Saving unicorns: Making government less lonely for the trailblazers

Opinion: Government unicorns are a rare breed, and need all the support they can get

This article was written by Miki Stricker-Talbot, unicorn and Intrapreneur at the City of Edmonton, Canada. It was originally published in ABSI Connect, but has since been updated with a new postscript for republication in Apolitical. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.

Innovators and change makers join public service with ambitions and big dreams of how to make things better.

They ask good questions, bring new ways of thinking to the organisation, 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 marvellous 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.

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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.

Gathering unicorns

I’ve seen this pattern far too often over more than a decade in the public service. Losing top talent is damaging to any organisation. 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 epitomise this knowledge keep leaving the organisation.

Back in 2016, I was lamenting with a close colleague that yet another intelligent and boundary pushing change-maker in our organisation 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 organisation. And I wanted to figure out how we might provide a better peer safety net.

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

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 organisation. 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 organisation 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 Organising to Realise 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.

Growing the herd

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 little 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 146(!) people on our invitation list from every department in the organisation 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 organisation. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the past two-and-a-half 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 inter-culturalism 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 [land originally occupied by the indigenous people of Canada], 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 organisation it’s impossible to reach everyone
Our organisation 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. within our particular system 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 prioritise social good, equity, inclusion, 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 last 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 beginning to experiment with a rotating convener, where I 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 organisation, 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 organisation, and as a city.

A post-script, May 1, 2019

I wrote the original post about the U.N.I.C.O.R.N.S. in December of 2018. In the time that has passed since, the article went — as one person who reached out to me described it — “viral (… well, government viral)” across Canada. As a result, in public service pockets across the country, change agents have started to form their own U.N.I.C.O.R.N.S.-type groups. A few of us are beginning to explore what an online U.N.I.C.O.R.N.S. platform might look like, so that folks from across the three levels of government (municipal, provincial and federal) can connect meaningfully. Now, thanks to Apolitical, the article is about to have another lift of momentum. And, importantly for me, here in Edmonton, our own U.N.I.C.O.R.N.S. ranks continue to grow. And deepen.

The idea of the U.N.I.C.O.R.N.S. has tapped into something. Perhaps it’s because that for so long we public service unicorns thought that we were alone. Each of us were driven by an intrinsic motivation, a passion that propelled us to try to make things better… only to be met by systemic barriers that repeatedly stopped us short and breathless in our tracks. We were told over and over again that we were wrong. That we were foolish. That we were dangerous. That we should stop.

And some days… some hard days… we seriously consider it. Stopping. Walking away.

But we don’t.

And we won’t.

Especially now that we know, in fact, that we are not alone. There are thousands upon thousands of us.

To my fellow public service unicorns:

I know that the work you do as change makers can be incredibly rewarding. I also know, at times, it can be thankless. And so, I would like to thank you.

For shaking trees and rattling cages.
For stimulating the conversations and challenging the status quo.

For understanding the nuances.
For seeing the problem.
For knowing. It must change.

For being patient and persistent. And for understanding why others need both of these qualities in and from you.

For blazing a trail.
For lighting the way.
For making the time.

For holding fast and holding firm and holding the mirror so others may better see themselves.

Thank you for working towards a solution.
For inviting others to join you.
For pushing on.
Pulling up.
Pressing through.

My friends, this is important work. It is in, through, and because of this work, we are making the public good better.

Keep going, dear ones.

Keep. Going.

Our publics deserve nothing less.

With love and appreciation,

— Miki.

Miki Stricker-Talbot is an Intrapreneur with the City of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada (Treaty 6 Lands). Working in the world of strategic design, Miki uses social innovation, unlearning, and people-centred design approaches to help others make sense of and navigate through complex challenges. She finds that working in this way allows for the co-creation of better strategies, plans and approaches for our city. Through her involvement with the League of Intrapreneurs Canada, Miki teaches unlearning workshops to help others uncover the skillsets, mindsets, and heartsets that transformational innovation requires. Miki is a mom (x2), jewellery maker, and semi-reluctant runner. She is a recipient of the Alberta Centennial Medal and is an Avenue Magazine Top 40 Under 40 alumna. Together with Barb Ursuliak, Miki 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 organisation. Catch her at, @MikiTalbot or

A version of this article first appeared on ABSI Connect. Read the original article here.

(photo credit: Unsplash)


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