Using Action Teams …

… to Make Quick Progress When First Starting a Strategic Planning Program 

Tuesday, August 14, 2007 

A few years ago, when I first worked at Lexington Community College in Lexington, Ky with Dr. Jim Kerley on designing a new path forward for the college using strategic planning, we came to use a concept we called “Action Teams.”

Actually, I believe I referred to them as SWAT teams — a military and law enforcement term — that denotes the use of specially focused weapons and tactics to solve a problem quickly. Yet, I suspect already you get the idea.

Action Teams are action-oriented in design and by thought.

Actions Teams are set up by charter. That is they have a clearly defined mission, set to a definitive time line, and have a clear sense of what the possible ultimate outcome could be yet they are not confined to a singular outcome.

An example charter might be: “The Action Team will review the curriculum for the nursing program and make specific recommendations on courses that can be used for CEUs with professionals in the community. The team will prepare a set of 10-12 recommendations and deliver it in a presentation to the President ‘s Leadership Team on September 1, 2007.”

Action Team members are a carefully selected group of 9-10 people (occasionally more) within an organization usually chosen by the CEO, President, or leader or “champion” of the overall strategic planning initiative.

Building the team

When choosing members for an Action Team the following positions should be a part of the team membership:

1.      The Champion. Choose a leader of the team that is also a “champion” of the strategic planning process. This is some one who understands and believes that great things can happen when plans are carefully designed, executed and vigorously evaluated. This is a person that is not afraid to question others, irrespective of their rank in the organization, and that thoroughly understands and agrees with the charter of the group. For example, if the charter of the team is to find alternative ways to reduce the carbon foot print of an organization you will want a “champion” that believes in the concept of the organization “going green”.

2.      The Expert or “Know-it-all.” Choose at least one person that will be the SME — that’s a “Subject Matter Expert” — this person knows all about the focus of the team’s charter be it a problem, an issue, or an opportunity — if it is a problem the person also will know the history of the problem or issue and how it came to be in the state it is in. This person knows most all of it and sometimes these personalities are not up to change at all. However, they are a critical component of the team.

3.      The Skeptic. Choose at least one person for the team that is as skeptical as they come. However, this person must understand at the front-end of the mission that they can’t just lob grenades across the fence and then go hide. This person must be open and willing to challenge the group, ask tough and insightful questions, pose different scenarios than those being discussed and be a part of the process by questioning the team. If the person is simply a negative personality that wants to complain and criticize the process find you another skeptic.

4.      The Recorder. This person along with an independent facilitator has “no horse in the race.” This person has good note taking skills and doesn’t edit comments, suggestions, criticisms, or language. They simply record as much of the dialogue in real-time as they can capturing as much of the actual language used as possible on a laptop computer. This file will be used by the team later to assess what is being said and what is not being said during the process. Sometimes the recorder will choose to capture the comments on flipcharts and then transcribe them “word-for-word” on to a word document file. Although this person can and should participate it must be in a neutral and limited fashion.

5.     The Facilitator. Choose a completely independent facilitator. This is someone who is trained in the skills of facilitation yet has “no horse in the race” and “no pre-determined opinions” about the path forward. This person enforces the facilitator and group proposed “Operating Principles”; keeps the group on time and engaged; helps explore differences of opinions within the group; provides a safe environment to question, challenge and discuss differences of opinion; and keeps the group focused on the desired outcome.

These are the key members of any Action Team. To this group you can and should add, members of the organization who don’t fear change, members who are constantly looking for ways to improve whatever task they under take; people who understand the political, social, media or economic environment that the organization exists in.

Other members that could be assigned include diversity of culture, gender, nationality, age, or interests. If you are working a curriculum issue perhaps you want a couple of students that have been in the program and can speak form their unique perspective. Or, perhaps, you want a younger student and an older student to show different perspectives. Or, perhaps a student that took the course on the Internet and one that sat in class.

You get the idea.

Ensuring success of the team 

Always ensure the following when establishing Action Teams:

1.      These teams are short-lived. They come together and focus on seeking a desired outcome. They are not standing committees.

2.      Ensure that every single team member can attend the meetings consistently. If there is any question about their ability to attend find another candidate to assign to the team. Attendance plus involvement will equal a desired outcome.

3.      Ensure that the team has all it needs to get the job done and a pre-determined deadline. This includes space to meet, flipcharts, fresh markers, computers, etc.

4.      Keep a record. A record of all meetings and the outcome of those meetings should be a part of the Action team record so that any future teams can reflect on what was done in the past and how it was done.

5.      Documenting. Insist on a Lessons Learned being conducted at the end of the Action Team charter. Document the good, the bad, the ugly, the positive, the deltas, the specific issues discovered and not addressed by the team because it was outside the charter. Prioritize those issues and send them up the chain of command.

Finally, have some fun at this!

The only constant — change

The only constant we can depend on in today’s society is “change” — we all must work to get over our fear of change, we must learn to embrace it and see what contributions we can make to accomplish a positive path forward.

If we don’t, we most assuredly will be left behind.

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