life in large organisations (in the private sector too) consists of doing the same things we did yesterday, with the same people in the same building. We can improve those things incrementally with six sigma and process improvement, but to be truly innovative we need to join forces with others from outside our bubble.

The best hacks and jams foster innovation by pressing together groups of people who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance to collaborate. Even if that exact group never works together again, they all gain from the exposure to different perspectives and priorities in an egalitarian setting. So it matters who takes part in the event. 90 percent of the effort goes into getting the right people in the room.

Group forming and negotiation takes time and emotional energy. It’s not uncommon to see furrowed brows and tense discussions in jams. But this is all part of the important work of forging new understandings between strangers. The jam should be a safe space for that to happen.

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Meanwhile, the artificial time constraint in a jam forces people to work at a pace that they may not be used to. If you care greatly about the quality and reliability of the insights from your event, this will always be a source of pain.

But I prefer to turn that on its head (again in a safe, low-stakes environment). I urge jammers to start making a prototype before they know what it is, and to take it out of the building and test it with users before they think it’s finished. They’re invariable surprised by how much they could make in so little time, and by how little they needed to show users to get a good reaction. I want them to bottle that feeling and take it back to the office.

So when I look at the attendee list we have for the Leeds GovJam in a couple of weeks’ time, I’m excited by the possibilities.

We’re not going to solve the problems of the public sector overnight.

But we are going to see people working creatively together from our local authorities, central government departments, the NHS and third sector – a luxury they rarely have.

And we’re going to see what happens if, for just 48 hours, we focus on making something happen and involving users at a radically earlier stage than has been the habit in the public sector for so many years.

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One last thing: we’re doing it midweek. The unspoken message behind weekend hack events is that this stuff is an optional extra. If we really believe in innovation as part of an organisation’s core purpose then people deserve to do it during their normal working week.

Leeds GovJam is on Tuesday 3 and Wednesday 4 June. Find out more at leedsgovjam.wordpress.com

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Published by

mattedgar

Product strategy and design leadership in web and mobile media. Before that I was a newspaper journalist and history student

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