Jamming and Winning — 101

3 quick tips to get the most out of Design Jams.

The Last Service Design Jam was so epic that when another one rolled around, I hesitated for probably all of 2 seconds before buying a ticket.

I met some absolutely phenomenal people and we formed a team. We then worked together to take an idea from a concept to slightly less of a concept. We won the jam and this article is going to break down why I think we won.

Firstly, before anything, you need to manage your expectations. This is not a networking event. Try to prioritise fun over all else! Going into the Jam this past weekend, I had ZERO expectations.

Ok. I’m lying.

I had one. “To have a kickass time”!

That was it! I knew I was going to have fun in this Jam because I had so much fun at the first one. That’s honestly all I was expecting. Who cared about connections, who cared about winning, I was there to have the most fun I could possibly have.

You can read my previous post about the Jam to get the gist of what goes down at one of these things. Also, check out my teammate Hanny’s brilliant breakdown on the platform we designed.

In this post I’ll be giving you quick tips on how to approach these kind of things. I’ll be giving these tips from the point of view of my experience, but, it should apply to any kind of spontenous-team-theme-driven-competition environment, be it Game Jams, Hackathons, Start Up Weekends, or even just any environment where you need to work in teams.


Tip 1: Nurture the Team.

Needless to say the single most important aspect of events like these (beyond your attitude) is your team. In an ideal situation you should be working with people that you’ve built up a strong relationship with. The thing is, this often takes time and effort. Sometimes it seems to just happen. A group of people seem to “just click”.

Team Serenity! AKA Dream Team!

Think for a second, if you will, back to when you’ve seen a fantastic team. It could’ve been yours, or that team across the room constantly bursting into laughter. You know those type of teams, we’ve all seen them, they’ve got this amazing team dynamic where they’re constantly hooting, and exchanging witty banter. They can’t possibly be getting any work done… Can they? What’s the secret sauce that makes these teams tick?

It’s not rocket science.

Mythology, Culture and Ritual.

There are certain things that reinforce interpersonal connections. These behaviours can be split up into categories. In order to reinforce the strength of your team, just be aware of what I’m about to tell you next time you’re in or near a successful a team and you’ll see what I mean.

Myths are stories that a group of people believe in and built morals and ideals on top of. Mythology serves to contribute to a sense of purpose and belonging.

What does this have to do with teams?

Teams that share a special origin that unifies the members have a small mythology behind them. This strengthens bonds.

With the underlying mythology, the team culture naturally gets formed. This includes jokes, communication, and the team dynamics among the members. With culture, the team has a sort of language that they speak that only they understand. You’ve probably witnessed this before.

Picture this! You walk up to a group of people. They’re laughing about something.

“Hey guys, how’s it going?” You say.
*The team keeps laughing from the joke*
“What’s the joke?” You laugh a little from the contagious laughter.
“Nah man, you had to have been there!” They erupt in laughter again!

Perhaps an extreme example, but you get my point, if you’ve been with a group of people that have been together longer than your presence, you’ll know what I mean. They seem to be going super fast, making quick jokes as if by shorthand, and you just want in on everything. But you can’t. You weren’t there.

Then there’s ritual. Inevitably, this gets created as the team evolves. These include recurring jokes or call back jokes where you refer to something from the past or poke fun of a team member in jest for something they did. This can even take the form of a team cheer (3, 2, 1 Serenity!).


Tip 2: Get out of your own head!

We’ve been talking about the teams. However, teams are made of individuals. Even though there is no “I” in team, you still need make sure you check yourself.

If you’re in the design industry you’ll often hear people talk about “leaving their Egos at the door”. This is great advice and I believe it should go without saying because in order to be a talented designer you have to be open. I approach this a little differently here.

Getting out of your own head for me is about letting go of anything you’re holding in your head. If you have an idea (good or bad), put it down. If you agree (or disagree) with something, speak out. If you’re feeling particularly unsure about a direction, speak up.

Scribble!

Getting out of your own head means contributing what’s in your mind for the good of the rest of the team. What good is a good idea if you’re keeping it in your mind? You’re hurting your team if you’re silent when you spot a flaw in an idea. Use your voice. Be open. Your teammates will feel this and they will in turn feel safe to get out of their own respective heads.


Tip 3: Let your mentors mentor you, but not too much.

We had amazing mentors and they all gave us SUPER helpful advice.

BUT.

I’ll be real with you, you will lose your minds if you hang on to every single piece of advice that your mentors leave you with. During the Jam, we had mentors roaming around the venue, occasionally joining in for an exercise or sitting down to listen to a pitch rehearsal. Sometimes they’d silently listen to a heated team discussion and other times they’d roll in like whirlwind with awesome design exercises to practice.

Soaking in the wisdom from just two out of all our amazing mentors.

Because of the nature of design, a lot of the time, mentors would have different opinions or advice for how you and your team should approach the design challenge you’re trying to solve.

This might sound counter intuitive but you’re going to have to ignore the advice of a few mentors. Just because a mentor suggested you go a certain route over the other doesn’t mean its the end all, be all, one size fits all, mega fix solution for your team. Listen to the advice. Be receptive. Absorb it. If it resonates with you and your team, move forward with it.

You need to know how to take your mentors advice in a constructive way otherwise you’ll loose direction and you'll get split between different thoughts. It’s a classic case of “too many hands spoiled the broth” except in this case all the chefs don’t know what the other chefs are doing to the broth so it ends up ruining it.


Bonus tip!

Release your inner child!

While this ones all about having fun, theres a more practical side of it. Keep it kindergarten.

Embrace the markers and the construction paper and the play dough and the legos. Use your hands. Use pencils. Use erasers. Use a TON of post its and lay everything out!

The wall of our (out of) control room.

Its important you leave your laptops behind and focus on the tactile tangible nature of working without a screen. This is amazing because everyone can do it. When you approach exploring problems this way, it allows everyone to participate. Plus. It’s a ton of fun!


These Jams are absolutely amazing and an invaluable learning experience. Even though my team won, it really was all about the journey we took together. I implore you to sign up for the next Design Jam that pops up near you. Go with the intent to have fun and you will come out of it enriched and refreshed and poised to solve even the most toughest problems!

That’ll be all from me, for now!

I’d like to make a quick shout out to my team for this amazing weekend! Congratulations Team Serenity. The win was nice, but most importantly I gained some awesome new friends which is worth more than anything.

One more for good measure.

Hanny from my team wrote about the weekend from his perspective, you can check it out here.

Shout out to my awesome team, pictured above from left to right!

Terry Cheng, Hanny Yueng, Liz Lalani, Kelly Chin, Lillian Lai, and Alan Cheng! You guys kicked ass! 10 out of 10 would work with you again.


Mubarak Marafa — User Experience Designer.