The design and leading of a task force can be looked at from multiple perspectives. What is a task force other than a collection of individuals tasked with the performance and planning of a particular goal or objective? This paper will discuss the leading, managing and thinking associated with this particular task force and will propose a number of key points to be included in the design and management of this task force, collected from discussion, research and personal experience that should yield a general framework for use at ABC Corporation for the purposes of reducing lost time or “excess absenteeism”.
Although the fact pattern is unique and extensive in providing much information for this case, I would argue that the components of designing a task force or any team are mostly independent from the particular situation to which they are being designed. For example, any team should include strong leadership, excellent collaboration and if they plan to change current conditions for an organization, should be convinced of the importance of their task and be able to manage and increase organizational buy-in. I define buy-in as support from individuals in the organization who are not in the process of planning the organizational change or project, and who did not receive an opportunity to be part of the initial planning stages. To define this more closely, individuals who any task force would seek buy-in from would most likely say “This wasn’t my idea” when asked what they think of a particular organizational goal.
Therefore, if it is intuitive that a task force is simply a team with a goal, then we will treat it as such for the purpose of this paper. It would be relevant now to ask what a team needs in order to accomplish its task. Moreover, what does a team need to accomplish its task well?
We define competencies as expertise, skills and knowledge. Any team needs expertise in particular or multiple areas. A team working on a scientific project may need a collection of scientists to achieve its goals. If that project has social implications, then it may need to incorporate social scientists into the mix. If it needs to take into consideration political climates, then it should contain the competencies of a political scientist etc. If a team does not contain the necessary competencies to achieve its objective then it will most likely fail.
In our case our team has the objective of solving the “excess absenteeism” issues that plague ABC Corporation. The Chief Administrative officer understands that this team will need multiple competencies, but the fact pattern did not elaborate fully and completely on whom he/she chose to be part of this, therefore it left up to us to do the necessary analysis.
The fact pattern lists that the task force will include representatives from H.R., legal, finance, operations and corporate communications. First, it would be important for us to define what a representative is. Since this is the initial discussion, planning and top-level implementation team, it should include executive level members of ABC Corporation. This is because they will most likely have greater knowledge of their disciplines, faster access to relevant information and should have a good idea of what is happening in their organization.
Although, the competencies exist to understand absenteeism in this organization, it is very apparent that the competencies to make any suggestions are not yet complete. Most solutions to organization and business issues today almost always include a technology component to them. In our case, an information technology representative is not included. Additionally, there are no expert competencies in the group as it is currently set-up with regards to absenteeism. This competency is important in defining and understanding the issues. Therefore to include the necessary competencies we would need to include an expert from benefits administration and more specifically (assuming that the H.R. executive is mostly a generalist), an I.T. executive. It may be of value to include an outside consultant (or more than one to ensure neutrality of perspective) who is an expert in reducing absenteeism. But what is an expert team without a goal to accomplish?
A Clear Mission
Any team should have a clear mission and expectations from their project. “We will need to investigate X because it’s causing Y problems in the hope to create Z results” is a clear mission for a task force and leaves no room for confusion. Once the task is understood it is much easier to begin working on the issues at hand.
In the case of ABC Corporation 6.7% of their total revenue is lost to absenteeism ($100 million/year) which makes this a very important project. And although the fact pattern does not necessarily make the case that all 6.7% is lost to “excess” absenteeism, we will make the assumption that most of that amount is due to excess or unnecessary absenteeism for the purposes of this paper.
The CAO then delivers a clear message by communicating those numbers and their effect on the bottom line of the organization and he/she has also set the goal of cutting lost time by 50% but did not specify a time-line. We will assume that the timeline is as soon as possible. Therefore the mission of this task force seems to be clear and that that mission is the overall objective of the group.
This team will consist of multiple departments, multiple professionals from different backgrounds possessing multiple competencies. As the fact pattern discusses, some of those individuals are very successful and driven individuals with strong opinions. Additionally, there are hurdles regarding ownership of the absenteeism issue emanating from the operations executives that will need to be resolved. The issues listed above tie in to excellent collaboration or team-work and are a very important part of setting up the task force.
