Harmonizing with the Noise: The Exchange in 2021

As I prepare to take maternity leave in April, I’m making every effort to share insights I’ve gained on public sector reform and service delivery. My experience building a team and community at The Exchange Lab, I sense, is fairly unique.

The walls of the Lab had previously sheltered people who were uniquely oriented around change and protected from those who challenged the notion it was needed. At times, it felt like a speakeasy. As one experienced observer noted in the positive, we created and cultivated a “cultural island.” Those walls came down hard this time last year.

The Lab Operations team, Lab Alumni, and delivery partners were suddenly receiving very urgent phone calls to wade into the service delivery challenges COVID presented across government. To truncate: we pivoted immediately from yearlong residency for learning and delivery, to weeks long (and in some cases, weekend long) team building and delivery.

After some reflection, my team is on a path to codify and share our learning. Here, I’m going to share a few insights. I’ll also foreshadow what the next few months might reveal, and how you might be able to engage.

It’s important to note though: we’re still coping with the noise of COVID. We’re all mostly still working from home. We’re missing our families and friends. Our online lives are threaded with news of global events. Public scrutiny of our very challenging work is heightened. New challenges come up every day. Money still doesn’t grow on trees.

We figure our best bet is to sense the wavelengths of that noise and find ways to harmonize. Patterns, sequences, movement, and bandwidth all come into play. There’s no formula. We’re jazz musicians improvising and interested in the dissonance that comes up so that we can orient and collaborate towards some kind of resolve.

Admittedly, I’m biased toward this analogy, having developed my musical chops in this genre.

The Band: A Delivery Network

We didn’t really know we were a band until we showed up with our instruments. User research, digital tools, facilitation, Lean practice, business process, policy… all roles that rode the bus from the edge of town to participate. Some of us had played together before. Many were completely new.

While the Exchange Lab had already been working to bring these Experts in Residence together for some time, we hadn’t experienced this kind of intense collaboration opportunity before.

In the early days of the COVID response rush, three times a week we orchestrated a stand-up to ask: What do we need help with? What are we learning? What can we celebrate?

“We need a bass player.”

“The venue is too small and won’t meet the needs of the audience.”

“How to do we decide on and share our song set list? Winston has a tool for that…”

“That rocked! Kudos, team!”

In between we were constantly jamming on the problems, with barely any time to breathe. Product Owners and corporate service providers were navigating emergent realities and filling in with insights and resources as best they could. Arrangements were loose and sheet music (paperwork) was minimal.

We are working through how to help these “musicians” find each other better, with digital tools and otherwise.

Instruments with quote: “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.” — John Coltrane
Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

The Key and Progressions: Observable Standards

With all this experience now, the network is much better at playing together. However, we know there will always be new people coming to jam.

A Service Standard is a typical orientation approach we see in other governments like the UK and Ontario Digital Service (a few of our favs). In many cases these standards have come down from on high, as directional statements with varying levels of compliance required.

Our standards are emerging as the standardization of practices learned from our band playing in front of a live audience. These go beyond those typical service standards, and are more about the conditions we’ve created to enable good improvisation.

Because beyond some guidance and expectations for how we play together, we know that people who are very new to improvisation (adaptability in the face of complexity) are looking for more pattern language.

We want people to practice applying these patterns. We know that practices are shaped by the problem context and social conditions people experience (the way we do things). So, while a checklist would be lovely, it will often lead to dissonance and disengagement.

It’s a tricky and demanding challenge: People want certainty. It doesn’t exist.

So, we are working on how to signal standard-aligned behaviours, sequences, and practices that can also be adapted to suit the tone of any given performance.

You won’t find all the “notes” but you can probably feel the vibe, and maybe even dance along.

A Vibrant Music Scene: Hosting for Engagement

Any place that embraces the rich, generative beauty of the arts knows that experience design matters. Venues, posters, soundscape, and programming all shape the experience. The experience is also very much dependent on the diversity of people who show up.

The Exchange Lab, as a physical space, has done this well despite imperfect facilities and minimal marketing capacity. We owe this in part to some tenacious leaders and our diversity of partnerships inside and beyond the BC Public Service. We’ve also put a lot of energy into space and hosting.

Before the pandemic, we were in a state of stress over space. More people wanted in. No one wanted to leave. We had exceeded our goal of communicating the necessary value of small, co-located teams for Agile delivery: a belief we knew needed to be challenged.

So… now that we’ve been hosting from our home offices and building teams remotely, we’re ready to tango with that dissonance.

Over the holidays, we onboarded a new team from the Ministry of Advanced Education and have continued to connect the community that helps new teams orient through online channels. I’ve personally had many proud moments observing the band playing together in harmony in a venue that’s been lovingly adorned with a welcoming atmosphere.

We are now exploring designs for new arrangements for hosting and building teams. These practices can help expand and make the ecosystem of public impact practitioners across and beyond the BC Public Service more robust and resilient.

Deeper Learning

Prior to the holidays, we also did some targeted reconnaissance to discern what the COVID-19 digital response could tell us about how to optimize.

Partnering with the Public Service Agency and BC Wildfire Service, we were fortunate to engage with the Cognitive Edge team and their SenseMaker™ Platform. We learned a lot about the value of exploring social practices through story to generate understanding that respects the context people are in.

On February 10, Rumon Carter, Executive Director of The Exchange Lab, and I hosted a webinar about what we’ve learned and what it might mean for the future. You can watch the whole thing and hear more on March 9th when we host an Ask Me Anything (AMA) on twitter:

Broader Context in BC’s Digital Government

There’s a lot going on beyond the Lab that is connected to our work. While so much of the progress BC has made in the last few years felt like busking on the street, our jazz ensemble is part of a bigger festival now.

The Digital Framework that helped raise awareness of the “benefits of jazz” is like the stage that is welcoming others to come play on.

Here’s an update on the types of acts you’ll see:

I’m looking forward to attending the show from the sidelines this year when I go on maternity leave in April. I probably won’t be able to help but join an open jam from time to time, too.




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Heather-Lynn Remacle

Heather-Lynn Remacle

Slow to judge, quick to suppose: truth and alternatives I’m keen to expose. Open by default. How can I help? https://bit.ly/32Fmz2l