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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Bringing Agility to Citizen Engagement: An Interview with Gerry Kirk

Bringing Agility to Citizen Engagement: An Interview with Gerry Kirk


1. Hi everyone this is Todd Charron, I’m an Agile news editor with InfoQ and I’m joined today by Gerry Kirk. Hi Gerry! You are one of the speakers at Innovation Games Summit here, and before we get started, maybe you can just tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure, I’ve been involved in the Agile Space for quite a few years now. I've always been passionate about bringing people together to create awesome results and of course in Agile we focus a lot on companies and teams, but I’m also really passionate about the other parts of our life, the volunteering things that we do or government and citizens, so I’ve been taking a lot of what I've doing in the Agile Space and applying it there. So that is a lot of what I enjoy doing and that is what brought me here.


2. How that you first get involved with Innovation Games?

I think I just started using them on my own and discovered some how must been on an Agile Conference, so then started experimenting in work that I was doing with teams and after a while got the formal training and now I’ve been using in all kind of situations, volunteer teams and citizens groups and so on.


3. Your session was Democracy Unleashed bring Agility to citizen engagement, so how does that happened?

Well, as you can probably guess, the way things are today is fundamentally broken, whether it is financial institutions or educational or government institutions, are falling apart. We all know that they need to make a change and so just like organizations need to make this change right from the top down controlling approach from the industrialized way of thinking but management and work. The same changes need to happen in the other areas, so really the same approaches that we are using in the workplace, apply to citizens, so for example it’s really about creating the space and the environment in which people can collaborate on issues that matters to them but in a way that actually produces results is innovative, or people feel hurt, all the same kind of struggles we're faced with, so how to use the Innovation Games for example to work on youth strategy, bringing youth in and allowing them to come up with creative ideas and actually then try to prioritize all these possibilities what should be do, so it works great.


4. One of the places where we see Innovation Games used or at least the origins of Innovation Game use is all on the business context, you know generate product ideas and things like that, how does that translate to a non-product focus, to something more for social good?

There is a lot of commonality, in the end there is something that we want to do and there is a lot of competing ideas and interests, so I’ve even used it for example in a church setting, so I was really interested in asking the question: “What would a vibrant Church experience look like”, so in that case you can translate, the people coming to the church are the customers, and the church is offering the products and the services. I was not using that language but there is a lot of similarities that way, so we played a series of games, we looked at Speed Boat, what are the anchors holding us back from this great experience, remember the future, we’ve created this amazing experience a year from now and now we are telling the story of what we did, what does it look like, how does it feel, that particular session actually was probably one of the most powerful moments I’ve had using Innovation Games, a lot of emotion, this is real stuff compared to just talking about products that you buy off the shelf, they're important to you but they're not really emotional attached, but when you are talking about something that matters deeply to you personally, I think these games take on an even more profound importance to get to those feelings.


5. In a business context, people are familiar with workshops, maybe it is a little strange compared with workshops that they are used to, people they work with, how does that kind of social dynamic change when say you know you are working in a group like that where people may not necessarily know each other all that well or may not be as open with each other, so how does managing that dynamic work?

That is a really good question to ask because that's often one of the challenges we have these typical discussions with the tools that we’ve always tried to use which are generally rather crude, so you have like a budget input meeting so everybody comes in and they are screaming away about: “Yes, we need this, we need that”, it's just a lot of yelling, they are not really getting any useful insights. So take tomorrow there is going to be this Budget Games and I was at the first Budget Games, and I was amazed at the involvement that people had, they were really into it, they were having fun, there was a lot of really good listening, amazing listening, and also a lot of surprising insights that the people really knew a lot about the issues and these people don’t interact with each other on a regular bases, and for them to be able then come around as a group and decide together in a short amount of time, yes these are the things that matter most to us as a group, that's unheard of, really, so I think the Innovation Games provide a safer environment because you are playing a game, so you get into a fun experience and even though it is about real stuff, like people we're treating it very much as very real, like are we going fund a library or are we going to provide you services, or are we going to cut a fire program, like this is really important stuff. So I think they're called Serious Games for a reason, they really produce results in a way that other approaches don’t because of the game aspect, there is enough structure to have good conversation and to get into a result in a short amount of time.


6. You also mentioned that people take these things obviously very seriously, very serious issues, and that they are more emotionally involved, has that ever played a big factor in what might happen in a session?

I think again because there is just enough structure to it that you can handle it so well, obviously you want to have people who have experience with Facilitation, both with Innovation Games and just Facilitation Skills in general, so that you are really aware of what is going on in the room, people are unpredictable, and so you really want to create that environment in which people feel safe with it, and you can open up and feel heard, and what I have to say as somebody who facilitates a lot that Innovation Games really make it a lot easier, they provide a really good structure and a good flow, people understand what needs to happen and so a lot of the challenges that you faced like people going way off topic or trying to dominate a conversation and those things can still happen but they are easier to manage, and it also is a time box too, all these elements structure, time box, game play rules, all help to keep on task.


