Unicorns in Government: A Community of Practice Reflection

By Miki Stricker-Talbot

Innovators and change makers join public service with ambition and big dreams of how to make things better. They ask good questions, bring new ways of thinking to the organization, and dare to try something different. This type of innovative spirit can lead to incredible change. The public service can draw upon it to do marvelous things, like designing programs that make people feel more connected to each other, creating approaches that provide more equitable access to services, and building infrastructure that is more accessible and welcoming.

However, embodying this spirit on a daily basis puts individual public service innovators on a challenging path, not unlike the one our friend Sisyphus embarked upon. It’s not uncommon to see people who are the catalysts for change to hit the wall. Hard. Usually more than once. And often, at great personal toll.

I’ve seen this pattern far too often over more than a decade in the public service. Losing top talent is damaging to any organization. This is particularly true within the public service where—in our increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world—past ways of working are not blueprints for future success. We need to be willing to experiment, to fail forward, and uncover new paradigms for us to understand how we might seek solutions to wicked problems. We unfortunately can’t do that if people who epitomize this knowledge keep leaving the organization.

Back in 2016, I was lamenting with a close colleague that yet another intelligent and boundary pushing change-maker in our organization had essentially thrown up their hands and said, “That’s it! I’m out of here!” Seeing this person leave was hard because I knew how much brilliance this person added to the organization. And I wanted to figure out how we might provide a better peer safety net.

My colleague Barb and I often engaged in a bit of dark humour to help us pull through tumultuous times, and so we joked that our fellow unicorns (so dubbed because change makers in government were thought to be mythical) were so far out in front, they would hit the wall with their horn. I asked my colleague what we all needed in order to be successful in our organization. Half-jokingly she replied, “What we need is a support group.”


The next day, I sent out a calendar invite to 14 people in our organization who I knew were change-makers. The invitation read:

Dear fellow unicorns,

Being an agent of change can be frustrating, lonely work. The good news is you're not alone.

We've noticed that you all share the following attributes:
- trying to change the world
- working to make Edmonton a safer and more vibrant place
- creating strategic initiatives to challenge the status quo

The noise from you banging your head against the wall has reached our ears.

We would like to formally invite you to the inaugural gathering of the United Network of Innovative Change agents Organizing to Realize New Strategies (U.N.I.C.O.R.N.S). Please bring your lunch, we'll provide some treats.

No agenda. No minutes. Simply discussion and support. And if we're lucky, some opportunities for future collaborations and amplifications of each other's work.

Miki and Barb

p.s. Due to the echo effect of multiple heads banging against the wall, we feel that we might have missed the harmonious sound of other heads banging on desks. Which other unicorns are missing? Please forward this invitation or let us know so we can invite them too.

Barb and I knew pretty quickly that we were on to something because the invitation list doubled to 29 people by the end of the day.

Our early meetings were a bit awkward. Most people didn’t know each other very well. And the lack of a structured conversation was a bit tricky. We’d spend an entire hour introducing ourselves and where we worked, without having the opportunity to explore anything deeply.

Over time, our gatherings evolved to hold space for deeper conversations. We’ve created containers to discuss topics that are of importance to change makers including resiliency, disruption, and bullying and harassment. Over time, our invitation list has grown as well. There are now 139(!) people on our invitation list from every department in the organization across the hierarchy, and we have upwards of 40 “regulars” who join us for our gatherings.

The U.N.I.C.O.R.N.S. is an interesting model for supporting change makers within a large organization. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the past two years convening this community of practice:

1. The simple act of convening can feel radical. Do it anyway.

I was terrified to send the initial email in 2016. I didn’t have “top cover” (neither direction nor permission) from anyone in a formal leadership position to do this sort of thing. In addition, at the time, the corporate culture was pretty bleak. The act of convening takes bravery -- and will require a leap of faith. I encourage you to leap. The universe will catch you.  

