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Innovate on Demand, Episode 18: Unicorn Quest

Have you ever had an idea that has the potential to innovate the public service, and wished you had a peer group to act as a sounding board in developing and presenting it? On this episode, Tracey Snow, Acting Manager with the Canada Revenue Agency, talks about her experience with this.

Duration: 27:29
Date: November 23, 2020

Transcript

Todd
Hello and welcome everyone. I'm Todd Lyons.

Tracey
I'm Tracey Snow.

Todd
And this is the Innovate on Demand podcast -- solo edition.

Hey everybody. Natalie and Valeria couldn't make it for this episode, so I'm sliding over from my producer chair to take the helm.

If you've ever felt like a person with an idea that could innovate the public service and wished you had a peer group to act as a sounding board in developing and presenting it, you'll want to listen it to our discussion today.

Todd
Tracey, give me your your elevator pitch. Who are you, and where are you working right now?

Tracey
Sure. So I'm a Senior Analyst at the Canada Revenue Agency and I work in an innovation lab there. It's called the Research and Innovation Lab. It's part of their headquarters. We've been looking at innovation  across our agency. We've been talking to a lot of different people, managers and executives, talking to people all across the agency and trying to understand what their vision for innovation is at the agency, but also what the real barriers are, that are getting in the way to letting people innovate more in their everyday work space. So that's in a nutshell, the work that my team has been doing. [We're] going out and having all those conversations and then wrapping it up into a deck because of course, everything and government goes into a PowerPoint deck. And you end up talking to people at the higher levels and  relaying some of those messages. What were the themes that we were hearing from all of these different groups that we were going and talking to? I think [it's good] having honest conversations about some of the barriers that are in place because everybody is willing to listen, I think to the mindsets that are holding us back. So that's how we framed the work that we've been doing and what we're uncovering is this idea of certain mindsets in place at the agency, and we want to shift some of that stuff. So an example of one that we would want to shift is this idea [that] innovation is something that takes more time and I just don't have time for that, so I'm just going to keep doing things the regular way. And so we were talking about, well, let's shift that into, I'm always looking for new ways to enhance my work. It's not necessarily like, Oh, it's a totally different thing [that is] outside of my regular work. I want to look at my work in a different way. So we've been having conversations with our management about how we can help create projects or actions or whatever you would like to call them that would allow people to experiment with this kind of stuff. Working in an innovative space is tiring. Constantly fighting against the status quo is not an easy thing to be doing. And I work in an innovation lab. And so of course, we're always trying to change things and you have to help one another through it. And so we talk about this idea of, we want to work more in the open, and we're kind of trying to figure out how to navigate that. We're just building a plan now of what does that actually mean in our context? I'm also thinking about how do you help people more than just communicating out? Do you know what I'm saying? Because there's a role for working in the open, which is just putting your information out there to people about how you're working, but I struggle with how can I also help them engage with it in some way? How do you actually help someone learn? It's not just by putting a one way communication out. It's also by providing some follow up or support or something to help them actually do something with it. How is the best way to make room to help people who really want to do this kind of work, and they want to make change in their workplace? They're excited, and they want to do it, but they don't know.

Todd
How do you get people excited about the fact that [change is good]? Okay, I'm probably the worst person to be asking this question because I feel like I'm one of those people that has been in that situation where I want to try to improve the culture that I'm functioning within, and I just don't feel there's a lot of gravity to pull everyone in that same direction. But how do you get people to see that there's a benefit in trying to do things differently, as opposed to, like you said, just going along with what they already know because it's comfortable. You don't have to learn; you don't have to change. You just have to repeat what you've already done in the way that you've done it.

