Cornerstone of Task Leadership Starts with Task Analysis

 Strategy & Transformation

By Jack Murphy

There is no limit to the effort organizations and leaders put into improving organizational leadership theory and practice. The age-old challenge of collective effort – often referred to as project or program management; task leadership – is continually scrutinized, refined, and rethought. In the industrial age, organizational leadership kicked into high gear; in the information age, the art and science of organizational leadership are evolving at warp speed. Consider the proliferation of methodologies introduced over the last 50 years to improve collective efforts across a wide range of governmental, industrial, and creative enterprises:

  • Management By Objective
  • Work Breakdown Structures
  • Agile, Scaled Agile
  • PRINCE2
  • Combine
  • Lean

This organizational leadership evolution reflects the boundless human capacity for creativity and drives improvement to meet today’s challenges.

Interestingly, regardless of the approach taken, at the heart of any successful organization’s efforts is task leadership – organizing and empowering teams to accomplish a common goal. Successful leaders consistently demonstrate several fundamental skills. These are defined in three simple categories:

  1. Task Analysis – understanding the task at hand, being able to visualize the desired end-state, whether it is a product, a new organization, or a new order of things.
  2. Task Organization – Organizing the team and its resources (including time) to achieve the task at hand, economically and efficiently.
  3. Task Completion – Leading the team through the effort, which entails communicating, empowering, guiding, and adjusting individual and collective energies while remaining focused on the desired end state.

In this three-article series, we dive into each of these cornerstone activities of task leadership. Each of these skills requires the organizational leader to bring a range of tools, techniques, and processes to the task regardless of team member composition, resources, or the task itself.

Working towards the end state with task analysis

Leaders are challenged to establish and communicate a shared vision of the end state. Before any resources – including people and time – can be reasonably committed to the effort, stakeholders, task leadership, and team members must establish “what right looks like.” Even with seasoned, competent team members, the organization of the task analysis process requires fundamental leadership skills.

My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.” – Peter Drucker

The Task Analysis Working Group has defined task analysis as “the study of what an operator (or team of operators) is required to do, in terms of actions and/or cognitive processes to achieve a…goal,” in their book A Guide To Task Analysis. This is an admittedly concise definition, but task analysis can be a daunting intellectual exercise.

Skilled task leaders can envision the desired end state and break it down into workable terms for the team. Even the most well-thought-out strategies are nothing more than interesting discussions until broken down into workable components. It is equally essential that the leader be able to both visualize and communicate “what right looks like.” This usually involves the ability to:

  • Understand the stakeholders – these may be customers, constituencies, leadership teams
  • Understand the product or goal, with measurable outcomes
  • Understand the organization’s capabilities
  • Develop a broad approach, bound by the “iron triangle” of delivery, cost, and schedule
  • Rapidly integrate to become a contributing member of the team as quickly as possible

The task analysis process requires a blend of understanding, curiosity, and communication techniques. Truly skilled organizational leaders will blend “fresh eyes with experience,” viewing the challenge with the proverbial open mind but understanding the industry, market, and the broader organizational mission and culture. They will also be prepared to engage the stakeholders at the earliest possible moment in the lifecycle of the project to:

  • Ask leading questions
  • Suggest general approaches and methodologies
  • Articulate a vision that confirms “what right looks like”

Trusted advisors

Engagement is most successful when there is a level of trust and familiarity between the stakeholders and the organizational leader. The most effective organizational leaders historically enjoy a “trusted advisor” relationship with stakeholders. They know that an understanding of the end state is critical before transitioning to the task estimation step and may employ a wide range of techniques to validate this vision. These include pragmatic methodologies, organization-specific task analysis tools or templates, or simply outlining a vision and submitting it to stakeholders for their validation. Ultimately the skilled organizational leader knows that this critical step must be complete before initiating task estimation.

Task estimation

While task estimation is often a mix of science and imagination, the contemporary organizational leader can leverage a wide range of task analysis and estimation tools and enablers. The truly skilled leader has a toolbox of multiple techniques and knows which one is most appropriate for the task at hand.Estimation Techniques

Understanding and integrating the stakeholder’s decision-making processes, resource constraints, and strategic goals will factor in this selection, but task estimation is a fundamental task leader skill, often honed over time and informed by both success and failure.

At this stage, the skilled organizational leaders’ greatest deliverable is known by many names – work breakdown structure, project plan, product roadmap and so on – but it will be the first articulation to the team of the desired end state.

The following case study considers the various aspects of task analysis and applies them to a real-world success story.

Case Study – Accelerated Platform Migration.

Objectives

The data management business unit of a large manufacturing organization realized that it would need to transition rapidly from an existing commercial off-the-shelf platform to an updated data storage technology. The migration itself would have been challenging enough with ample time and people resources; unfortunately, neither was available for this decision.

Task analysis impact

Our task leader quickly organized a conference that included key stakeholders, including business decision-makers, supporting team leaders, and most importantly, the team members who would ultimately be responsible for carrying out the migration tasks. Over a two-day series of meetings, the task leader engaged each stakeholder group individually and collectively confirmed what success looks like. Using simple questions such as “How will the successful migration impact your short, intermediate, and long-term business goals?” and “What are end-user access requirements [to the data] during the migration?” ensured everyone knew “what right looked like.”

While the task leader was engaging key stakeholders, he asked the migration team leads to assess the scope of the data to be migrated to gain a measurable metric for estimating the level of effort.

The task leader then gathered the entire team and, with stakeholder priorities and requirements laid out and confirmed and the initial scope estimate available, engaged all the members to solicit their input for two critical decisions:

  • Selection and application of an estimation technique (analogous estimation was selected)
  • Confirmation of a broad approach.
    • Note: while the task leader suggested several options to the team on how to approach the task, he was careful to remain open to a variety of approaches, and as long as these did not violate stakeholder requirements and overall data migration goals, he encouraged and supported team development of the final migration plan.

Concurrent to this discussion, the task leader continually compared technical requirements with team capabilities to ensure resources and skills matched the emerging general approach.

Finally, as the team agreed to an overall approach that met the iron triangle of delivery, cost and schedule, the task lead translated this approach into a written plan to communicate to stakeholders at this point in the task analysis process. The task leader had a particularly challenging communication requirement. He had to :

  • Obtain stakeholder commitment for resources
  • Clearly define risks and assumptions in terms that can be understood by the stakeholders
  • Set reasonable expectations (for both stakeholders and team members)

Benefit

As the task lead communicated the key elements of this approach, he also began articulating a vision of success to the team, instilling confidence that the selected approach was feasible while even thinking through the next step – organizing the team for success.

 

In our next article in the series, we look at task organization, “organizing the team and its resources (including time) to achieve the task at hand and economic inefficient manner.”