Proposal: The Clerk’s Challenge

I read a fascinating article the other day that discussed “The Effects of Repeat Collaboration on Creative Abrasion” (Academy of Management Review) — essentially, if the same group of people work together again and again, what sort of negative impact does it have on the creative process? How can those impacts be mitigated? All-in-all, I found it to be a fascinating read.

When a group gets together for the first time to come up with a creative solution to an issues, everyone is getting to know each other, understand the various skill sets, and are essentially setting up their own social norms within the group. This leads to more ideas being generated, and people more likely to discuss radical solutions. However, after a group keeps working together, the creative process suffers — groups are more likely to revert back to older ideas/norms that they understand, and less likely to introduce new ideas into the dialogue because of how they think those ideas will be received (based on the norms that the group has established). I’ve certainly seen this happen, even amongst peers that I have the greatest amount of respect for. Having the same group of people also means that you’re generally leveraging the same network when collecting information.

To me, this leads to an interesting idea that could be run with regard to renewal initiatives. We see pockets around the government, but we often see the same people involved in the initiatives. The same social norms apply, and many times, the same ideas are brought up again and again. In an effort to be inclusive, sometimes these groups become incredibly exclusive to newcomers who may not adapt quickly to the social hierarchy that has been put into place.

So what’s my idea then?

The Clerk’s Challenge

The Clerk comes up with a list of 10 issues related to PS Renewal that require creative and implementable solutions. Anyone interested in a project puts their name into a hat, and teams of 5 are drawn at random, based on particular skill sets (“We need a finance person, a programmer, etc.”). Each team is given 1 day/week to meet and work on their project, as well as access to Clearspace or other tools.

Timeline: 2 months per project. Once you complete the project, the system will not select you to work with the same group of people again for a preordained amount of time.

I see this type of challenge having a few different benefits:

  1. New People, New Networks — Hopefully this kind of challenge would bring new people into the fold, expand knowledge networks, etc.
  2. Provide Solutions — I’ve read a number of papers lately that keep talking about the same issues, and yet solutions seem to either not exist, or are not widely implemented. By having central agency backing for these ideas, with the ideas written by those from across Government along with implementation plans,  we might see solutions more widely disseminated
  3. PS of the Future — Let’s face it: The future will be about horizontal collaboration across government, and working on multidisciplinary teams is increasingly becoming something that we’re seeing on Statement of Merit Criteria. Let’s start showing what was can actually do.
  4. Timing — I see more and more projects that have 3 years time lines to address an issue that is pertinent right now. We needs to work faster and use our resources more effectively when coming up with creative solutions. 2 months, with people who are dedicated to the issue, is reasonable (in my mind).
  5. Service to Canadians — The 10 issues should be ones that immediately help public servants better serve the public. Whether it’s through web-based tools, different ways of service delivery, etc. Serving Canadians better is something that all public servants have a vested interest in doing — it’s sort of our job.

Anywho, just one idea of how I think we can start moving PS Renewal Theory into reality, in an inclusive way that gets more and more public servants involved.


13 thoughts on “Proposal: The Clerk’s Challenge

  1. I couldn’t think of a good comment to write for the blog rally. Instead, I am just leaving a mark because you are on the list. 🙂

  2. It’s important to maintain a creative tension with a group, to ensure competing ideas and visions piggy back off each other. It is not so much the reoccurrence of the same people in committees that is the problem as the steady creep of group thinks as members abdicate their viewpoints to just get the job done..

    Great article ..Ralph

  3. The idea of finding new people to bring in new ideas made me think of the NRCan Shadow Horizontal Task Team. The team started out with a collection of interested individuals who set the parameters under which the team would work with a focus on collective leadership and under the principle that we give credit, and keep none for ourselves, etc. In other words, the culture was set under which the team would operate. No idea belonged to one person, it became a part of the collective. As time went on, the composition of the team changed and new people came in. As turnover continued, the culture and parameters of the group changed, though not necessarily in an explicit way.

    I think this is an interesting scenario you describe above and I plan to think more about the cultural dynamics of a continuously changing team, continuously changing culture, and whether or not they can still be effective. Thanks for stirring my brain, Colin!

  4. I live on a side street filled with porches. Many old Portuguese women on these porches. But some have to be mobile, or else the sidewalk to porch conversations that are going on won’t ever occur (there are 2 happening right now on Lakeview). Most know each other quite well. They’ll often bring by other old friends or family and introduce them, throw them into the mix and dialogue loudly, and in all weather conditions. Every group that’s made up of people is an artificially isolated network (everyone in it knows a whack of other people). Another idea might be to involve others *casually*, to have neighbours or friends stop by, jump in on conversations and be granted the freedom to throw ideas out there. Just throwing it out there.

  5. Having worked on the design agency side, I have seen this happen to. I think it’s why employees and clients alike sometimes leave for no other reason that just to change. Your idea is really interesting — personally, I’d volunteer for that kind of challenge!

  6. To add to reasons why having the same group constantly tackle problems is that often “leaders” emerge. I use this in quotation marks as they just tend to be people who talk more, bring more ideas, and move things along. This also causes other formerly active members to take a backseat.

    I really love some of your ideas, as well as @mpeers casual idea (although I’m not sure how to work that one logistically). I think the stronger framework of your posts’s idea is easier to convince management of the values of cross-pollination.

  7. Colin,
    There’s a great article in Harvard Business Review (June 2010) about organizational change that supports your idea :

    The article is about stagnation, and how all organizations fall into the trap of silos and lose their creativity as things become routine. The article recommends looking at your structure, rewards or processes to shake things around. I think you’ve got a few key things in there that may increase potential for success – skills, goals and processes. Sounds fun too.

    Sign me up.

  8. I think this is a great concept. We tried to organize a similar approach on a larger scale a few years back. Staff would be in pools and would be assigned to projects on an as-needed basis. There were issues around the management chain as they were not very involved in the concept. The government often lets managers “level-up” based on their employee head count. There is little incentive for them to have a flexible system like this as it will require learning new management skills with little support.
    Still a great idea….

  9. Interesting perspective on how to foster creativity. While building a new team for each project would impede stagnation and groupthink, I’d be concerned that moving people around with that frequency would make it harder for people to build meaningful relationships within the team to help them become a high-performing team capable of rapid delivery (if you’re always in the forming/storming phases, you may not be productive as a group). I would be inclined first to look for other ways to foster a learning culture within the team in order to encourage the team to develop fresh insights and new ways of doing things, and to find ways for team members to share ideas across the organization without constantly restructuring the team itself. Not to say that you never want to move people around, just that there’s a balance to be achieved in order to help grow strong teams.

    Great post — came here as part of the blog rally and I’ll definitely be back!

    • For sure!

      I should’ve been more specific. The article was talking about creative teams, where there is a voluntary association for specific projects — as opposed to operational teams that work together over a longer period of time for a number of deliverables. In the latter case, changing the entire team can be more than just a little problematic.

      For shorter-term projects where the participants on the team are self-selected, the concern is that you see the same groups repeat themselves. The process I propose creates a number of different teams that can still be selected based on skill-set, but creates new ideas in different formations.


  10. i like this idea of task groups being set up to come of with practical implementable ideas for public service renewal in two months. It seems to really get at the fact that things are changing rapidly and our current approach to coming up with solutions is…slower and a bit out of sync.

    I do wonder why 5 people and why random selection of participants. One of the strengths of community is self selection according to interests and strengths. Why not let them self select and encourage open processes to ensure that newer voices are full participants? Hope to hear more on this idea.

    • The self-selection I think comes from those who volunteer to participate in such an initiative. In my mind, that is the larger ‘community’ (self-selecting according to interests/strengths).

      For specific projects, my concern would be that you’d seen the same groups of people together over and over again. We already see this in a number of PSR initiatives, where the same people are often around the table. Unintentionally, this can become an exclusive group. Exclusivity can have a negative impact on the creative process.

      The difficulty for some newer voices is that they might not put themselves forward within a particular group. What sort of open process do you envision?


  11. Like Yahzee for Government: There’s a probability of rolling some bad combinations, but also a great opportunity for discovery of others. I think it’s possible for any group of 5 to manage to accomplish a single project knowing that the group will end when the work does. Beyond that, I can see people refusing to be subject to a random process where they end up with others that they’ve discovered they are incompatible with. Provided that the Yahzee rules follow through, and there is opportunity for a couple of more re-rolls to better the combination: I like it.

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