Tracey
My current working theory -- and let's talk about it, because we'll see if I can like bring you on board. Firstly, I think when I looked at like the entirety of our agency -- we were huge. We've got like 44,000 employees. And so, at first when we started talking about this, the conversation around my team was, Okay, we have to do something for everybody. It's got to be for everyone all at the same time. And then as we started doing research and talking to people, and as I started thinking about culture change, I shifted my own mind and thought of it more like a movement. And I'm inspired by things like One Team Gov where I see it's not everybody in government [that] shows up for One Team Gov, but there's a certain personality type. I personally just call them "keeners". Call them whatever [you want to]. Unicorns [is another term] I've heard people also refer to people in an innovation space. For me, [they are] the people that are already really wanting something of meaning and they care about impact, they care deeply about public service as a calling. They want to make things better. They're already pretty much the people doing stuff off the side of their desk. They're looking for opportunities to find one another [and] to help one another. They're already out there and doing those things and I believe firmly that they exist in every organization in the public service. I know that they exist in my own organization. So, as we've started doing this work and talking to people, I don't actually think that convincing everyone is what I'm trying to do in the beginning. I think what I'm trying to do is find those keener unicorn people and help them because they're already trying so hard to do things. And they may or may not know all about each other. I think sometimes they're connecting across a community [of] practice, but even [within] networks at the working level that cross branches, I won't say they're uncommon, but I think they could use some help. And so I'm looking at how to reinforce whatever is actually out there, and how to help those people  bring the reality of what their challenges are to higher level conversations. That's one thing I think we can at offer is [that] we'll be that buffer. [We'll] take some of those conversations up and hopefully have really -- this is what I want, anyway -- hopefully have people at the upper level say, Okay, what can we actually do to enable this? It won't be "boil the ocean", everything has to change, but like what are specific things that we could try. And so right now, I'm not trying to change the minds of all the people that are totally disengaged. I'm trying to find the people that are already working really hard in all of this and they're already intrinsically motivated on some level, and try and bring them together and try and have conversations with one another, support one another, create a community that is about that. And I guess I will probably branded something about innovation, which is pretty general. But really [I'm] just trying to find those people enable them and also make them [into] role models. [For] that I'd need to figure out exactly what we're going to be doing, but at least communicating around the work that they're doing, how they're doing it differently, and hopefully getting them to share -- somehow in the open, [in] some way that they're comfortable with -- what it is that they're doing differently. So, we can promote them under some sort of horizontal "recognized by the management" banner, that this is the way innovation is actually working in these pockets and how you can join us. [It would be] inviting people to think about, Well, if they can do it, and it seems like they really are engaged and they care and they're enjoying their work,maybe I can try something differently. If they're doing it [and] it seems like there that's working for them and they seem excited, I almost feel like it's magnetism. And maybe I'm overly positive but when you meet someone who's super engaged, and you hear it and you see it radiating off of them, I think it is just engaging, and it makes people curious about what is going on there. How do they feel that way about their job and they work where I work? There's something different happening there. And so I think people just want to figure out what that is. You just have to show it to them.

Todd
I find those sort of people infectious. Maybe some people kind of find them -- I don't know -- is deluded too strong a word? I'm glad that you're going after a certain amount of a certain type of person that's maybe already the converted person because there's a very -- and this is just me showing where I've been --  a very strong and well established group of people that have just endured so much change that the idea of innovation is just not something that they're interested in because they've watched attempts at change come and go and be unsuccessful, and they're just not part of the believers. So where do you find the unicorns? Or how do you help the unicorns find you so that they know that you're interested in learning about them?

