I recently finished the book A Passion for Leadership by Robert Gates. Mr. Gates served as Secretary of Defense for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, one of the few cabinet secretaries in history to serve under both a Republican and a Democratic President. Gates also ran the CIA and was president of Texas A&M University at different points in his career. A pretty accomplished and versatile leader, to say the least. Although this book covers a broad array of leadership topics (and includes some really fascinating stories!), it focuses most poignantly on “driving change.” In my opinion, government and academia are two of the hardest arenas in which to drive change. He was successful in both, so I think he’s worth listening to.
One method that Gates used repeatedly to drive change was the establishment of special “task forces.” His task forces were not committees with unending lives, nor were they just loose groups of people working sporadically on an issue, but rather carefully selected, dedicated groups of people that came together for a season, pursued a mission on a tight time line, made specific recommendations, and then disbanded. He describes task forces as “silo busters,” populated from all different functional areas of an organization. He strove for the broadest possible inclusiveness on his task forces, insisting upon complete transparency and wide open internal debate.
All this is pretty standard, but Gates had one particular insight that I found new and refreshing. “Be wary of consensus!”, he says. Now wait a minute. I thought consensus was a good thing. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Build consensus? “No!”, says Gates, and here’s why. Gates quotes an ex Israeli foreign minister as saying consensus means “everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually.” When the task force keeps massaging an idea or proposal to get it to the point where everyone can sign on, the idea ultimately gets to the point where it’s not objectionable to anyone, but no one is really happy with it, it’s lukewarm, and frankly it’s probably not very good. We’ve dumbed it down to the point where it has no edge, no punch. Rather, Gates says, a task force should have robust, passionate, energetic dialogue, and then ultimately have a method (probably the leader decides) of choosing the best idea without watering it down in an effort to get buy-in from others. Listen to the options, then make the hard call even though someone will be disappointed. And once the decision is made, everyone supports it, whether or not they were for it during the discussion time. A little different than the conventional wisdom about building consensus, but as I thought about it, an idea that really makes sense to me.
Depending on the circumstances, Gates does offer one other option for task forces. If it fits the situation, the tasks force can present two or more distinct options, together with supporting data. This gives the ultimate decision maker a deeper understanding of the issues with which the task force wrestled.
As uncomfortable as it is, change is necessary for every organization. There are many ways to pursue change, but I believe the use of task forces is one of the best. Try it next time your organization needs to make a change, and listen to the wisdom of Robert Gates.