7. What made you decide that you wanted to kind of get more hands on approach to democracy and to a lot of these social issues?

We all have things that we are passionate about and I’ve come to recognize that for me one of my gifts, one of my passions is I kind of view it like an architect, I like to design the space, create the space for people to do awesome things and I care a lot about things whether it's the environment or social justice and all these things. I’ve been involved in a lot of issues, ever since I was really young, what I started to realize is that to really scale change, I mean a lot of things that I’ve done haven’t really gotten anywhere, you feel like you've spent a lot of this effort and while it’s been meaningful the impact hasn't really been there as much as one would like. So my big aha moment after doing a series of experiments in bringing people together to connect and to learn and to come up with ideas to move forward is that “That is the secret sauce”. The secret sauce is to break down the barriers that are between us, to discover our gifts in one another, and together find ways to move forward and that has been repeated again and again, and so I think things like, so when I want to have change happened in the world, I’m less focused on me working on a particular issue than I am being when I like to call the Community Gardner, where I’m providing the right conditions for all kinds of things to pop-up through the soil that aren't of my own doing but because I’ve created this space in which people can plant their own seeds, now all of the sudden we have amazing change happening that we all want to see, and it’s clear from the world we live in right now with technology in particular, we are so much more connected, much more aware of things. People want to get involved, people want to make change happen, there are just these barriers in their way, and so I see a lot of what we do in the workplace removing those barriers to better business performance, to better collaboration applied equally well and perhaps even more important in terms of our planet to create that space in a community sense, so it’s been exciting and I feel like I’m just, it’s been a few years but I feel like I’m just getting started.


8. What made you, when was the realization when you decided: “I want to use Innovation Games with this” and then what did you use and how did it go?

I’ve use a variety of different things and obviously it depends on the context, so one of the ones that I did was around an election in my home town, so they were electing the mayor and candidates, and so I used, what I wanted to do is I wanted to showcase the potential of something like Innovation Games, so I created a Selection Café where officials up for election and citizens can come together rather than your typical heated debate which typically doesn't generate a lot of value unless you like yelling, is can we have a structured conversation that actually got us somewhere and because it is an election time, get us a sense to see how these candidates collaborate themselves, are these good people that are going to be effective as a council, so they got to see another side of councilors just because now they have to hear ideas, they have to help prioritize, they have to deal with trade-offs in the game, so I think that was a really great way to evaluate these politicians and I got some really good feedback that was helpful. So I've done that I've worked with youth strategy, playing prune the product tree with that one.


9. For the election one, how did you kind of facilitate the discussion, what did you use there?

It was a combination of something called World Café which allows you to have small group conversations with a specific question in mind in a series of rounds so it’s a way to constantly shuffle around and meet a few other people and have these conversations, so we ran it in that format but we integrated in prune the product tree so they would come up with these ideas and these conversations and write them on these little Apple’s on their table and then when the Café was done we then proceeded to go to different product trees and they had to shape the trees. So we had all these ideas, now how do they relate to one another, which ones are more important, which ones are the low hanging fruit, so with those two games combined we were able to come up with some ideas and then try to prioritize them a little bit.


10. In that particular exercise was each of the potential candidates coming up with their own tree or were they all are working together on one?

That is the thing, it was a group-exercise, so the candidates were just an equal participant along with everyone else, so they have to listen, they have to be able to communicate what they think is important, but they also have to listen to people to see what they think is important, and also together collaborate and decide what should be do. And that is really the way that I like to see it, it's not that government or citizens have all the answers, but together we can co-create the kind of future we want so to me that was a great example of the kind of way that we need to rethink citizens and government engaging each other.


11. How did you make that sort of thing happen, how does the coordination of that, especially around election time, how does something like that actually come together?

I guess that is just sort of a gift that I have, I organize a lot of events, I’ve organized before that point, I had done full day open space events, I organized an evening event called Ignite Sault Saint Marie, so I have a lot of experience organizing events, I have also with the Scrum Alliance helped organize several hundred person, conferences and that kind of thing. So that part kind of comes a bit easy, it’s obviously nicer when you have a lot of great volunteers to help with that, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t, but basically the nice thing about being election time is candidates don’t want to miss out on an opportunity, so if they know other candidates are coming. That was actually one of interesting things is we had great turn out for the candidates, not for great for citizens, and I think partly that is because it is something new, something different, and I should also mention we did an online version, I almost forgot, so we did in person, we also did an online prune the product tree which was also a small turn out but again my focus of the event was not so much to get a result for that election, but more to show the potential and so I felt like I succeeded in that because when the new mayor was elected, a few weeks later I got invited into her office to talk about how can we use stuff like what was used in the election to help engage citizens, and that was really what my goal was so I feel like that was great success.