First, I would need to put on my internal consultant hat in order to successfully create and promote collaboration. My personal competencies (as the defacto leader of this task force) would need to include a calm communication style, impartiality and an ability to keep members of the team focused by always taking a step back. Although, there are many ways to create collaboration, in this case I would suggest one-on-one conversation with each member of the task force prior to the first meeting. These one-on-one meetings would allow us to get to know each other well, discuss expectations, frustrations and help them understand that this is an important issue and that teamwork will be absolutely essential for success. Moreover, I would ensure that they understand the mission clearly and communicate to them any relevant information regarding how the meetings will be structured. This process of meeting with the individual members of the task force prior to the first meeting can actually be termed buy-in. In other words, my objective would be to get buy-in from these individuals so that collaboration can flourish. And although it may not be easily possible due to their time-constraints (as listed in the fact pattern), I would even suggest that most team members schedule one-on-one meetings with some of their colleagues simply to gain rapport and understanding prior to the task force meeting.
In the actual meetings, my task would be to be impartial and not to push my own agenda but simply act as a facilitator of ideas and help bridge communication gaps between the members of the team. As the members of the team gain more comfort with each other and the team in general, discussions will become increasingly fluid and progress will be made exponentially faster resulting in a synergistic cycle of collaboration, and team effort.
Finally let me re-state that an integral part of helping this team collaborate would be to act as a facilitator and not a commander in the actual meetings and to help each member of the group understand someone else’s viewpoints. By acting as a facilitator and having the “buy-in” one-on-one meetings beforehand, I will be able to consistently re-focus the group when it veers off or disagrees on an approach (or any other discussion point) because of two reasons. The first is my apparent and demonstrated impartiality (“Joe is impartial. Let’s listen to him”) and the buy-in that I was able to get regarding the importance of this project before the initial meeting. But how do you create effective collaboration without effective communication to manage that collaboration. Collaboration ties in to the next section, communication.
Communication is important because it is the process in which ideas, thoughts and decisions are passed from each member of the team to other members of the team. From my personal experience with group dynamics in high performing teams, communication is the most important element of team structuring. Simply put, each individual communicates ideas differently. This creates two implicit issues in team dynamics:
The first is, because we communicate differently we also understand differently and so when one person communicates an idea to another, the other person will understand it based on his/her own method of digesting information. This creates the possibility of misinformation or loss of data.
The other issue is that ideas can be lost in the methods chosen to communicate them. Again, from personal experience in team dynamics, even if a team-member suggests a great idea or delivers excellent analysis resulting in criticism of another team-member’s idea it may be lost in the form of communication used. “Your idea is irrelevant because you did not take into account X factor” may be true, but probably won’t be listened to by group members because it uses words that are not constructive-the message was lost.
So communication is important but how do you create an effective communication system? It would be too late for the purposes of this particular task force to attempt to manage communication issues during or after the first meeting. By then, the team might already be lost. Therefore, any action to create effective communication must be taken prior to the first meeting and in this case, I would strongly recommend communication training followed by one-one-one follow-up meetings. This training should not be undergone by me as the head of H.R but should be undergone by the highest level training and education professional in the organization for several relevant reasons. The first reason being that in order to provide communications training, the trainer may need to become critical of the trainees method of communication, and this may decrease rapport between trainer and trainee. I should not then risk offending or alienating members of the team that I am trying to gain trust and understanding with. Secondly, because I am a generalist H.R. executive, I may not be the best trainer for this. Thirdly, the training should be undergone by someone who will not be on the task-force to maintain neutrality in their criticisms.
The training should consist of providing an understanding of different communication styles, effective communication best practices as well as provide each member of the team a personalized assessment of their current communication method. In other words, the trainer would need to provide this training in a group setting first, and then schedule meetings with each person to go over their individual communication style.
It is apparent that communication is an integral part of increasing a team’s ability to collaborate and therefore it would be important to point out that collaboration and communication go hand in hand in this particular setting.
These elements discussed as part of the team needs tend to eventually converge on one component. Although mentioned throughout the paper thus far we have yet to integrate the mission, competencies, collaboration and communication of this task force into the vastly important leadership component of the task force.
As the leader of this particular task force it is incumbent that I provide the necessary and most effective leadership style to the group and to the process of recommending effective solutions to the Chief Administrative Officer. Throughout this paper I’ve touched on this subject where necessary, but in this section I will provide a complete picture of the leadership component as it relates to this particular task force, beginning with the leader’s competencies.