Tracey
Well, we're just embarking on it right now. So, I'll say that as a starting point, I find that some of the communities that we're already attracted to -- our natural fits -- are people that are working in Lean [process improvement]. That's one group that [have] mindsets around how to fix things and what can work in terms of getting people to change how they go about their work. So, there's natural alliances to lean and innovation, of course. It just makes sense. So that's one kind of group that we're seeking out -- all these different practitioners in lean in our organization. Another one that's just beginning, we're calling it CX, but really, it's client experience, customer experience, people that are thinking about service design and that are engaging with that. I have the great fortune in my Innovation Lab, [that] one of the things that we do is we go out and run short one day workshops on design thinking. That gives me exposure to whoever wanted to sign up for said workshop because they were curious about this sort of thing. And so I also run across people there and you when you spend a day with someone, you definitely get a sense of like who's really excited. So I'm getting connections to people that way as well. We are talking to the different groups that are labelled as innovation groups. So of course, because our organization is huge there's lots of different teams across different branches that are calling themselves innovation, whatever, like innovation labs, innovation at the team level. They're looking at prototypes, or they're looking at new technologies. They're looking at all these not radically different, but emerging technologies and things that are possibly going to change the way that we work in the future. So we're looking around in those kind of pockets of people in places to make connections. What remains to be seen as our future job is, how can we bring all these people together in a meaningful way that they want to make time for and that they want to share with one another and across. Because right now they're all used to working in their pockets. And that's totally fair. That's what they've been set up to do. I can't, at this moment in time change any of that and I'm not looking to, I'm just looking to find them where they are and say, Hey, I think there's something really interesting and special about the way you approach your work. Can we talk about that? How can we connect what you're doing to a larger audience? Because right now -- and this is,  I don't think, controversial to say -- but if people in the branch are aware of what their whole branch is doing that's still a surprise. At most, you're maybe reaching the people in your branch, you're very rarely getting a platform where people across our entire organization actually know what you're up to, and how that might be useful to them in some way. So I'm hoping that when we go out and we say, T this is what we're trying to do, we'll find people that are willing to go, Yeah, that makes sense. I want to help you do that. Let's figure out a way that it's not completely burdensome on me because I recognize that no matter where we go and who we talk to, we're all busy. Everybody's busy. Everybody's busy delivering on these performance indicators that aren't really horizontal. They're meant to be group-specific, branch-specific. They're not really built, necessarily, [to collaborate]. If I go to an innovation lean team in one branch, their indicators are about their specific projects, typically within their branch. And so when I go to them, and I try and ask them to give me their time, for whatever I'm trying to do, it's an ask. I know that that's somewhat of a burden that they are volunteering to take on. And so I want to be really respectful of that and figure out how to make it something that is not going to eat up endless amounts of their time, but also, hopefully, that they feel like they're building something with us, because I don't think that I can just go and tell people, This is what it has to be and now you have to create this for me. I think I have to go to them and say, Here's our aspirations, like here's our objectives. This is what we're trying to do. We think there's something good here. How can we work together so I can share this [and] amplify it? Are you willing to do work in the open in any way, shape or form and here are some examples of what this could mean, will you go on this journey with us. So, I get that it has to be a voluntary thing and they have to want to work towards it.

Todd
So it's a collaboration. It's not just you invite a bunch of people in, get them to do a big brain dump, take all that information and do something with it. But you want them to help you to figure out how to enact it?

Tracey
I think it would work better if we do that. And certainly I want to have individual conversations with the groups that I think are promising, and float this. I want to hear from them. What can we actually do together? Like what's reasonable to ask you? What do you want? What are you trying to do? And again, this is a hypothesis that I have that the sorts of people that I'm trying to connect with right now, they do really want to make an impact beyond. They are always wanting to make a bigger impact. So if I'm trying to help them do that, and I'm open to [saying], Let's figure that out. I'm hoping that they'll want to have that conversation. I think no matter what, there's going to be different people at different places that have different kind of capacity and willingness and maybe even different capacity to do that kind of ideation. So maybe for some groups, if I want them to be part of it, it will have to be very plug and play.  I might have to come up with a little more of, Okay, well, here's an example of what we've discussed with someone else that seems to be working for them. How about this? I think that's going to be required, at some level for some people. But I want to remain open, at least at the beginning stages of what we're doing right now, in the conversations that we have, to various ways that this could look. Because if I walk in with something that's 100% formulated, and now I just need you to give me your content, I am not sure that it will then appeal in the same way. I really want to be able to have an open conversation with them certainly in the beginning. It's my hypothesis at least that that will go better than if I just go in and say this is exactly how you have to interact with us and you have to do it on our terms. I just don't think that's realistic. I think I have to be able to kind of give them some flexibility to determine how it can work for them. For example, I'm working in the open. I can't just go in and say, Oh, you haven't been doing necessarily everything in the open. Now I want you to save everything open on GCdocs. Everything you do. That's never going to work for anybody, you know. [Instead,] I have to talk to them about, Okay, here's various levels of working in the open. Where are you willing to explore this with us? What kind of conversations do you need to have with your management? Maybe I can support you in that. What sorts of ways are you open to? Do you want to just dip your toe in? Are you open to one blog post? What is it that I can put out there that something you're curious about and you're willing to explore with us and I will help you. That's what I'm imagining the conversation will start as.

