Language selection

Search

Innovate on Demand, Episode 10: Consensus Hiring and Surge Teams

Surge teams are the groups of employees who tackle the priority initiatives that deputy ministers and other senior government officials identify. In this episode of Innovate on Demand, Joyce Silver, a member of the School's surge team, discusses the nature of this dynamic work and how to find the right people to perform on such teams.

Duration: 19:01
Date: April 27, 2020

Transcript

Todd
I'm Todd Lyons.

Natalie 
I'm Natalie Crandall.

Joyce
I'm Joyce Silver.

Todd
And this is the Innovate on Demand podcast.

A Surge Team is a group of employees with no ongoing files. Instead, they exist to tackle priority initiatives identified by deputy ministers and other senior government officials. The assignments are time sensitive, complex, and innovative, and as such, depend on employees suited to this type of dynamic work. But how do you find the right people to perform in an environment of frequent change?

Todd
Hey, Joyce.

Joyce
Hi.

Natalie 
Welcome. How are you today?

Joyce 
I'm good. How are you guys?

Natalie 
Good. I just thought maybe we'd let people know right off the bat: All of us here in the room know each other. And Joyce and I actually work in the same branch.

Joyce
Not only that, but I can throw things at you from my desk if I want to!

Natalie 
This is true, although you haven't yet. I welcome the day when you start throwing things at me. I'm a little bit disruptive at work...

Todd
It's friendly. [laughter]

Natalie 
Joyce, I actually have a question that I have been saving for the day that you would come into the recording studio.

Joyce
Bring it on.

Natalie 
I've heard a rumour. I have actually heard a very interesting rumour about your team and I want to know everything about this.

Essentially, I've heard that you actually only hire colleagues on team consensus; that your whole team has to agree to new hires.

Todd
Interesting.

Joyce
Well, of all the rumours that you could have heard about our team, I'm glad that we're talking about that one and not some of the other ones. [laughter]

Todd
Even more interesting! Wait. Back up. [laughter]

Natalie
We might need to cancel the next session, Todd.

Joyce
In fact, I can verify it's not a rumour. It's the truth. We do higher on consensus and I'm happy to talk a bit more about it.

I will start, though, with a bit of a disclaimer. We follow HR [human resources] rules. This happens within systems. We don't have special permissions. We do have my DG [director general]—who is your DG, John Gorrie, section 34 manager; he has the authority to do this. That is how it's all done. I don't want to get anyone in trouble or give the perception that this is somehow not above board.

So, when we talk about hiring on consensus, it's really about the "fit" aspect of it. Everyone that joins the team from other places within the government, it's usually either a lateral transfer or they're pulled from an existing pool if it's a promotion. We do also do, through our interview process, some skill-testing questions. It's not as formal as an exam in a process, but there is that sort of process.

Natalie
So, you're checking for fit. You're not assessing. The person is already preassessed by virtue of being in a pool or at level.

Joyce
Exactly. So I just want to make that fully [understood], so we're fully transparent and people understand at what level this activity is happening. Once all that has happened, or as we are meeting with people and talking to them, we verify those things. But the consensus basis—

I've been on the team for about six months. I've only gone through this a couple of times. So I will talk about it from my perception of how the process works.

This summer [we] realized we had a few positions we needed to fill. We sat down as a team and actually talked about the skills that we needed on the team. So it started even before we started talking to people.

We do a lot of our hiring either through people referring people to us, or people that we know are good [coming] from different places. We had a few names in mind and we sat down and said, Okay, well, we need these skills from such and such a person. Who fits into that category? So even before the interviews started to happen, there is that discussion as a team about those things.

Once we figure all that out—or, I shouldn't even say "figure it out" because this is all pretty organic. Once we have some idea of where we're going with that, we then start bringing people in to have discussions. And we are now a big enough team, there's about ten of us, that we tend to do it in two to three meetings.

So, groups of three, four or five people will come in. We'll have an informal conversation with the candidate. They usually last an hour, sometimes an hour and a half if the discussion is really flowing. And it's really an opportunity for both us to meet the candidate and see what we think of them, but also for the candidate to meet us and see what they think of us.

We try to be super open and transparent about what the team does, how we operate, all of our flaws, all of the great things. Because we want to make sure that people who come in want to be there. We want to work with people who want to work with us.

Once all that has happened and we've had these discussions, we'll check references as well. Candidates are welcome to come back to us with questions, if they have questions afterwards. We will then sit down as a team and have a discussion. And usually—well, I shouldn't say usually, I've been involved only in a handful of processes, but coming to a decision, people tend to be on the same page.

Todd
That's valid.

Joyce
So you have found it fairly easy to get to consensus.

Yeah, exactly. Because we've all sat through the same two or three [candidates], while each one of us have sat through meeting with a few other people. And so we talk about the fit, skills, what role we think they could play on the team. It's really very consensus driven. We can ask questions of our director or DG if there are issues that we're not sure about. So that's how the process works.

