10 things I learned on the Global GovJam HQ team

My colleague Kathryn Grace and I were surprised and honoured when Natasche, Adam and Markus asked us to be part of their HQ team for the Global GovJam 2016. 100 days later, I’m looking back on a wonderful experience. The jamming movement across the public sector has massive potential, and I have learned loads about making something happen on a shoestring at a global scale. Here are few things while they are still fresh in my mind…

1. Be dispensable

The first thing we needed to be sure of before agreeing to be part of the HQ team was that Leeds GovJam would still happen as well. We had such a great time at the 2014 and 2015 jams and we didn’t want to see that disappear because we were tied up supporting other cities. Looking back, we needn’t have worried. Sharon, Liz and Lisa did a fantastic job hosting the Leeds event this time around, and it was great to see what they added to the established formula. Lisa has written a great blog post about her experience.

Leeds GovJam 2016 team Sharon, Liz and Lisa

2. Jam hosts are amazing people

We tried to make it as easy as possible to host a jam. It could be a polished event for hundreds of people or a simple meeting of a few folks around a kitchen table. And there’s no need to be an expert: many hosts are already familiar with service design and design thinking, but that’s not essential. Nevertheless, hosts around the World continue to amaze with their dedication and creativity. Even more encouraging from a GGovJam point of view is the fact that many of the hosts are already working within the public sector. Maybe your organisation employs a jam host? Be nice to that person. Reward them. Ask them how they can use those skills for your organisation the rest of the year round.

3. There are a lot of amazing people in the World

In the end, 32 cities on 5 continents took part in the Global GovJam 2016. I understand that’s a record for GGovJam, even if it is still dwarfed by the 100+ events that take place simultaneously during the annual Global Service Jam. What you can’t see on that list are the 20 or so other cities where someone at some point volunteered to host a jam but didn’t quite make it. Those people are heroes too, and though it didn’t work out this time around, I hope they come back and try again in 2017.

4. A little structure goes a long way

Adam, Markus and Natasche in the GovJam HQ space at ODI-Leeds

The genius of the format that Adam, Markus and Natasche have created and nurtured for the jams is the “tight-loose” structure – tight control where it matters, loose where people need autonomy. There are very few things you have to do to host a jam – be open, use the same Secret Theme, stick to the deadlines – but each of them is there for a reason. We tried to capture the most important things in a one-page guide for hosts. It ended up being a page of A3, but even so, that’s all there is to it!

5. Availability is a function of motivation

Nobody makes a profit from the jams, and everyone, including the HQ team, is giving their time for free. At first, this made it tricky to ask for help. How much was reasonable to expect of a volunteer? When would two busy people with very different schedules both be available to work on something? But as the jam approached, the reality sank in: people would Skype chat at midnight, and pass up paid work to be involved in something as amazing as the Global GovJam… but only if they were motivated and empowered to do so. I reckon there’s a missing manual about the human factors in working with a massive volunteer team. If you know of such a thing, please tell me in the comments below!

6. Cookie licking

I learned that it’s all too easy to inadvertently disempower a volunteer by prematurely taking something over, or by becoming a bottleneck to direct communication between two other parties. With the best of intentions, someone would jump in to try to move a task forward, only to find that the others were now waiting for them to make the next move. At Microsoft, apparently, this behavioural anti-pattern was known as cookie licking, and often deployed deliberately for internal political reasons. Resist the temptation! No one wants to eat a cookie that someone else has licked.

7. Warnock’s Dilemma

Working across multiple timezones with busy jam hosts and other members of the HQ team made me acutely aware of the niceties of digital collaboration. In particular, when things went silent, I came to appreciate the dilemma first documented by Bryan Warnock in 2000:

The problem with no response is that there are five possible interpretations:

  1. The post is correct, well-written information that needs no follow-up commentary. There’s nothing more to say except “Yeah, what he said.”
  2. The post is complete and utter nonsense, and no one wants to waste the energy or bandwidth to even point this out.
  3. No one read the post, for whatever reason.
  4. No one understood the post, but won’t ask for clarification, for whatever reason.
  5. No one cares about the post, for whatever reason.

By the end of the jam, generous quantities of Basecamp “applause” had more or less eliminated interpretation number 1 among the HQ team. For the others, I’m still at a loss, and determined to find a solution.

8. Basecamp 3 is actually quite good

Screenshot 2016-06-11 16.30.05
Host Community Basecamp GGovJam 2016

I know from my work with teams in central government that getting the right tools is pretty much a precondition for successful distributed working. Before the jam, I sounded out some fellow hosts and we all agreed that Basecamp sucked as a collaboration platform. But it was too late to change and we had to make the best of a bad job. Actually it turns out that Basecamp 3 is a massive improvement on the previous releases. The Company Formerly Known As 37Signals seems to have raided the best bits of my usual tools of choice, Trello and Slack, to make what could be a powerful, controllable platform. In retrospect, I’m sure we could have used it better.

9. autoCrat Add-on for Google Forms

Need to make nice things out of spreadsheet data? This little gem of a Google Apps add-on made quick work of a personalised timetable for every city, and the Kanban cards we used to track their status during the jam. Thank you, CloudLab!

10. This time next year!

I know it’s the quality of GGovJam that matters, not just the quantity. And yet:

  • cities in the world with >100,000 people living in them: 4,037
  • cities  on the GovJam 2016 map: 32
  • cities with no GovJam: 4,005!

How might we… ???

Pascal surveys the Globe

See also: GGovJam 2016 Thank you post on Facebook

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