Todd
So if there are any unicorns listening to this, how should they approach you?

Tracey
Well, you could definitely reach out to me a few different ways. I'm on Twitter at Tracey with an E Y. So T-R-A-C-E-Y creates -- all one word -- TraceyCreates. So that's one way to find me. You can also find me through our email at work so Tracey dot Snow S-N-O-W at CRA dash arc.gc.ca. I know that's a mouthful, but that's it.

Todd
What's the timeline for something like this? Because I don't know when your show is going to see daylight. But I don't want it to be too late for people to participate. Or is this something that once it begins -- does it lend itself to take on other people that want to pile on board as collaborators at whatever point you guys are and then just keep running with it.

Tracey
I do think that it's going to be like an a long term ongoing [project]. I don't know how many months we're talking about before this sees the light of day. But as you said, there's no way that this is just a static group, like I find the 25 unicorns and that's it. Of course we want to keep this open, we want to add more people, and we want to find ways for this to grow. And of course, I'll have to reimagine how the conversations happen and how we all work together as it gets bigger, ideally, but for sure, there's going to be opportunities to connect with our group moving forward. And whatever is going on, if you're a keener and you're a unicorn, find me. I will take you in and I will figure out what to do with you. I would never say no -- that to me would be crazy.

Todd
Did you have any final thoughts?

Tracey
I get the sense that unicorns basically need some sort of a support group, because this is tough work. And so somewhere...

Todd
I like that! Unicorn support group.

Tracey
Yeah, well, actually, if I'm being completely honest, it's inspired by... and I wish I could remember his name. There's a New Brunswick Innovation Lab for their provincial government. I think it's called the NOU lab N-O-U lab. I spoke to him -- the leader, and I forget his name off the top of my head and I'm going to feel so bad about that -- about how did he get started in his organization. And one of the things he did is what we're talking about, and he specifically calls them unicorns, and they bring themselves together for  community practice unicorn meetings. And the way you get invited, it's almost like you have to be a unicorn to welcome another unicorn in, which I thought was kind of interesting as a way to approach it. And so they all get together and the way he described it, to me, it sounds like a unicorn support group where they go in there and it's like, Hi, my name is Tracy, I'm working in innovation. These are my challenges, but here's what I really want to move towards. Does that resonate with any of you? Can you help me do any of this? How can we maybe work together? So I would love to recreate that kind of a feel and I also am very fortunate to participate Ii the Government of Canada, labs and hubs meetups, where they bring together various people from across the GC that are working in innovation labs and innovation hubs. And we talk about lots of different things. But our very last session of the year was a reflection session, talking about what did we accomplish over the last year? What are our hopes moving forward? And we did an exercise called the fishbowl exercise. I don't know if you've ever participated [in one]?

Todd
I haven't. Tell me about it.

