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Six sure-fire ways to ensure your taskforce fails

Learning from market executives, Insider Engage identifies common mistakes companies make when creating and managing taskforces – and how to avoid them.

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This year, more than most, many firms will have had to implement a taskforce to solve an imminent problem.

Covid-19 has thrown up a whole host of new obstacles that need to be resolved immediately, and that’s without the usual cluster of challenges that occurs, whether it’s fixing a broken system, turning around a failing strategy, implementing a new structure or dealing with a crisis.

But how can you make sure you’re getting the best out of your taskforces? Unchecked, these exercises can become time- and energy-sapping, dragging your top performers away from their day jobs and suffering from endless scope creep.

Insider Engage spoke to experts from across the market to identify the six most common mistakes executive teams make when organising a taskforce – and how to avoid them.

Taskforces: In brief

Team selection

- Assign roles based on skills/knowledge rather than availability – consider outsourcing some roles

- Designate a set of alternates to cover sickness and holidays, avoid burnout and keep up the pace of progress

- Consider the collaborative strength of the team as well as the skillsets of individuals. Have a mix of functional, operational and technical people

- Include individuals who will ultimately be enacting the outcomes of the taskforce, and could form part of new leadership team for the area under transformation

- Consider the value taskforces can provide in identifying and developing new talent. Generate a skills matrix for your workforce to make candidate selection easier

Setting it in motion

- Avoid inertia once the team is in place by identifying a practical course of action

- Don’t be afraid to change; add new team members where additional skills or tasks are required

- Keep up the pace; give the taskforce members the authority to perform independently so as to speed up decision-making

- Be prepared to act on imperfect data; the short-term nature of taskforces means you may not have the time to wait for complete data

Scope creep

- Have a clear brief from the outset; identify the scope of activity to avoid the team becoming too thinly spread

- Keep it simple; be firm on the limits of the project

- Don’t be afraid to assert authority; people will naturally come together in a crisis and are more likely to compromise, accommodate and collaborate to address a common challenge

- Be realistic about outcomes; continuous improvement will be necessary beyond the taskforce’s initial delivery of the programme

Continuity

- Don’t close down a programme too early; have a quality control process at the back end to test whether the goals have been achieved

- Clearly document additional steps to maintain or improve outcomes of the programme

- Ensure some of the taskforce members remain engaged to manage outcomes

Delegation

- Empower your representatives on the taskforce to carry out decision-making on your behalf

- Trust that the people recruited/appointed will be able to do so effectively

- Motivate, encourage and challenge your representative to aspire and exceed their expectations

Communications

- Don’t leave the communications around the taskforce until the last minute

- Have a structure and rhythm for communicating each member’s responsibilities

- Ensure the taskforce is equipped with and trained in the necessary IT to achieve and communicate outcomes

1) Team selection

It might seem common sense that you’d pick the best people for the job, but when it comes to selecting individuals for a taskforce, there’s a few traps that leaders are at risk of falling into if they’re not careful.

The first is only picking staff who are more available – those that have less on their to-do list and can dedicate more time to the problem. While the thought process probably comes from a good place (“Mrs X would be ideal but she’s flat out on another project, Mr Y is already spread too thin, I can’t ask him”), you’re deselecting those who will likely get you the best outcome.

Suneeta Padda, managing director at Padda Consulting, recommends identifying those skills you have internally and those you need to outsource for, and then RAG-rating [also known as ‘traffic lighting’] your company’s business critical priorities.

“It's also one thing having a taskforce focused on your internal employees, but then you've got lots of other stakeholders,” she says.

You might have service providers, for example, and do you know if they’re still in the same position? Are they able to still provide you with that same level of service? It needs everybody to work in the same way for it to be successful.

The other major thing anyone implementing a taskforce should do is set up a B team of alternates who can step into the taskforce at any given time, Padda says. “This is especially important in a global pandemic because if anything happened to that first layer, you’ve still got a second layer that's able to keep the show running,” she notes.

Everyone Insider Engage spoke to agreed having alternates was also a good way to prevent another major issue for taskforces – your top players burning out.

Matt Kimber, Aon UK’s chief risk officer, says that having some of the same people around the table all of the time is “inevitable” as you often develop taskforce specialists. “What you've got to do is have the team behind you, capable of either joining you in that fight or helping to backfill while I’m doing my day-to-day.

“That is difficult to orchestrate on occasions, especially if you've got multiple things going on at the same time, but that's definitely the way that I operate.”

