Secrets of the Unicorn

How to build a functional task force that actually gets things done.

It’s happened to all of us. The email comes and we unsuspectingly click on it, only to be greeted by a read receipt. Never a good sign.

“Boss so and so has ordered the formation of a new multi-agency task force to address problem X in the region. Congratulations, you have been selected as our designated representative, please clear your calendar every Friday afternoon from now until the end of time for this mission essential work.”

A unicorn beside a stream.

If your immediate response to is curse silently under your breath, you’re in good company. Everyone knows that the surest way to strangle the life out of progress is to set up a committee, right?

Unfortunately, most of the time, yes. The go-to best practice in ‘breaking down silos’ or ‘horizontal integration’, seems to fall flat on implementation — despite the best intentions of leadership. Members too often get frustrated as consensus decision-making turns edgy new ideas into a slightly different shade of what you’re already doing. In theory, task forces and multi-agency committees make sense. When well managed, they give everyone with a stake in a particular issue the opportunity to contribute to its resolution. They also maximize the value of expertise and resources by coordinating efforts and eliminating duplication. In practice though, it can be hard to find examples of successful task forces outside the military. But it’s not impossible. There are real examples of successful task forces thriving in the wild and there are specific things they do that make them successful. (And it’s more than just ‘good leadership’ and ‘communication’.)

Making Your Own Unicorn

So, back to you and your email. How do you turn your llama into a unicorn? Here are five things successful task forces do. There’s more detail about each of these points in the following sections.

1) They have ground rules.
2) They set and keep a rhythm.
3) They use the parking lot.
4) They start and end on time.
5) They use a process to adjudicate feedback.

Got it, five steps; that’s fine, but remember, I was just invited to sit on the task force. I’m not in charge of it.

So what. The best leadership is from the trenches. And that’s the unofficial sixth point; successful task forces are made up of people who lead up.

1) They have ground rules.

Every team needs to agree on the rules of engagement. Good ground rules identify how decisions will be made and how discussions will be managed. They can be formal or informal, so long as everyone understands what they are. You’ll know if the ground rules are working when team members organically reinforce them; if they have to be routinely enforced by the chair, they’re not the team’s rules. Here are some examples of ground rules:

  • The agenda is firmly flexible.
  • Issues that are not directly on the agenda will be directed to one of two places: a follow-up list for future meetings OR a parking lot for reassignment to appropriate parties.
  • Everyone’s opinion is valuable and important.
  • Passionate discussion is acceptable, provided it is on point and respectful.
  • Please be present and focused on this discussion; take calls outside if necessary.
  • Silence implies consent.
  • Everyone’s time is valuable and should be respected. We start and end on time.
  • Decisions will be made through consensus as often as possible. Final decision rests with [X].

Dancers in line.

2) They set and keep a rhythm.

Set a rhythm early; keep it throughout the process. Consistency is comfortable and it makes it easy for team members to identify the right time to bring up ‘their’ issue. This can take a variety of forms, depending on what the task force is designed to accomplish, but it should always have the effect of making it easy for members to anticipate what’s next.

Policy/Content Approval Example

Many task forces are stood up to review/establish policy, develop a training, or produce a document/report. These tasks lend themselves to a sequential, progressive agenda like this:

A. Today’s Plan: Identify the goal for this meeting, i.e. the next unit or section of what you’re working on.

B. Notes from Last Meeting: Quick summary bullets that identify the progress/decisions made last session; these help anyone who missed the last meeting catch up.

C. For Review: Pull out the section of content you want the team to review prior to the meeting.

D. Next Up: Outline what comes next, i.e. the next section to review, the plan for the next meeting.

Empty parking garage spaces.

3) They use the parking lot.

Aggressively. In every meeting, there is a balance to be maintained between having a productive and inclusive discussion and getting things done. When in doubt, err on the side of getting things done. Use the parking lot to either table something for the next meeting or re-direct the issue outside the task force.

4) They start and end on time.

Demand that people be on time by starting on time. And then end on time. Unless your task force is trying to resolve a complex incident with real-time life safety consequences, there is no reason you can’t get through your goal in the time allowed. Nothing you are doing is that critical that it cannot be tabled until the next meeting. If you consistently fail in this area, either the goals for the meeting are unrealistic or you’re not using the parking lot. If you can’t get people to stay on task, try having a standing meeting; as if by magic, everyone suddenly becomes more concise.

5) They use a process to adjudicate feedback.

This is the big one. For most teams, having healthy discussion is not the problem; rather it’s when pen hits paper and decisions are made about what to cut and what to keep that suddenly the train veers off course. Suggestions that someone previously said were ‘not a deal-breaker’ are suddenly a crisis. This is the point in the project where people decide if the process is authentic or not and they will leave quickly if they believe they are being silenced or their opinion isn’t valued. This scenario is almost impossible to avoid, but it can be managed. Focus on creating transparency in the decision-making process. From the outset, identify how the review process will flow and how feedback will be adjudicated; be honest, if one agency has the final say, say so. Decision-making does not have to be consensus based to be successful; it has to be transparent. With the team, outline the following:

  • Who’s feedback will be incorporated (map out all stakeholders and subject matter experts; sort them by priority/relevance)
  • In what order will review occur (ex. task force first in consult with subject matter experts, then agency, then public stakeholders)
  • What are the review timeframes (ex. 1 week for each section of content, followed by task force adjudication; once a section is adjudicated it is closed until the final review and adjudication prior to recommendation to agency; all outside stakeholder review occurs after agency review)
  • Who has the final say on behalf of the task force; what happens if the task force can’t reach consensus
  • Who is physically collecting and collating the feedback for the task force to review

Sample Matrix

An easy way to keep track of the feedback process is to use a matrix. Matrices are most useful as a documentation tool so that when someone asks what happened to their comments or wants an explanation for why you did or didn’t accept particular comments, you have a record of your decision-making process. Here are some suggested column headers:

  • Reviewer
  • Original Text
  • Suggestions
  • Justification
  • Action Taken
  • Reason

It’s a lot of actual work, find someone to do it.

Be the Unicorn

Nobody wants to put time and effort into something only to see it fail, especially when it’s an issue that matters. If you find yourself leading a task force, remember these guidelines; if you find yourself supporting a task force, support efforts like this or suggest them if necessary. Be the unicorn, find the way.

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