Task Forces – the dark side of project management

Task forces have been established as a fire-fighting measure in project management when projects are in trouble or are seriously delayed. Usually they occur relatively late in the project, when nothing else worked. Interestingly, they usually work relatively well, as they are  given the highest priority. Also, leaders of task forces are often celebrated as heroes. Why am I claiming that task forces are the “dark side” of project management?

An inventory of project management issues

  • The overview of what is really possible is missing (in the single project and over all projects)
  • Employees can’t be increased on short term because everbody is 100% booked. Shifting resources between projects increases the problems.
  • Work assigning resource managers do not have the necessary overview
  • Plans become obsolete shortly after their cration, because they do not consider dependencies on other projects and their delays
  • Project leaders and task force leaders work against each other
  • Targeted focusing is done way too late

Task forces work only at the expense of all other projects! All other projects come under even more pressure and are good candidates for further task forces!

What to do? Break-out from the vicious circle

  • The insight that task forces as a short-term solution aggravate the problem in the medium term
  • Consider the organization as a holistic system
    • Task force managers are no longer celebrated as heroes
    • Break down departmental boundaries (for example, do not see department heads as local principals)
    • From the outset give a clear prioritization and thus allow the focus on the most important things. Thus. the focus of the task force mode becomes the standard
  • Align incentives and reward systems with global goals
    • no competing departmental goals anymore
  • Enable a learning organization
    • be allowed to speak openly about problems
    • Create transparency about holistic organizational goals
    • Create individual responsibility and freedom for change. The employees participate in the decisions.

Result: Employees have no incentives to pursue their own goals

I see three possibilities for improvement:

1. Half the solution (within projects)

  • Assignment of fixed capacities and dedicated time of employees to projects
    • The different team members have a fixed and shared working time
  • No disruptions from other projects and their employees and managers (enables focus). If necessary, agree on a “consultation hour”
  • Transparent visualization of the work on a kanban board
  • The (project) manager clearly prioritizes work packages (clear order of work packages)
  • Allow self-organization of the team
    • Team mebers break down work packages and estimate their size
    • Team members only start working when they are clearly understood
    • Team members select the number of work packages that they will work on next (pull principle)
    • Started work is not interrupted by rule (focus)

Results: Transparency within the project. Team members are earlier involved in planning 

2. A good start

In addition to the above, the following could be done:

  • Presentation of all works at the highest possible level
    • Multilevel kanban board for displaying the workflow and bottlenecks
    • lowest level for teams / workgroups
  • Priorities are agreed and determined at the work package level prior to team work by a manager with the stakeholders
    • Priority changes make it clear what will happen sooner and later
    • If something is to be done in addition, something else has to come out

Result: transparency across all projects. This creates the possibility for synchronization

3. The full and sustainable solution within the organization

  • Create stable teams with (ideally) dedicated team members and all work for the team flows through the single Team Backlog prioritized by the Product Owner (no more project teams!)
  • Cross-functional teams where necessary and sensible: All required skills are in the team
    • Streamlining the interfaces between members
    • less “baton transfers” of work
    • close communication

Result: Many problems can already be identified and solved within the team

Important for all solutions

  • Definition and visualization of the workflow on the kanban board
  • Definition of done
    • What does “ready” mean for every work item type?
    • Definition-of-done must match the ready definition of the following team within the work flow
  • Define and clearly prioritize backlog of work packages
    • open issues and problems with components and interfaces
    • Patterns & TestsAvoid “technical debt” and rework

These techniques not only can treat task forces better, they will make them needless!

Title photo by Natalya Letunova on Unsplash

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