5 hosts. 6 teams. 35 other cities participating. 48 hours to “rock the public sector.”

Those were the key stats of GovJam Montreal, a global event in which local teams applied the tools of “service design” to conceive and develop viable projects that transform some aspect of public service (meaning: anything that our tax dollars pay for).

I was one of the hosts. With me were four experts in service design, each as wonderful and generous as the next. They guided participants in a process of rapid project development that revolved around prototyping and role-playing. My role was to tend to the flow of the event, to sprinkle strategic bursts of applied improvisation in support of collaboration and creativity, and to help participants notice what they were learning along the way.

The event began on Tuesday afternoon and ended Thursday evening. At all times, it was intense, playful and astonishingly productive. My comparison was a six-month course I recently completed on developing a business plan for a social enterprise. In 2 ½ days, the GovJam teams progressed significantly further than any of the 15 projects in my course.

Here are the lessons that stand out for me and from participant feedback. All of them have clear relevance for other work settings – including my own work, as I discovered.

  • Six heads are better than one. Teamwork was vital to idea generation, project development and stamina. In situations where creativity and speed are desired, it seems that a team will be best suited to the task. (In contrast, nearly all the entrepreneurs in my six-month course worked alone.) On the other hand, when teamwork didn’t work, it was time-consuming and painful for all involved. The lesson: make it a priority to find people who play well with others.
  • Play is seriously practical. Applied improv injected critical skills and energy. We played games often, always explaining afterwards which habits they were building: short-turn taking, nimbleness, physicality, generosity, trust. I can’t imagine doing an event like this without those carefully chosen bursts of “practical play.”
  • Constraints help. Armed with a vague new project idea, a freshly formed group, and piles of creative materials, the first thing teams had to do was build 10 physical prototypes in 45 minutes. The entire event carried this level of urgency, audacity, and forced reliance on the resources in the room. The result was a constant flow of inspiring ideas and impressive output.
  • Drill down to the hyper-specific. Staying with generalities is comfortable but paralyzing. “People feel disconnected from government!” Which functions of government? When? Which citizens? Who specifically? To get to specifics, teams invented detailed “personas” – imaginary people who would be touched by their project (both on the receiving and the delivering ends). And then they physically acted out service scenarios, complete with costumes and props. This opened up all kinds of insights – and energy.
  • You have to be all-in. The most successful teams were those willing to play with abandon and to push ideas to their limits. They didn’t second-guess each other or the process. And they remained curious, letting the results of prototyping lead the way.

In contrast, there was one team who insisted that they couldn’t conform to the time pressure and who resisted playing. “I care too much about this idea to play with it,” said one participant. “It’s too important to pick some small piece of it and prototype something just for fun.” This was fascinating to me. I have long been on a passionate mission to “change the world,” preferably all 7 billion people at once. But I could see this team languishing in generalizations and analysis while other teams rocketed forward with small but powerful – and playfully engaging – project ideas. It was an uncomfortably familiar scene.

At the end of the event, I rushed to ask the other hosts how quickly we can set something like this up for my own projects. I’m ready to Jam! Not only that, I’m eager to incorporate some of the processes of service design into my company’s consulting and facilitation. It seems a perfect fit – after all, life prototypes!

Whether you jump into a Jam or not, the tools and mindsets of service design seem to be powerful – and beautifully aligned with life.

Thanks to the organizers and my fellow hosts: Benoit Meunier, Antonio Starnino, Joelle Saraillh, Isabelle Kostecki, as well as mentors Patrick Dubé, Pascal Beauchesne.  Thanks also to Empress of Applied Improv Belina Raffy for all the coaching and techniques!

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