12. And has it gone anywhere yet or is still in the planning?

Not having a lot of experience in the political arena, I soon discovered some lessons and one is that while councilors can be gung-ho about stuff and the mayor included, it’s really the bureaucracy side that has to make a lot of that stuff happen and that is really where we ran into a lot of roadblocks. So I’ve kind of pivoted in that sense and now I’m working on this collaborative workspace called Gangplank which to me again is like a garden in the sense that while is not directly through the city and I still think eventually that will happen. I’ve shifted now to try to cultivate an area where people can collaborate, discover each other and create awesome things within community. Focusing a lot on the creatives and the entrepreneurs, the people who have ideas, who have passion, who have drive, starting with them and hopefully scaling that out over time.


13. So perhaps for our viewers who may not be familiar with Gangplank, can you give us an overview of what that is?

Sure, in fact Gangplank has some great agile roots, in that it is from Phoenix Arizona Derek Neighbors and Jade Meskill from Integrum who are very active in the Agile community. Started the first Gangplank about 6 years ago, there is now a bunch of them mostly in Arizona and think about Agile on steroids, in terms of a work environment, it’s designed to maximize what they call Social Capital, so in this day and age when we are all doing knowledge work, learning is the bottleneck, so how do you accelerate learning in every way, so a Gangplank workspace is fully open, is designed to help you discover each other, just create the space for possibility to meet someone new, to have a new way of thinking about something or you are stuck on something, there is someone who can help you, maybe create a new partnership. And that also spurs into community action, because then you build closed bonds with each other and you discover other things that you care about, whether it is education or the political system, and so the Gangplanks down there are running programs for kids. There is a Gangplank member on every committee within the city of Chandler which is phenomenal, you think young people who are software developers and market researchers getting that involved in politics is just unheard of, so that is what excites me about Gangplank and why I think even though I kind of git stopped with the bureaucracy side, I think focusing more on the citizens side and particularly those who are more enterprising will have a huge impact, and will start to maybe...whittle away at the bureaucracy in the other side when they start to see the value engaging citizens more.


14. Where do you think are places in communities where you'd like to see more use of Innovation Games?

That is a good question, it’s almost unlimited because I would say it’s particularly nonprofits who do really important work and who are dealing with volunteers, there is so much that could be done to help them better focus and being more affective. I’m actually working with a major nonprofit in my hometown right now and typical in nonprofits they're doing way too much, they are giving, they want to do everything and that is getting in the way of them doing great work, so I think this is a really good opportunity to work with nonprofits in that area, even organizations that have boards, how to help boards run more effectively, I actually work with the board in downtown to Saint Marie, helping them come up with a strategy for revitalizing the downtown. So there are all kinds of opportunities really, and I guess that is the invitation to everyone who listens to this, if you got some Agile background whether it is with Innovation Games or Facilitation, the possibilities are limitless, find something that you care about or someone you are connected to who is doing something that they care about and offer your services, you’ll be amazed at the impact you’ll have just with a little bit of time invested in making this world a better place.


15. You’d mention, obviously you’ve done some work with the city before and that kind of got you doing the election thing, so for people who are kind of watching this and who are very, very motivated based of what you’ve just said, what is the first step to get involved with something, because thinking about it you might say: “Politicians are not going to take my call or this is not going to do that”, how would you recommend they get the foot in the door and get started to get these conversations going?

I’ve done a series of events, kind of Lean start kind of way but I didn’t know about the Lean Startup back then. I really focused on doing small experiments to see what was possible, so what I would say is there is a lot of uncertainty here, so be really clear about what is you are trying to do and then try little experiments and see where it goes, so maybe you have a passion for youth, so find a youth organization and work with them on some of their issues. Honestly I think the biggest thing it seems maybe not that important but I really think that it is, is we need to just break down the walls between all of us, and so anything that we can do and whether it is Innovation Games or something where we start to find ways to create the space to come together and have really meaningful deep conversations where I understand your perspectives and when we come up with useful insights, it is tremendously powerful. So even a fun evening where we have the chance to share what we are passionate about through something like Ignite told me that, there is a hunger for this, people have ideas, so just create events, create ways for people to discover each other and it’s as simple as that, building community, community is at the root of the change that we seek so find an area that you are interested in and just create the space for people to discover each other and then see what comes out of that, that is what I think is very exciting, it’s so needed, we are so connected with our devices yet we are so disconnected, so just like in the workplace where we try to help people work more collaborate together, find something that you are interested in, an issue, a topic, a group and just start there.

Apr 15, 2013