Champion City Part 5: A comic book writer, city planner and data scientist walk into a room…

Oh, did you think I was about to tell you one of those typical three guys (or gals) jokes? Actually, all of the above-listed individuals did walk into a conference room at New Rochelle City Hall yesterday, along with an architect, a programmer, a leader in virtual reality technology, a community organizer, a business improvement district executive director and a municipal communications name a few. We had an important New Rochelle’s Mayors’ Challenge team meeting.

Team member Kathy Gilwit placing her name where she feels she has the most knowledge.

Clearly, our New Rochelle Mayors’ Challenge team is quite a diverse bunch in terms of professional background! And that makes sense: we’re trying to figure out how new immersive technologies (e.g. virtual reality, augmented reality) can improve the existing city planning process. Therefore, we need a varied group that collectively understands city planning, municipal communications, community outreach, community development, virtual and augmented reality, data collection, user experience, and so on. It’s why the City of New Rochelle partnered with the Downtown New Rochelle Business Improvement District and IDEA New Rochelle for this project. Only by working together, and then pulling in others from our broader networks, were we able to assemble this unique team.

Amelia Winger-Bearskin facilitating an exercise where we quantified types of public feedback during the development process.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work.

Because our team is so diverse AND decentralized (most of us don’t work in the same building), we have to be very intentional in how we work together. Today I thought I’d share four things we have done to build and maintain a cohesive, creative and effective working relationship during this short-term, but very intense, Mayors’ Challenge process:

Behold! The world’s most unflattering picture. (I will gladly return the favor to the teammate who posted this via a future blog post.)
  1. We have a “there are no stupid questions” culture. City planning is complicated. Municipal government is complicated. Immersive media and software development is complicated. On top of that, the Mayors’ Challenge process is new for all of us… and iterative design is new for many of us. None of us work in all of the sectors represented in this project. Now toss in a lot of jargon tied to all of the sectors represented, and season it with a dash of tight timelines. This is not a time to nod and pretend you know what the person across from you is talking about and fake it ’til you make it. It’s critical that everyone is encouraged to ask questions, clarify points, and to double check assumptions without shame or ego.
  2. We invest time to on-board new teammates. We have a lot of deadlines and public-facing activities related to this challenge. One’s natural inclination might be to throw new teammates into the thick of things, and hope they’ll figure it out along the way. Luckily, we realized early on that a 45-minute orientation explaining things clearly, then giving the newbie space and encouragement to ask questions (see item #1), would help us in the long run. As a result, our new team members have taken ownership quickly, and made many suggestions to improve our project beyond what we could have imagined.
  3. We have a Mayors’ Challenge project “cheat sheet”. The cheat sheet states our project goal, purpose of each sprint, responsibility buckets by team member, our timeline, upcoming deliverables, key findings, and so on. It is updated and redistributed to our full team whenever something major changes. Our entire team (even us wizened old-timers who have been with this project since the olden-days, Ideas Camp in March) reviews it regularly to ensure we are all following the same north star. By walking through it together, over and over again, we’ve been able to rapidly identify and rectify blind spots, spark new insights and so on…
  4. We get the whole famiglia together. A few weeks ago we realized that the government pros and the tech pros on our team weren’t spending enough time together. So we set up a two hour meeting to get the juices flowing between us all. (Hence: a comic book writer, city planner and data scientist walk into a conference room). The government team members took the time to really explain the city planning process in a jargon-free way to our tech team. In return, our tech team facilitated a helpful discussion around what kind of citizen engagement is useful to city planners and how immersive media tools might attract more of that useful feedback. We have included a couple of images from this insightful session below. In a future post, I’ll do a deeper dive into the specific individuals working on the New Rochelle Mayors’ Challenge project, including the comic book writer (who is adding a very special and fun component to our public outreach!).