His colleague Nathan Shanaghy, chief operating officer for Aon UK, agrees. “What’s critical in a task force is structure and alternatives. You need structure to make sure that one person isn't picking up everything, to spread the load.”

Shanaghy explains that, unlike with a project, where much of the weight would sit with the project manager, in a taskforce a number of subject matter experts and their immediate team will instead run with much of the project and then feed back in later.

He adds that you need alternates not just to avoid burnout, but also to keep up the pace of progress, particularly where people have to go back to their “day jobs” regularly.

“Taskforces are inherently a second job. It's just the nature of the crisis; it will normally require you to bring together people who have already got a job. If you don't, you [leave] people on the bench doing nothing.

“In most instances, people are switching in and out so you can avoid the burnout, and deal with other small issues like holidays. It just gives you real pace. If it's all falling onto one person that just won't work.”

Another area of agreement is the need to make sure your taskforce has enough breadth of knowledge.

Ekhosuehi Iyahen, Secretary General at the Insurance Development Forum, recommends finding collaborators who can spot gaps “but also propose solutions”.

She adds: “A great piece of advice I once received was that although individuals are important, they can never individually solve the big complex problems institutions and governments may be faced with. The real skill is finding the right people to be around the table to help uncover the solution.”

Nicholas Aubert, head of Great Britain and CEO of Willis Limited, advocates bringing in three types of individual – those who are functional, those who are operational and those that are technical.

“Then you need to bring some people who are experienced on the topic, but it’s also important to bring in people who are ignorant of the matter, but are credible, experienced people.”

Aubert adds that it’s also critical to include individuals who will be running the outcome of the taskforce, providing you with an opportunity to create a new leadership team for the area that you are transforming.

“The point here is to create a kind of natural transition, so there are individuals who learn through the exercise and can be groomed for leading the outcome of the exercise.”

This segues to the final point all of our experts wanted to highlight – that taskforces are a brilliant, and often underused, way of identifying and bringing through new talent.

“A taskforce is a huge opportunity to develop your diversity in the company and use it as a booster to create visibility for some individuals in the company to develop them and bring them new experiences,” says Aubert.

Identifying that talent can be tough, especially if you’re limited on time. So Padda advocates generating a skills matrix for your entire workforce to make it easier to identify potential candidates.

“Unless you get that, you don't know where you can pull people into and start growing and developing people,” she says, adding that having those things documented means the “quiet ones at the back of the office who are really good in a crisis mode aren’t forgotten about”.

2) All talk, no action (not starting) (Insist on perfect data)

Another common failing in taskforces is to put all the players in place, map out the plan of action, put meetings in everyone’s calendar and then… procrastinate.

“There’s two very simple things [when it comes to taskforces] – number one is to start,” says Aon’s Kimber.

“Too much paralysis through analysis [can be dangerous]. You know, if you think about the last couple of courses that we've run, we kind of don't know the answers – we don't even know what the questions are to begin with some of the time.

“We sit down together and we say right, we're going to set up a team, it will be these qualified people to begin with… it’s important to just start; start with something that looks practical on paper until you really know what you're dealing with.”

And the second thing? Don’t be afraid to change, says Kimber. Countless times.

“[With our Covid-19 taskforce] we started the journey, then added to the people on the team. They had different skills, and actually the demands changed through the piece as well,” he explains.

Once you’ve started, the next challenge is to keep that level of pace. As well as making sure you have alternates in place, Aon’s Shanaghy recommends giving everyone on the taskforce the authority to perform their role independently.

“I've been on a number of forums recently where everyone is saying, how do I continue to keep this fast decision-making in the DNA of my firm?

“Well, give people the authority, accept they're going to make some risk-based decisions, and have the right people at the table. For me, that moves you out of project mode and into taskforce mode at a fundamentally different pace.”

The other issue to be addressed is that in a taskforce mode, you can’t be as inclusive as you might otherwise be with decision making.

“You can be communicative. But you can't always be as inclusive, but there's an acceptance about that when you're in crisis mode,” says Shanaghy.

The final thing you have to accept is that sometimes you have to act on imperfect data. “It is critical that you have a willingness to do that,” Shanaghy continues. And a lot of that has to do with accepting that taskforces are short-term in nature.

“It’s about being absolutely clinically clear on what you're trying to achieve… but don't think so far ahead that you end up at the point where no decisions have been made because you worry about things that ultimately aren't necessary for the delivery of the core goals and objectives.”