2. Intentionally create a container for trust

We’ve worked hard to build trust among and between participants. This work is continuous and must be repeated every time we meet. At the beginning of each gathering, we agree to our agreements. While they continue to evolve, these are the ones that fit us right now:

  • Let’s be curious, kind, and compassionate

  • Let’s be careful of our own judgements

  • Let’s go with the currents

  • Let’s be ourselves

  • Let’s be comfortable with being uncomfortable

  • Let’s acknowledge that our perspectives are just that

  • Let’s seek connection and build community

  • Let’s leave stories here, take lessons with us

  • Let’s have FUN!

3. Know your system. Work within it to work it.

We meet over the lunch hour on our personal time. Meeting rooms are generally empty at noon, and the time doesn’t interfere with our work. The timing also keeps it accessible for people who have life and family commitments outside of work hours.

4. Model inclusivity...

There are practises -- both big and small -- we’ve adopted to foster interculturalism and inclusivity. We do our best to apply a GBA+ lens to our gatherings. We open each of our meetings with acknowledgement that we are gathered on Treaty 6 territory, and consider what that means to each of us as individuals and as public servants. We also ensure that the snacks are provided with an eye to inclusion (including gluten free, vegan, nut-free and intercultural options).

5. … and know that in a large organization it’s impossible to reach everyone.

Our organization has a workforce of more than 14,000 that is geographically distributed throughout the city. I firmly believe that the power of the U.N.I.C.O.R.N.S. is rooted in its in-person convening. We wouldn’t have been able to foster the same levels of trust if we were meeting on-line. So our community of practice has been developed specifically for change makers who work downtown.

6. People aren’t there for the snacks. Provide them anyway.

Breaking bread together is a wonderful way to fast track trust building -- especially if you provide snacks that people may not be familiar with (see point #4 re: intercultural options. If you don’t have -- as examples -- any Jamaican, Middle Eastern or Chinese grocery stores in your area, most large supermarkets have an “international” section with really great options). We put out a jar to collect donations for the snacks that people are happy to contribute to.

7. Use the name of your group to your advantage.

Barb and I called our group the U.N.I.C.O.R.N.S. because it made us laugh. What we didn’t appreciate at the time was how useful the name would be as filter for participants to self-select in to the group. As it turns out, the sort of change agent we wanted to support through this community of practice -- the change agents who prioritize social good, equity, relationships, and shared leadership practices -- also find the name funny. And so they are the ones who show up.

8. You will need a self-motivated, resilient (and stubborn) convener.

Convening the U.N.I.C.O.R.N.S. has been among the most rewarding experiences of my professional career. And, I’d like to figure out a way for this community of practice to live beyond me. Barb retired this past year, and so the convening of the U.N.I.C.O.R.N.S. falls to me. We’ve tried experimenting with other people serving as conveners on a monthly basis, but to date, it hasn’t worked. The collective still needs a central convener (i.e. me) to bring the group together, otherwise, our meet-ups simply don’t happen. We’re going to give it another shot in the new year, with a rotating convener, where I’ll provide some additional support for a warm hand-over. I’m hopeful that it will stick so that this community of practice can have the sustainability to live beyond a single central convener (and her stubbornness).  

9. Keep evolving.

We’re at a place now where we’re trying to figure out where we go next. Members have expressed a deep appreciation for meeting like-minded people in the organization, and some now have a desire for the group to move towards more action-oriented work as a collective. Which, to me, is amazing. This means that our initial hope for this group is coming to fruition.

We’re not quite sure what happens “next.” However, I do know that wherever we do end up going, we will be better for it—as individuals, as an organization, and as a city.

Post-script (May 2019): A few months after this original post was shared on ABSI Connect’s blog, it went “viral” (…well, government viral) across Canada. As a result, change agents across the country have started to form their own UNICORN-inspired groups. An updated version of this article was recently shared by Apolitical and can be found here.

Miki Stricker-Talbot is an Intrapreneur with the City of Edmonton and previously worked for the City of Toronto. Together with Barb Ursuliak, she is the co-founder and convener of the United Network of Innovative Change-agents Organizing to Realize New Strategies (U.N.I.C.O.R.N.S.) and would love to hear from you about making change from within your organization. Catch her at miki.stricker-talbot@edmonton.ca or linkedin.com/in/miki-stricker-talbot.

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