Natalie 
Very cool. Now, something struck me as you were talking, particularly when you started talking about identifying the skills gap you need [to fill] on the team. And I thought maybe for our listeners, we could pause here and you could explain a little bit [about] what the surge capacity team does, because you guys [occupy] such a unique niche.

Joyce
Indeed. So the team is about a year old and I think that how we work and what we do is still evolving. We are most well known as the Surge Team. I think formerly we were actually Priority Initiatives, but I've only ever seen that in writing

Almost all of our work is done with departments outside or groups outside of the School. There is a little bit of work done inside of the School [but] if a department needs extra capacity, different skills, fresh thinking, [or] they're a bit stuck in an area, we can come in and we can help them.

We do facilitated sessions. We do policy briefs. Some of my colleagues set up a tool for transition that helps departments track everything and creates real-time dashboards that PCO [Privy Council Office] can look at. We're able to look at transitions so they can see how things are doing.

We really do a whole variety of things based on what's out there. It's super cool. I really love it, both in the School and for the public service of the future. I personally have a lot of friends who are public servants. They often ask me, What does this have to do with the School's mandate? You're a learning institution!

I explain that we're a little bit like an applied research branch of the government. Part of our organizational ethos is that we are trying to learn all the time about different skills, different applications. We take those things and try to apply them in real-life scenarios. So we are learning through the projects that we are doing; hopefully, the people that we are working with us are also learning. And then, through podcasts like yours, we are able to share that information more broadly and let people know what we're up to.

Natalie 
Very cool. I always imagine you guys—you sit next to me, right? And I see how hard you work and it's quite high intensity.

You guys really work hard and deliver unbelievable stuff, but I see a little fleet of these superstar experts in all sorts of different things who run around and I just think it's an amazing service that you're providing to government. Because a deputy head or management in any department can actually identify a problem and get literally a whole team to come in and work on a dedicated thing for a specified period of time and actually deliver results quickly.

Joyce
I will just say quickly, thank you for the compliment. I think all of my colleagues are superstars. I work with really, really, intelligent, dedicated, empathetic people. And I can't say enough good things about them.

I think, though, that our secret sauce is in the fact that we are such a team. We collaborate, we iterate, we work together. And we are called Surge because we are able to bring people in and do sprints on projects. It's not any one individual, but in fact, us as a collective is what makes us so powerful.

Natalie 
Yes. And you seem to also be doing a lot of things to increase the capacity of our whole branch, actually. You guys seem to be trying really hard to bring us all along for the ride.

So tell me a little bit about that because I personally really appreciate that.

Joyce
I can only speak to my work. I know that some of my colleagues—Stephen, in particular, has been doing a lot of work with you and some of your colleagues in the Pathfinders team. I have been working with Zoe Langevin and some of the people on that side of things, just because I have a real interest in public sector innovation. And John, our DG, has been very accommodating when I've requested to be involved in some of those things.

I think that diversity makes all of us better and getting different skills, different views, getting to dabble in a bunch of different things, really will make the entire branch better and we all benefit from being in close proximity to one another.

Natalie 
Definitely, learning each other's lessons and all those kinds of things.

Joyce
So, can I tell you a little bit more about the team? I've told you a bit about what we do. I won't get into the specific projects, for a variety of reasons. But, I think, coming back to the idea that we are best because we collaborate—

After every project, we sit down as a team, regardless of whether the entire team has worked on the project or not, and do a lessons-learned session. We talk about all the things that we think went well, all the things we think that didn't go well. I think in part because of the consensus hiring, and we are so collaborative, we have a lot of team trust. So those conversations are able to be—I don't want to say "brutally honest" because it's never meant to be brutal. It's never meant to be, You did this wrong or You did that wrong. They're authentic. They're very frank. And most often it's people raising their hand and saying, "I think I didn't do this very well" as opposed to finger pointing.

Sometimes the conversations can last several hours. It's not just a quick check-in—This is how this went—but actually really delving into the issues and what we can do differently next time. They've been really central to our coming together as a team and getting better on every single project and trying to make sure that we don't repeat mistakes.

I think when you're doing new things and you're trying new things, I guess maybe they're not mistakes, but just things don't always go well, because you haven't done them before. You're not practised at them. We are a very new team, so we're still getting better at working together. But that has really been super, super foundational for us and some of the work we do.

Natalie
Very interesting.

Joyce
Yeah. Want to know something else?

Natalie 
Yes. How can I be learning so much when I sit next to you? What's happening right now? [laughter]

Joyce
Well, [regarding] the consensus hiring, when I tell people about that their eyes usually light up. That's so fascinating! I want to do that in my team! Something else that I tell people about and their eyes dim a little bit is that we actually track our hours.

Natalie
And your minutes. I've seen this happen.

Joyce
Down to 30-minute increments, we track our hours. I know this is not new. I know that particularly people who do cost recovery have to because they need to be able to say how much money they spent on a particular project. And, full disclosure, we are in cost recovery, but we track our hours.