Tracey
The idea is you set up chairs and consecutive circles. So the very middle circle has four chairs, and each of them has a microphone. And the people that sit in those four chairs are the people that start the conversation. And then outside those four chairs are consecutive circles of other chairs, so everybody's kind of observing. And so the middle is the fishbowl, and these are the people that in theory are swimming around, but really, they're talking and in order for you to participate, you just tap someone on the shoulder, they get up, you grab the mic and you sit down in the middle. So now that fish has jumped out of the bowl, you're now jumping into the bowl. And so the conversation just evolves as people kind of tap people in and out, when they find something interesting that they want to comment on or add to. And then if someone really wants to come back in, they can come back and tap someone else on the shoulder and put themselves back in. And there's no rules around when you can tap. It's just when you've been tapped, you have to leave. That's the rule. And then if you're excited, you can try and tap back in. So that was my first time watching and participating from the middle of that fishbowl. And I really enjoyed that experience. And it kind of accidentally turned into what I would call an innovation unicorn support group. Because when we talk about what have we been through [during] the year and even though we're a very diverse group -- GC hubs and labs across all the departments -- we're not all doing the exact same thing. And innovation as I'm sure you know, is this giant banner, so many things fall under that. So it's not that we don't have a lot in common. We are all just a very diverse group. But something we definitely all have in common is this wish for change faster than it comes, and wanting and just longing for the day that "I wish this was easier." And I wish that was easier. And oh my gosh, why isn't there support to really do things radically differently? And so we do all have that in common, so and kind of accidentally our fishbowl turned a little bit into that idea of innovation support group. And we were really fortunate at that particular session to have two participants that came from the private sector from two different consultancy companies. And they gave a really interesting perspective because their entire jobs revolve around going into departments that are asking for help with innovation type projects, usually around service design. And they gave little tips in terms of "teaching up" -- that was one of the phrases that they used. So recognizing that a lot of organizations say Oh, we want surface design. We want CX. We want innovation. Plug in whatever kind of terminology you want. But they don't necessarily realize what that entails in terms of the time commitment that you would need. For instance, with service design, you really need to put in a ton of effort upfront to reach out to the people you're actually designing services for. That's the long [term]. These are not things you do in a week. This is something that takes an extended effort, and you have to talk to a lot of people and you want to be getting their feedback all along the way. And so they were saying in their jobs, part of what they're doing is actually saying, If you want this outcome, you need to do it this way. There are things that have to happen and this is what it looks like. And you need to, for example, give however many months upfront for that kind of user research phase. And so it was interesting hearing them talk about that, and I liked the terminology of teaching up. And then that made me think, Hmm, this is something we definitely need to support each other in because it's not easy. That's terrifying to actually walk into a room and it's very clear [that] whoever it is that's immediately above you has a different understanding than what you're starting to learn by researching this on the ground and talking to people or reading books or whatever it is that you're doing to do that research. You're going, Oh, this is sounding like it's different than what they were originally envisioning, especially around timelines. And you know, we all want to deliver and we all want to please the people that we're working with, but when you're doing this kind of work, you have an obligation to do your absolute best to help them understand [the] "why". Why we need to think about it differently. And this is why it's so important. So when he was talking about teaching up, I found that very inspiring, and scary at the same time, but that to me, just means, Oh, there's something there. If it's inspiring and scary, it's probably good.

Todd
All the learning, all the growth is in that uncomfortable part of the zone.

Tracey
Yeah. And so that came up too during the fishbowl conversation. Oh, well, you know, if you're doing it like you've always done it and you're comfortable, you're not really learning and you're not really pushing anyone. And so this idea of teaching up in my mind, I think that's something we all have to carefully aspire to, because I think it has to happen. I hear lots of support in the terminology. I hear, "We do want these things." And I want to believe that it's not that they don't want to give you the room to actually do it. I think they don't know [how]. And so it's our job on the front line to say, Okay, well, I've gone out and I figured out an actual plan as to how we would do this. And this is what it looks like. And I need you to give me the space to really do this. And so I'm trying my best at the levels that I interact with, to have those sorts of conversations, but I can tell you that it is scary. It's definitely scary and different people react differently to it. And I think it's like testing the waters and it's very much about trust and it's very much about being able to explain, especially when around timelines. What is it that you need this time for? So that was also something that has been imparted on me in terms of wisdom. Well, we feel like we intuitively know... but this is going to take so long and you only gave me two weeks or a month or whatever. I think it's on me at the working level to really sit down and go, Okay, well, what are all the steps? And why is it going to take this long, and now go back and say, This is what I think we need to do. And here's how long it's going to take. Please support me in this because you say you want whatever this outcome is at the end, and I want to get you there, and this is what I think we need. So work with me to do that. And that's something that I'm really hoping that we can test out and continue to do and support one another -- the other unicorns that I suspect are hopefully trying to do those sorts of things, too, in their own little pockets to do that. And maybe eventually I can find managers that want to be unicorns or work together, maybe eventually their executives. I know there's I saw one down there today an executive that I would consider unicorn, Dave Conabree. I'll give you a little shout out. I think he's a unicorn. So I want to find them.

Todd
I've worked for them so I can say that they exist with certainty. Thanks so much, Tracy. I've appreciated meeting you today.

Tracey
Thank you.

Todd
I'm excited that someone's working on this. So yeah, I wish you all the success in the world.

Tracey
Thank you.

Todd
Thanks, Tracy.

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

Tracey Snow
A/Manager
Canada Revenue Agency

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