Can a Task Force Rescue Your Failing Project?

We’ve all witnessed projects in trouble-the ones that required a quick and firm intervention in need of help from a task force to bring it back on track.

No executive wants to be in such a difficult situation, especially not with one of his or her own projects.

But how do we, as the executive sponsor, handle saving a troubled project? Can it be as simple as mandating a task force?

Let’s start with exploring what a project task force is and when it could be useful.

A project task force starts with a mandate given by the organization’s project sponsor or senior leadership to an experienced leader with the goal of finding the best option for resolving a particular problem in a very short amount of time.

A task force team is a small group, usually four to twelve people, that brings together a specific set of skills and experience related to the problem at hand.

A task force is a useful management mechanism that should be only used in exceptional situations. It generally requires disrupting other project activities and deploying the best people to solve the problem under possibly highly stressful and energy-depleting conditions.

So how do you handle this?

I have been part of several task forces and have led a few as well. I have had both good and bad experiences. In order for task forces to be effective, you will need:

A Clear Mandate: It needs to be communicated to all stakeholders that the project is in task force mode, as well as who is leading the task force (see next point). You will need your stakeholder’s help in receiving quick turnaround times on information requests and decisions. You will need the best people in your organization for your task force team, so people need to understand it is urgent and important.

An Experienced Leader: It can either be a senior project manager or a leader experienced with crises situations. Single leadership is the key to getting the job done! The last thing you would want is having two or more leaders debating how to drive the task force; one person has to call the shots.

An Expert Team: The task force leader will need to quickly assemble an expert team, formed with the best people who have the required field expertise to quickly understand and resolve the problem. The smaller the team, the easier it is for the task force leader to motivate and steer the team towards finding the right solution.

Laser Focus: The particular problem the task force is working on has to be clearly defined and known to the entire task force team. The objectives they will be working on also have to be clear to everyone involved. Several other project issues may come up along the way, thus, to be effective, the task force must remain focused on the specific problem.

Executive Support: At times, the reason a task force is needed in the first place is due to internal politics and resistance to change. One of the worst things that can happen to a task force is that they have no backing from their leadership to cut through this.

Expectation Management: Many times, a task force can improve the status quo significantly, but you should not expect miracles. Further, you should strive to not communicate your desire for miracles upfront. Make clear to everybody that the goal of the task force is to find the best possible solution under the given circumstances.

A Short Time-Frame: Given the urgency and the high level of the task force team’s energy, they are only effective if conducted in a short time frame (a matter of days, or a few weeks). If efforts go on for longer, it is likely not a task force, as the energy and effectiveness will lower over time.

Simple Logistics: Due to the intensity and possible stressfulness of the situation, task forces require an isolated project space-or war room. This space needs whiteboards to facilitate brainstorming and for capturing the results of the task force (notes, action items, assumptions, decisions, solutions, etc.). Yes, we all learned during COVID-19 to cope with this remotely, and yes, for international teams, it is not always feasible either. But trust me, in a time of crisis, it really works better this way.

Solution Options: The task force’s outcome should include one or more options that lead to a solution to the problem, including a recommendation for the best option. This option, even if it is technically the best that the expert team can recommend, might not satisfy the risk appetite of the person or organization that has mandated the task force. Therefore, every option should also provide the related pros and cons.

Qualified Assumptions: Beware of unqualified assumptions. If the identified options are building upon assumptions that are not fully validated, highlight the risks or needs for confirmation before making a final decision.

A Clear Ending: To end the task force, its leader and the expert team will have to reduce the complexity and summarize the outcome of their work (options with pros and cons, along with assumptions and their risks or opportunities). Ultimately, the task force leader will communicate the outcome, confirm the decided solution, and conclude the mandate of the task force.

If set up and executed properly, a task force can be an effective tool to resolve crises situations in projects.

Typically, these situations occur relatively late in the project when nothing else has worked. Interestingly, they usually work relatively well, as they are given the highest priority.

Due to their ability to solve such issues, task force leaders are often celebrated as heroes.

But task force teams work only at the expense of all other projects! All other projects endure even more pressure and are good candidates for further task force teams. Thus, they should be deployed wisely.

In a nutshell: A task force can be an effective tool to rescue failing projects if set up and executed properly.

Originally published at https://www.henricodolfing.com.

I help C-level executives in the financial service industry with interim management and recovering troubled technology projects.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store