I think it's really unusual for a policy team that is large to do this. We are all ECs [Economics and Social Science Services], so largely policy. And we do it not to [engage in] finger pointing. We each have our own individual sheet. We use Smartsheet®, in case any technological geek out there is wondering how we do this. We do use Smartsheet. We just moved to that system.

I know my director and my DG, they don't go in and look at my individual sheet. It's not about, "You said you spent this many hours, but you only produced this much working on this project." At the end of every week, it's one person's responsibility on the team to go in and roll-up everyone else's hours for the week. We track based on project as well as administrative team meetings, bilats, all that sort of stuff. Then they give that roll-up to our director and our DG, so they are able to understand how much time an individual project is taking versus other things.

The expectation is that we spend about 70% of our time working on projects and 30% of our time doing things like learning and email and our branch all-staffs, etc. All those other things you need to continue to do to be a good team. It gives them a sense of how we are functioning.

So, full disclosure, I didn't know this was going to happen when I joined the team. Someone told me I had to do this [and] I was like, Oh, I don't want to do this! I don't want to know these things! I don't want other people to know these things! [But] it has improved how I work, I think, honestly. I actually find it fascinating now to go and look at, either on a weekly or monthly basis, how my hours are breaking down and whether I'm actually hitting that 30% administrative versus 70% project work.

Yeah, it's super fascinating. I think it's made us better as a team. And I know, again, it's one of those things, because we work on projects, it's a little bit easier for us to do it than other teams. But I really think that in terms of focusing work, and adding resources where they're needed or taking away resources perhaps, where they're not needed, I just I can't say enough good things about it. Despite the fact it's something that most people have a negative reaction [to] when you tell them that.

Todd
My eyes did dim a little bit, I admit. [laughter]

Joyce
I'm sorry, Todd, that's sad. [laughter]

Natalie
I've actually seen their tool in Smartsheets and it's really cool. We had a little presentation on our team. I mean, we're not going to adopt it, because—

Todd
We wouldn't go that far! [laughter]

Natalie 
Maybe I'm not ready to look at those statistics myself, but January is a whole new year. So maybe. Maybe. But it is really interesting and, all joking aside, in my team, we are going to be moving to having investing partners, I'm sure, on some of the things that we're doing. In which case, then it will become quite critical that we actually know some of that data.

Joyce
Yeah, I think one of the lessons that we're learning as a team is that we tend to underestimate how long things are going to take us. And again, some of that is because we're working on projects that are new and the approach is iterative and we're not quite sure where things are going to end up. That's understandable, but it really is helping us become more—

Well, I shouldn't say "us"—I have very little to do with the planning of projects from the point of view of staff time and whatnot. But I think helping my director and my DG plan for how long a specific project should and could take, the staff hours available to do that—I really think it's something that's been benefiting everyone.

Natalie
Cool. Yeah. Before we run out of time, what's the favourite project you've ever worked on [with] this team?

Joyce
I've only worked on two so far. I've only been on the team for six months. And one of them is still ongoing. And one relates to digital government, which was super interesting. I have to say that, I think, of the two—which is a very small sample size—that one probably is the one that I prefer.

Because the one that I'm working on right now relates to Reconciliation, which is super, super, super important. And not just because of this government's mandate, but fundamentally, as Canadians, Reconciliation is one of the most important things we can support.

So it's not about belief in that level. But I prefer the digital government project because it's not something—despite the fact that I've worked in innovation for most of my public service career—it's not something I really knew a lot about before that project.

And I have to say that after that, two months or so, we prepared some educational projects to help prepare senior managers to transition to digital government. I "drank the Kool Aid" during that project. I am now a believer in the need to move over and all the things that that will take, from project management skills, which you saw a lot of in the mandate letters, all the way down to teaching individual public servants skills, to understanding that you can't just digitize a process and expect it to function. You can't take broken processes and expect them to function better just because you've put a digital wrapping paper around them. And that actually, for processes to function best in a digital government, they need to be specific to the digital world.

So this is an area that admittedly I'm still a bit of a novice in, but really would love to learn more about. For me, this is one of the joys of working in project-based teams where every project is different and you don't know the topic. It's sort of like being in university. I just get to learn about new things all the time, which for someone like me is really my happy spot.

Natalie
Yeah, nothing better than talking to people who have found a way to chase their passion. I love it.

Joyce
Yeah, yeah. We need more of those in the public service.

Natalie
I couldn't agree more. Thank you so much.

Joyce
Thank you both.

Todd
Thanks for coming in. Great chat.

Todd
You've been listening to Innovate On Demand, brought to you by the Canada School of Public Service. Our music is by Grapes. I'm Todd Lyons, producer of this series. Thank you for listening.

Credits

Todd Lyons
Producer
Canada School of Public Service

Valeria Sosa
Project Manager, Engagement and Outreach
Natural Resources Canada

Natalie Crandall
Project Lead, Human Resources Business Intelligence
Canada School of Public Service

Joyce Silver
Analyst, Surge Team
Canada School of Public Service

Tell us what you think

Share your comments on this episode by using our feedback form.

Related links


Date modified: