Creating a successful task force requires a lot more than asking for volunteers. Critical thought needs to be given to identifying the right task force members and process design. Using task forces, in favor of standing committees, can add value, but the true value is experienced when you take a strategic approach to task force formation and process design.
Steps to Successful Task Force Design
- Define the problem. Although a task force could be created for many purposes, most are created to solve a problem or address a challenge. The critical first step is to clearly define the problem. Although the task force itself will engage in a more thorough root problem analysis, some thought to root causes is advisable at this stage.
- Define the outcome(s). Clearly articulate what the expected deliverables. If the task force is a problem-solving task force, the deliverables might include presenting at least two options for addressing / solving the problem. It is especially important to have the task force develop options, rather than a recommendation, if the output is going to be fed back to your board of directors for dialogue and decision making purposes.
- Define the timeline. In addition to defining the outside parameters (start date and finish date), make sure you articulate milestone dates when, for example, status reports might be due. You should also estimate the number of hours the task force members will be expected to give to task force work.
- Identify methodology. Give consideration to various problem-solving methodologies and determine which methodology might be best to attack the problem at hand. Feel free to borrow from more than one methodology. Often, it is useful to apply different methodologies at different points in the process. Using proven problem-solving methodology will provide structure to the process and facilitate the task forces’ work.
- Design the process. If at all possible, the task force meeting(s) should be in-person. If not, try to use video-conferences rather than teleconferences. Based on the problem at hand and methodology being used, determine if a series of short meetings or one longer meeting is better; or, if a combination of the two would deliver the best result. The process should begin with root problem identification, which is critical. Toyoda’s Five Whys and an Ishikawa Diagram are useful methods to identify root problems. Once the task force finishes the root case analysis, generally the process should be designed to engage the group in divergent thinking prior to moving toward convergence and the identification of potential solutions.
- Identify task force members. This is arguably the most important step. It is paramount that you have the right people on the bus. Don’t just ask for volunteers – often the best people for the job won’t step up, but they will contribute if you ask. Take a strategic approach to task force member identification, and, at all costs, you don’t want the same “usual suspects,” who often won’t challenge the status quo. It is also important that your task force membership is diverse. In addition to applying Seven Steps to Optimal Diversity, which were originally created for developing diverse strategy development groups, keep in mind that the members might become advocates within your organization for the ultimate solution and could play a role in suppressing rumors. Importantly, include a couple of skeptics, but not cynics; you want people who will challenge each others thinking, but at the same time have a strong interest in getting something done. Finally, pre-determine who the chair will be; this will give you the opportunity to provide the necessary guidance regarding process, methodology and other critical information prior to the task force convening for the first time.
- Prepare background materials. Background materials should provide an overview of the subject matter and contain data that can inform the work of the task force and eventual solutions. While it is important that the background material provide a 360-degree analysis of the problem at hand, it is equally important that the background material not provide solutions. Providing solutions runs the risk of the group anchoring on a particular solution and stifles creative thought within the group. You might also provide information on the methodologies the group is expected to use, especially if they could be foreign to some of the participants.
- Convene the taskforce. At the first meeting, it is important that the task force’s objectives / outcomes are clearly delineated. In addition, an overview of the process and logistics should be provided. Further, clear expectations, roles and responsibilities for task force members should be reiterated; members should agree on such things as attendance requirements and assignment completion responsibility, as well as other responsibilities. Once the above items are completed, the group should begin with a discussion of the problem, as presented, and engage in root problem analysis. Finally, the group should restate the problem(s) they are going to solve and form consensus around the final problem statement. Then, its time to go to work!
- Manage the process. It is important that you pay attention to the group dynamics and process; ineffective group process is a leading contributor to less than ideal outcomes. As a manager of the process, it is important to eliminate barriers to the group’s work and to ensure that the task force has the necessary support, including the fulfillment of additional information needs. Closely monitoring the process will also allow you to make process adjustments in a timely manner.
- At the end of the process, ask the group to evaluate their performance. At the same time, you should reflect on the process and make note of what, if any, process design changes you might incorporate into your next task force. It is also important to express appreciation for the group’s effort and to follow up with the task force members after the board dialogues about the options and makes its final decision; they will want to hear the final outcome.