Which leads us nicely onto the next beartrap of taskforces…

3) Scope creep

We’ve all seen it happen. A team is put together to solve a problem. But after the first meeting, it appears it’s actually more like three problems.

And to solve those three problems, you need decisions made by those outside of your unit, you have to wait for a particular calendar event, and a bunch of variables to be known before you act.

Suddenly, the team is spread too thin, covering too big an issue over too long a timeframe. You’ve fallen victim to scope creep.

“Setting the stall out early as to how you're going to operate [and] the scope of the activity is crucial because otherwise you find you're getting into rapid scope creep all the time,” says Kimber.

Part of setting out the stall is being stern about the limit of the project. Keeping it simple is often easier in a crisis as people are more willing to accept leadership on the issue, even if it’s not exactly in line with their thinking.

“When there are crises, people recognise there is a need for urgency and to look at things differently, and implement new things quickly,” says Willis’ Aubert. “They recognise this more than when everything is ok, then no challenges are needed as everything is fine.”

Don’t worry about offending people too much with your authoritarian manner. Turns out we’re all naturally more willing to go along with it to get through a crisis.

“One thing that has come out of this [Covid-19 situation] is collaboration, you know?” says Padda. “Being willing to compromise, accommodate and collaborate because it's affecting everyone – it’s that [sense of] camaraderie. People are willing, able and participating.”

And people are more forgiving too.

“The reality is very, very few projects get you to a perfect outcome. They normally get you to a live outcome,” says Aon’s Shanaghy. “And you will always need continuous improvement to actually deliver the ultimate goal you originally set out.” Which leads us nicely on to…

4) No aftercare/continuity

Highlighted as the number one reason that taskforces ultimately fail in achieving their stated goal/s by a few of the people we spoke to is that no one thought about any sort of continuity when the project finished.

Too many programmes are closed down too early, just post go-live,” says Shanaghy. “[You need to] make sure you have a really clean project close-down methodology… so you have a clear quality process at the back end, that actually tests whether or not you achieved the programme’s goals.”

It also needs clear documentation of the things that need to be done, or that need to be carried out for either business as usual, or a continuous improvement programme.

For Willis’ Aubert, it comes back to making sure those who will be carrying the can after the taskforce wraps up are involved in the taskforce from the beginning.

“I like creating future accountability. Each time I built a taskforce it’s to lead a change or type of transformation, and it’s very important that some of those people you bring in will be tasked with running the outcome of the taskforce.”

Aon’s Kimber agrees: “It's very important to make sure that actually you have that end user in mind because if not, you’re building in a bubble.”

5) Control everything (need to delegate/empower)

Coming in at number five is a big one – the art of delegation is key to making a taskforce effective.

Although we’ve already touched on this in earlier steps, it’s worth giving it prominence here. “You have to be dogmatic about delegation,” says Aon’s Kimber. “You cannot make decisions by committee in fast-paced turnarounds.”

“That can be an interesting moment for some executives,” he continues. Not letting go of the reins and allowing your representatives to do their job can result in the whole project grinding to a halt if you’re not careful.

“You just need to say, ‘You, go away, and I don’t need to see your working, just get it done.’ That’s absolutely critical.”

The Insurance Development Forum’s Iyahen adds that a good CEO is able to delegate and trust that the people recruited/appointed will be able to do so.

“The role is really about leadership, empowerment and integrity. Leadership in the sense of being able to build an effective team, motivate, encourage, foster confidence and challenge them to aspire and achieve things beyond their expectations.

“This is importantly also very much about asking the right questions, guiding, steering and ultimately a willingness to take responsibility, be it by stepping up to make the difficult decision or meeting challenging moments.”

6) Crap communications

Finally (somewhat ironically), the last piece of advice all of our experts offered was not to leave the communications around your taskforce until the last minute.

“Communications are commonly forgotten about and brought in late. And then it's extremely difficult to retrofit a storyboard,” says Aon’s Shanaghy.

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Communicating in a regular rhythm and through a regular method sets the tone and instils confidence.

“[You need] to have a structure and a rhythm, and everyone needs to know what that structure and that rhythm is. If not, you’ll find the taskforce will be ineffective – everyone needs to know what they have to achieve,” says Shanaghy.

Willis’ Aubert agrees that consistency is key. The question is particularly pertinent in the current environment, with everyone working remotely.

“You need to do this over the long term,” says Aubert. “Most of our colleagues already had remote-working capabilities and almost all of them had experience of remote working. It’s important that everyone is well-equipped with IT and that your colleagues are up to speed with technology use.”

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