Preparing to launch an initiative? Avoid common and costly errors by asking one question at the outset: Process Task or Talent Task? This is a simple way to make everyone more confident in the outcome. I learned this from Peter Drucker and have used it often to troubleshoot how to address a problem. I thought it would be good to share with you because it is effective and also boosts employee motivation in a subtle but important way.
Drucker described that there are some problems/opportunities that can only be addressed by putting together a small team of people with specific talents: This is a Talent Task. He noted that there are other problems /opportunities -– usually those that where the answer must be implemented through lots of people at various levels of knowledge – where you need a process: This is a Process Task.
Ok, this is logical and everyone is probably nodding or even nodding off at this point. But wait. The important insight is this:
When you try to solve a Talent Task with a process, or try to solve a Process Task with talent, you fail. Aspirin is great, but not when what you really need is penicillin.
Example 1: Strategic planning. At HP in the 90’s strategic planning was a highly structured and well-documented process. Each year, massive numbers of large meetings were held to ensure that everyone was involved and bought in to the strategy. It was the “thundering herd” approach to strategy development. Huts were leveled, large distances were covered, the process was followed, but the correctness of the end-point was, well, mixed. Strategy is a Talent Task. There is a need for information and engagement from many people and solid processes for that should exist. But the critical framing of the strategic issues, the evaluation of alternatives, and the ultimate application of informed intuition to choose a truly strategic and competitive strategy should be done by a small set of people with those skills and responsibility. Good strategies do not automatically pop out the end of a process.
Example 2: Contract Review Team. My company had decided to offer a new service: Third party maintenance. Since it would require new responsibilities in the field, management hired experienced field managers to review and approve contracts before we accepted them. Soon, there was a bottleneck of contracts pending approval. Why? The processes for delivering the new services were incomplete and there was no established way of building them, so the contract reviewers were not approving any for delivery. The Talent applied was necessary but not sufficient. The real problem was a Process Task: Establish a process for building balanced sales and delivery capabilities to serve an increasing number of attractive contracts.
Watch for It
Once you start thinking in these terms you see the mismatches around you. How many times have you seen a big, systemic problem addressed by the naming of one person who “will focus on it”? One feels of them. How many times have you seen a recurring problem tackled by successive internal task forces that clearly could use (or be replaced by) an injection of talent — someone who is a real expert on the matter? As a colleague, Tom Redder, used to say “You don’t get wisdom by pooling ignorance”.
Which gets me to the Affective Action part of this. I’ve noticed that employees intuitively understand this Talent Task vs. Process Task difference. They are demoralized when opportunities and issues are not addressed with the right approach. Their own careers or products and in the balance. For this reason, employees buy in more readily and whole-heartedly if they see the right approach being used even if it means that they are not as directly involved.
Are there other examples of cases where you have seen the Talent approach is better, but Process used – or vice a versa?