Managing Change & Conflict through the Task Force Process

Most families have ongoing projects and policies that are handled in regularly scheduled meetings. But some challenges, like internal conflicts or major transitions, are better handled by a task force–a smaller group, working together in a focused way for a limited time.

Task forces usually take on a discrete agenda to address one-time needs, unlike a family council that has a repeating schedule of tasks they perform on an annual or biannual basis. Task forces can be used to address making a change in your family, a change in a policy or establishing a new process. Task forces are also effective for managing conflict, and they promote engagement deeper into your family instead of having a highly engaged family council doing all the work. A successful task force looks beyond the usual suspects who do the biggest share of the work, pulling people in from the larger family to get them engaged and get their input on the process. It’s a great way to build buy-in from the family as a whole. By inviting people to join a task force, you’re demonstrating that you’re using an open, transparent and inclusive process. Even if someone chooses not to participate in the task force or isn’t able to find the time, an invitation shows them that their opinion is valued.

Setting up a task force is fairly straightforward. First, the family council determines the topic and solicits volunteer participants. A series of conference calls or emails narrows down the scope of the task force, and sets the agenda and timeline for the group to deliver its recommendations to the family council and family assembly. A key to a successful task force is to determine in advance when you want to roll the final recommendation out to the family assembly for approval. Then work backward to determine when the concepts should be introduced to the family assembly for review and feedback, when the family council should see it and provide feedback, and how long it will take to draft. Working backwards from your final goal helps determine the call or meeting frequency leading up to the request for ratification. Some task forces can complete a task in 6 weeks or so, and require only a couple of phone calls to get the job done. Some take longer. If you’re changing a major policy, it can take an entire year before you’re ready to come back to the family assembly and present results.

It’s important for the task force to avoid laboriously drafting new policies. Many families spend a lot of time drafting documents. Inevitably, the larger group will ask for major revisions, and if you’ve spent a hundred hours getting the language just right, it can be very frustrating to go back and change the underlying concepts. It’s better to sketch out the important concepts first in bullet points, and present it to the family council for feedback. With bullet points, you can actually change the concepts in real time while you’re presenting the ideas to the family council. Once everyone has agreed on the general concepts, it doesn’t take long to flesh the ideas out into full-blown policies. Powerpoint is an excellent tool for this as it can incorporate images and shapes to help convey the ideas.

After you set the timeline and agree on a method of work, you have to establish how you’re going to get agreement from your family. Will the group’s recommendation be presented to the family in a meeting, or via online tools like WebEx or join.me? Webinar tools are useful when it’s impossible to get everyone in the same room, and if the task force has been drafting ideas in visual software, like PowerPoint, it’s the work of a minute to share the documents with the rest of the family. This makes it easy for a task force to get the larger group to agree to things even before the process is complete. Before you do a formal roll-out to the family, you want your family already to have seen drafts and provided feedback. When you’re creating the timeline for the task force, make sure your family has time to see the work in progress once, twice, or even three times, depending on the complexity of the issue. That way, when you do your roll-out, everybody has already seen your proposal and provided feedback and you’re ready to ratify it and move on. The key to a successful family meeting is to make it a boring one with no surprises. Everyone at the family assembly meeting should have already seen the work of the task force several times and have had an opportunity to provide feedback along the way.

The task force process can go a long way toward smoothing over conflicts within the family. If you are rolling out a new policy or process, you may know that there will be one or two people who will take issue or have a problem with the proposed changes. You can count on them to be really passionate about the issue at hand. Make sure they’re invited to join the task force and encourage them to participate. The invitation is half the battle. If they can’t participate because of other commitments, share the task force’s ideas with them in advance through phone calls and webinars, and get their feedback as you go along so you’ve already incorporated their opinions and issues into the solution. Getting their thoughts right up front eliminates some of their resistance later in the process, and they become a proponent, rather than an opponent, of whatever change you’re trying to introduce.

Engagement is one of the biggest challenges facing every family, and the task force model can help. The group that makes up your family council is fairly static. You see the same people every quarter. By opening up your task forces to other family members who are not part of the family council, you’ll benefit from additional voices and build relationships beyond the council. The best way to build relationships in a large and complex family is to build working relationships. By working together, you become much closer as a family. Task forces are also a great way to build the family’s skills and help identify people who might be groomed for leadership. Task forces help build that all-important deep bench of talent within family.

Delegating some tasks to a discrete task force strengthens the family council’s role within the family and within the business. Participating in task forces helps family members understand what the family council does, without their having to make a full-blown commitment to the family council in order to learn about its inner workings. Many talented and skilled members of the family can’t be family council members because of the stage they’re at in their lives. But they may want to do more than come to a meeting once a year, and they may want to leave the door open to join the family council in the future. Participating in short-term task forces is the perfect way for the family to benefit from their strengths, and for them to feel more engaged with the governance of their shared legacy.

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