KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Leading a multi-agency task force: tips on getting things done

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I’d mentioned in a previous blog post about the “UN Transformation Network“, an informal community of like-minded UN employees and consultants whose aim is to connect people and have them learn from and support one another in transformational change. A major activity of this network this year has been the Developing Transformative Leaders Course which has been both designed and delivered through the network and in which I’m a participant and part of the organizing team.

We’ve had a lot of interesting sessions on leadership and innovation as part of the course which has been running over the past 6 months some of which I’ve reflected on  the blog, but I  wanted to share the outcome of an insightful but also very practical knowledge sharing exercise from the last session where we looked at leading without authority. In the UN we’re often called upon to manage inter-agency task forces or cross departmental groups which bring together quite different interests and which are often voluntary in nature and where the leader or coordinator has no formal authority over the group and relies on good will and skills of facilitation, engagement and negotiation to keep things moving. 

Below is a write-up of some of the useful tips from the discussion put together by Patrick McNamara the lead facilitator of the course and Sam Martell, Political Affairs Officer, Department of Political Affairs at United Nations and fellow course participant. I hope you find them useful.

In the Transformative UN Leaders course last week, we explored what works when leading a multi-agency task force. The group came up with insights on delegating, influencing others and getting results when one might not have direct authority to demand results.

We had a rich discussion of possible solutions that included carrots and sticks ranging from “name and shame” to ensuring recognition for individual and team achievement: “you are a star – I will let others know.” We also explored the unique cultural aspects of leading in the UN context and how to create support to achieve success. Here is the case:

“You are leading a multi-agency task force with 20 colleagues from 11 agencies. They are, for the most part, there on a voluntary basis. You have a deliverable required in your key results that can only be accomplished by the task force collaborating. What strategies will you use to influence the task force members in order to achieve the objectives on time? “

Using a collaborative problem-solving technique (small-group and large-group dialogue) we came up with these possible solutions and thought you might find them useful.

• In the UN, there are many soft controls and few hard controls so it can be more effective to “carrots” rather than “sticks” to motivate
• Understand the organizational culture and drivers of the work
• Think about what works on you and how it might apply to others
• Which is the right lever to play when (soft or hard)
• Do not make it burdensome to participate/ pay attention to workload and share in the successes
• Not everyone will be fully committed or deliver the same level of contribution – just deal with it
• Make sure aspirations are in line with commitments and ability to commit (avoid the scenario where everyone shares bold ideas but no one is ready to take ownership to implement them)
• Understand the cultural background of individual group members.
• Ask participants: Why are you here? What do you want to contribute?

• Create a co-chair position
• Create a smaller core group to drive the deliverables

• Delegate, set targets, create peer pressure
• Hold each other accountable (name and shame, “I hold your office accountable”)
• Ask for a commitment
• Align responsibility with tasks and functions (and workload) to minimize burden
• Ensure accountability for responsibilities
– Transparency (who involved, who accountable)
– If not accomplishing, someone else from agency chosen
– Ensure there are consequences

• Individual relationships and commitment – then check-in publicly at next meeting to ensure each step is completed. Or, one-to-one in person tracking of progress
• Create an atmosphere where people want to be there
• Build trust relationships “you are a star” and let others know about people’s contributions
• Share recognition for team achievement
• Play to the strengths (and interests) of individuals in assigning tasks
• Publicly and repeatedly recognize / thank people
• Thank participants bosses and organizations
• Get them to do stuff they’re good at and care about
• Working in voluntary teams needs to be more collaborative so you need to listen/ respect their work and inputs/ ensure they are maintaining ownership more than in regular teams

• Search for like-minded people to create support
• Surround yourself with successful people
• Find an external actor to exert pressure on the group so they commit to the deliverable
• Create space for the project (and for it to move forward) Top-level champion can help


Written by Ian Thorpe

November 14, 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. […] great work from our group of transformative leaders in the UN. Ian has a shared summary on his blog on how to get things done and make things happen when leading a group that don’t formally […]

  2. […] I'd mentioned in a previous blog post about the "UN Transformation Network", an informal community of like-minded UN employees and consultants whose aim is to connect people and have them learn fro…  […]

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