As mentioned before, leading this task force is an integral and very important component of this project. The leader’s competencies, role and ability to provide direction to the task force are paramount especially in such small groups.
The core competencies were discussed in the collaboration section and I noted that because of the high performance character of this team that the leader must take a facilitation role in managing the task force, especially when the operations executive feels that this entire task force is an infringement upon his/her domain. Therefore I would need to manifest facilitative skills supported by superior communication skills. Because of the overlap of multiple disciplines and the potential for miscommunication mentioned earlier, I would have to develop or possess an ability to listen carefully to each team member’s view point and if they are unable to articulate effectively to help them do so.
This group will be providing recommendations to the senior leadership on how to tackle a key issue responsible for over 6% of company loss of revenue. Any suggestions we make must be “sold” effectively to the leadership, and although I may not necessarily recommend that I develop sales knowledge and competencies, I must be able to take a consultative approach in making those recommendations as it will be primarily be my responsibility to sell those recommendations once they are developed.
This project may involve a large quantity of data gathering so that we may better understand and define the issues. This data gathering will involve many divisions, many persons, and could involve several different areas of expertise. The coordination of these activities will need to be centralized and managed effectively. Therefore project management or organizational skills would be relevant and strongly sought after for this key role. Finally, as it relates to competencies it would be wise to have a leader for this task force who is somewhat versed in the needs, operations and processes of the business. This may or may not be true in general, but in our case it seems to be the case.
The keys to the leadership of this team lies in the leaders’ ability not only to take a facilitative role, but to clarify the mission and continually come back to it in the midst of discussions, increase collaboration, improve communication and manage not only the data gathering, but each individual meeting so that it is timely, on point and constantly progressing deeper into the analysis of the issues and the producing of valuable recommendations. In other words, it is to build upon the already existing group competencies listed throughout this paper and centralize the effort of the group. This can only be done effectively when the leader takes on a consultative approach and acts as the impartial internal consultant.
Let us say then that all is well and all suggestions have been incorporated into the design and implementation of the task force and not only did the task force seem to be effective, but the initial meetings are moving along quite nicely without any major issues. We are still faced with two major issues, one being reaching consensus on any given recommendations and ensuring that employee morale is not reduced due to the changes we recommend to the leadership of the organization.
Consensus is difficult to achieve in situations where there are more than one side to an issue or more than one option in solving said issue. But interestingly if this task force was managed well consensus can be achieved easier than expected.
Any task force should base its recommendations on facts and data gathered and if this is done correctly then there will not be much room for disagreement on what the issue(s) are in the case of lost time. However, even if this is the case there may be differences on what recommendations to make. But is it even necessary to provide a single recommendation? In other words, must the task force reach consensus?
Critical thinking and the critical decision-making process provides that a well thought out system for making organizational decisions must (bold added for emphasis) include providing multiple options (bold added for emphasis) for solving any given problem. Can we (in the solution stage) provide at least two options to the executive leadership and based on their strategic vision ask them to make a decision? This is assuming that a consensus was not reached by the task force in the solutions stage.
In other words, providing multiple solutions to a given problem is a better approach than providing a single solution. If consensus is reached then one solution is blatantly superior to another and therefore it would be strongly recommended. Utilizing this method creates a win-win situation for the task force.
The second issue would be ensuring that employee morale is not reduced. Another way of looking at that issue is ensuring that we receive employee buy-in. Depending on the solutions provided employee buy-in processes may differ but mostly it will include strong communication of the costs that lost time is associated with, delivering a consistent and clear message that excessive absenteeism is an issue that affects the company’s profits and therefore the employees’ bonuses and salaries and allowing the employees of the organization to send feedback up the organization to the executives so that a re-visiting of any recommended solutions can be undergone and the system can be continuously improved.
Finally, the recommendations that the task force should provide will heavily depend on where the lost time is. The condition of the organization, external factors such as the economy, industry status and even climate change, employee fatigue, not enough human capital, ineffective H.R. policies or demographic shifts can all be causes of the apparent lost time. From the data provided it is unclear what those recommendations should be, however, I would imagine that a mixture of policy changes, communication, increasing employee morale and performing several change management interventions to tackle whatever root causes are involved with this would make up some of the solutions provided by the task force.