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Personal Rapid Iterative Design: Reflection on SkyTrain Unconference

The idea of public rapid iterative design on myself is very tempting. It basically looks like this:

  • State what you think you’re about.
  • Do something that changes your mind.
  • State how this has changed what you think you’re about.
  • Do it again.

I watched one of my favorite people in the world do it over the course of a year, and it was, at the time, the right thing for her to do. I’m not so sure if I have the same guts to put myself out there, but, well, no time like the present for overturning fear and the like. There were moments when I might have thought this person was being excessive, but I realize what it actually was was incredulity – that someone could be that open and confident in the face of not only their not knowing, but the not-knowing about themselves — something I find taken for granted and assumed so often.

I’ve also noticed a bit of a pattern: that I’m a lot braver in person than I am online or in print. I find the converse to be true: that some people are much braver online or in print than in person.

One of the things I’ve longed to do is to truly unpack the experiences of 2008. I know that overcoming my fear of doing so is key in helping me move on this year, and I feel deeply obligated to do so. So I’m going to start with the blog post I’ve been waiting to write for ages but I haven’t.

The SkyTrain Unconference

(Many, many deep breaths.)

Everyone I worked with was awesome and tried their best. The attendance of folks from SkyTrain and Transit Police was great and they contributed a lot to the event with their presence and expertise. The event brought out passionate people.

But there were a lot of underlying assumptions on both sides that were taken for granted. Uprooting those things and hashing them out in the light was not something I always felt empowered to do. That, and being in the middle of horrible violent life upheaval meant I wasn’t poking holes in things as early or as effectively as I feel I could have.

That said, it was all incredibly valuable learning.

What would have made the SkyTrain Unconference better?

I sensed a great deal of openness on the part of SkyTrain, but there was also more than one moment of occasional, “This is not how we do things around here,” feeling from TransLink. The other issue I spot is one of scope: it was always seen as a pilot, a thing they would try that was new because they could. The things that they identified as problems within their consultation process were probably not the same things that the public would have identified as problems with TransLink’s broader outreach.

I’m still filled with stories from that incredible experience:

  • The transit police officer who I gave my e-mail address to but who never e-mailed me, who said he saw me on Breakfast Television and who used to work for SkyTrain and seemed to have a lot of opinions – on, at very least, the source of his dissatisfaction.
  • The staff member who I spoke to at the middle of the day, who’d worked at SkyTrain since it opened, who told me, “This is all stuff we already know. When is the change actually going to happen?” At this point I realized – more remembered, actually – that insiders often are as (if not more) aware of what the issues are, and even have ideas for how to fix them, but are missing something else in order to make those ideas reality. I prefer not to stand in a position of judgment when I don’t know what they’ve personally tried or done.
  • The discussion at BarCamp about co-optation.
  • The generosity and kindness – and, sometimes, understandable skepticism – of the people I’ve met and had a chance to work alongside at TransLink. It took a lot of self-awareness to be able to interact what I would consider half-way capably with them, and by “capably” I refer mostly to being able to dissect the subtleties of what I considered “standard” versus what they did.

That last point is a sticking point for me. The people I worked with are immersed in a practice that’s rooted in the centrality of organizational identity – they are even that identity’s gatekeepers, maintainers and shapers. This is in contrast to most bloggers and academics, who I see as being much more aware and personally accountable to what they say they are about, and who have in many ways (but not *always*) self-selected themselves to be that rigorous. They make the organizations they participate in that way too – occasionally at the expense of other aspects.

I’m reminded of the documentary Us Now that I watched in the midst of Northern Voice a few weeks ago. “In the age of transparency, every company’s going to be naked,” Don Tapscott said in the film (and I paraphrase), “Fitness is no longer an option, and if you’re going to be naked, you better be buff,” where that refers to a solid and rigorous statement of value, as well as “integrity baked into your bones.”

I’m somewhat attracted to the idea that job-hopping, somewhat counter-intuitively, actually allows you to keep closer tabs on whether you are peak performance. That only works if the value you bring can be shown quickly – I would argue that for some kinds of things, it can’t be. The other thing that’s a little odd for me to acknowledge is that job-hopping means I’m always in the position of being new, looking at something with fresh eyes using methods I’ve cribbed from elsewhere – something I really like doing, perhaps a little too much (and which explains my messing about in Planner-land).

What would I do better next time?

  • Reach out to people as a group and get them imagining what they want to do together, not individually. The magic doesn’t come from asking each one of them piecemeal, and that was a conclusion I came to even before the event. There’s also a certain amount of organizational well-formedness that helps a lot as well.
  • Can’t do it without organizational buy-in. It’s so impossible I might even ask myself not to waste my energy in trying. The people on the SkyTrain, Transit Police and TransLink sides were not prepared to change business as usual, because there was little perceived need to do so.
  • No amount of public consultation will bring about organizational consciousness, change its DNA or empower those within to imagine new ways of doing and thinking.
  • Make sure everyone who needs to be is, um, there. Most of the people who had the richest things to bring to this discussion, didn’t, and I take quite a bit of personal responsibility for that.

What did I learn?

  • Damn, this stuff is harder than it looks.
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