December 7, 2023

a task force with oomph

a mural of robots forming a bunch of objects into large spheres
photo caption: a mural depicting blue robots forming giant red and yellow spheres flecked with green bits.
photo by MMT for Pixabay.

I’ve written about the advice process many times since I started this blog. It’s one of the most thrilling discoveries I made after I entered senior leadership. The advice process upended everything I hated about hierarchy and top-down decision making. In most companies major decisions fall to the chief executive or senior leaders. The advice process puts that decision where it often belongs: with people at the bottom of the ladder.

I’ve used the advice process to varying degrees of success. I found that it doesn’t work well in an otherwise traditional hierarchy. For big decisions, it can feel like too much pressure to put on one person’s shoulders. I wanted to know: what would a task force look like using the advice process?

what is the advice process?

While I was writing this, I learned that there are many guides about using the advice process in a workplace. I haven’t read them all yet, but I may write a follow-up post when I pick up the books from the library. The advice process empowers the person closest to a problem the right to solve it. Before they can make that decision, they must consult with:

  1. anyone else whom the decision may affect, and
  2. anyone else who may have knowledge or expertise that would help them make the best decision

After the decision maker completes these, they create a proposal for how to solve the problem. They may share the proposal with everyone again for refinement before they put it into place.

who decides?

In a top-down hierarchy, the ultimate decision maker in an organization is the person at the top. This is usually the executive director, CEO, or other leader. When we allow the person “closest to a problem” to decide, identifying that person can be tricky.

Dennis Bakke wrote at least two books about the advice process. He says that the decision-maker can be the person:

  • whose area is most affected by the problem or decision
  • who initiated an idea or solution to the problem
  • who discovered the problem
  • who saw an opportunity to solve it

Zoom out from the problem enough and the decision-maker can be pretty much anyone. Even still, I would always give preference to the person or team most affected by the problem.

what is a task force?

In many workplaces, a task force is a committee that’s convened by a CEO or other leadership group (such as a board). They meet, conduct research, and send recommendations back to the decision-makers. What does this group do in normal times? They pool their expertise, delegate tasks, and put forth the best ideas for approval.

I think the task force would be perfect for solving particularly thorny decisions. Being the sole decision maker can feel isolating or overwhelming for some. With a task force, the individual tasks get much easier. Under the advice process, they would devise the best solution and have the freedom to do it.

who should be on the task force?

The people who first join the task force would need to have some connection to the problem they want to solve. Using Bakke’s designation, they would be people from the affected teams or programs. They would be people with ideas for how to approach or even solve the problem.

In particularly controlling environments, leaders might feel temptation to stack the task force. Sure, the CEO or other leaders could appoint to the task force people who have no stake in a solution. In places like that, forming the task force might be the least of your problems. You may need to reconsider the approach altogether. Spend time persuading leaders to support the advice process before you begin.

how would we get started?

I’d start by defining the scope of the task force’s work. Who best understands the issue or has ideas for how to solve it? How well do we understand the problem? The people on the task force would then further draw out the bounds of their work. Each step could start with a quick group discussion before people split off to do their assigned tasks. This group could follow a process that looks like this:

  1. Understand the problem. What do we know? What do we not know? Who do we need to consult with?
  2. Delegate research. Where can we learn more about the problem? Where could we find possible solutions?
  3. Decide who decides. Now that we’ve done our research, are we the right people to make a decision here? If so, who among us is closest to the problem? If we have competing proposals, who will ultimately choose the best one to enact?
  4. Create the proposal. What does the decision maker need to find a solution? Who else can lend advice or time to work on it?
  5. Discuss the proposal. Who do we need to run this solution by? Who else would our decision affect? Let’s find out what they think! Will it work? If not, why not? What would make it better?
  6. Sharing the decision. Who needs to know what we decided? How can we help them put our solution into place? Who will sound the alarm if something doesn’t work as planned?

how big should this task force be?

The task force wouldn’t have to include everyone who we’d need to consult. For instance, there may be legal or regulatory issues that need review. That person’s time may be valuable (in dollars or capacity). A shorter consultation to review the proposed solution would be a much better use of their time.

the fragility of power

Now think of who usually makes decisions like these. Does the CEO not get a say in what to do? Under the advice process, the CEO can and should still weigh in on the proposal. If they see a flaw in the proposed solution, they must still bring awareness to it. When they can’t make a unilateral decision to veto the idea, they have to explain the risks as they perceive them. The task force, once established, has its own charter to make the final decision.

why wasn’t I consulted?

What do people need to feel safe in a system like this? How do they feel supported, and actually support the decision that the task force makes? The advice process builds consultation right into itself. When we explain the process to people, we’re not inviting them into consensus. We seek their input and feedback without giving up our power to make the decision that works best for us.

troubleshooting

How do we move forward when the task force itself can’t agree on the best course of action? Start by getting agreement on who’s closest to the decision. In particularly complex systems, more than one person might claim that role. In that case, invite them to create a proposal together. Borrow the consent decision making process for hearing objections.

What if the decision maker proposes something much more radical than we want to allow? Did they consult you on this first? Did they make that choice anyway? If so, try a round of appreciative inquiry or ask clarifying questions to better understand their proposal. Locate your discomfort and dig into why it feels radical to you. It might not feel radical to others. It might even be the best solution to the problem.

once more with oomph!

The advice process gives us a great framework for making better decisions. Too often people make decisions without feeling the pain or joy of the consequences. A task force working within the freedom of an advice process may be the solution to our biggest problems.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space