At Open we identify and examine customer issues. At DNA we deliver on that thinking.

"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein

Service Design

Jamming with the Government


For the majority of people, the term “Service Jam” is a very foreign concept, and no, preserving fruit is not involved. I will attempt a quick explanation. To start with, a definition of service design is: “The application of human-centered design methods, tools and thinking to the creation, planning and organising of all the various people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service.” Add to this the idea of a jam, as in a bunch of musicians coming to together, riffing off each other and making music. What you get is a Service Jam – a gathering where people come to collaborate in a fast paced design session, working on service challenges and opportunities. Much like a music jam, these can be run for a number of different reasons, to create brand new service offerings, to solve some specific challenges, or just to learn. 

Jamming with the Government

Towards the end of last year a few of us from DNA had the opportunity to work with fellow Service and Experience Designers from government and other Public sector agencies to put on a two day Government Service Jam (Gov Jam), this being the second one we’ve run, the first prototype was earlier in the year. Right at the end of the second day a participant came up to me and said: “I can’t believe we came up with such a good idea, I mean I think this could actually work”. She was talking about the ingenious prototype solution she and her team had just made in under a day. This is something that I have seen time and time again. 

So enter the NZ Gov Jam. Governments of any country have a large number of services that they are responsible for delivering – on increasingly tight budgets – with increasingly complex user needs, integration challenges and roadblocks. This has meant that the idea of Service Design (and the desire for service jams) has started gaining momentum. The New Zealand Gov Jam was a response to this. 

The NZ Gov Jam was split into three events over two days. First was a four hour introduction to Service Design, where the coaches took participants who knew nothing about service design through a mock run of a design process. This included short lessons on different design tools as we moved through the process. The next event ran on the first evening and acted as an ice breaker/meet and greet for all the participants who were going to take part in the full service jam the next day. Participants were divided into teams and spent the evening acting, drawing and building things under some tight time pressure - a strategically redesigned version of charades. Then finally the next morning everyone gathered back in the same room, in the same teams, with the aim of tackling a set of complex government related challenges in 8 hours. The result was a high paced day full of energy, some great learning, some great insights and some incredible prototype solutions for some very gnarly challenges. 

I had a bit of time recently to reflect on the success of the New Zealand Gov Jam’s and the reasons I thought they are so important. Here are some of the outtakes.

Scrap the meetings. Keep the biscuits.

Having worked in a really diverse range of industries, one of the challenges I often come up against is the challenge of meaningful collaboration. Not just people sitting in a room having a meeting (helpful though they can be and I always love the biscuits), but teams actually working together to creatively solve challenges - creative collaboration. 

There is a wide spread perception out there that creativity is the work of soloists. You all know the picture: a guy in a black turtle neck and round glasses, in a workshop tinkering away until suddenly a light bulb magically appears directly above his head and history is forever changed (sorry Steve). While this type of creativity does indeed exist and can yield amazing results, as organisational guru Keith Yamashita says, “almost all works of greatness are the work of an ensemble”. 

But how do we help people with diverse backgrounds, expertise, experience and beliefs come together? How do we bring out the best in one another? How do we creatively solve the many complex challenges all of our organisations now face?

At the Gov Jam I saw people from all sorts of different educational backgrounds, different organisations, different cultural backgrounds and even different first languages, work together and creatively hack at some challenges we as a society desperately need solutions for. There are a number of reasons I feel the design process we used is a catalyst for teams to do great work together. 

Trust the Process

A friend of mine had a great lecturer at design school that always used to say, “trust the process”. There are always moments, when designing something new, when you are temped to jump straight to solution; moments when you get lost in the middle of overwhelming complexity, or moments where you just don’t know where to next. It is at these moments that the design process offers a simple answer: here’s the next task, the next tool, the next step, the next question to answer or even the question you should keep asking for a while longer. Design has a wide array of tools that designers have developed from decades of getting stuck, getting lost and getting plain old confused. These tools have been borrowed from many fields including sociology, psychology, business, science, computer science and complexity theory, and have been adapted to help the creative process get unstuck. At the Gov Jam, this meant that when teams were stuck and getting frustrated with one another, there was the next task, tool or question to pull them forward together. 

Stick figures

The charades game may have seemed like a random icebreaker activity to aid in the lubrication of a potentially awkward social situation, but the thinking ran a little deeper than that. One of the main roadblocks to creativity in groups is that we have been trained to always give the “right answer”. Years of getting the answer wrong, getting our ideas shot down in groups or getting talked over in meetings has taught us to make sure we only share our ideas when we are sure they are good and well thought through. A key to creative collaboration in groups is the willingness to do the vulnerable thing and pose ideas and suggestions when they are still embryonic, half-formed stick figures. The point is not that they are good or bad ideas, it is that when we share our fledgling thoughts, we are allowing the team to explore more widely than usual. One half formed idea may spark the breakthrough the group needs. To do this however we need to be willing to be vulnerable in our teams. Hence the rationale behind playing charades: people (in a safe environment) acting, throwing out ideas, drawing stick figures and generally being vulnerable in front of each other. 

Get out of the building

There is a principle in Service and Experience Design called “get out of the building”. It is code for "go meet the customer". So often when we are nutting out a “really great” idea we tend to do so without any consideration of the customer or end user. Part of the Gov Jam and any design process is to regularly get out of the building and engage the end user. Learn about them, prototype solutions with them. What this does for teamwork is give the team members an objective point from which to evaluate ideas: the end user. This meant that throughout the jam, it wasn’t the loudest or most extroverted person who got their way, but the user. Everyone had to give way to the user. This gave everyone access to the decision making power in the group and the conversation was shared by everyone. 

Build to think

Finally, “Stop talking and start making”. This is one of the mantras of design. Not to say talking is bad, definitely not, but throughout the jam we continuously reminded the participants to “show not tell” their ideas to their team members. One of the main challenges with sharing ideas in a group is that the idea sounds amazing in your head, but due to the limitations of verbal communication, each member of the team will get a slightly different, reduced version of your idea. Enter prototyping i.e. using whatever is around you at the time to “make” your idea. This did a couple of things for the teams. Firstly it ended arguments and frustrations around “not getting” each other’s ideas. Secondly it meant that everyone in the team could ask questions and learn about the idea on the table/chair/wall, instead of trying to figure out what the other person was trying to get across. If a picture says a thousand words, I would say a prototype says ten thousand. 

I get by with a little help from my friends.

We all face organisational challenges that are more complex than ever before. If we are going to face these challenges we are going to need the skills and brainpower of the whole team. This was the point of the Gov Jam, and the point of much of our work here at DNA. We use, facilitate and teach a process that unlocks the best in each person, brings all the minds to the table and gets those amazing ideas out of everyone’s heads and into the world for us all to enjoy.


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