Collaboration has progressed from a buzzword to an article of faith in today’s organisations. Books talk about how to do it better and tools claim to make it ever easier to share ideas and plan projects. But what task are you collaborating on?
Something so simple, and yet something so often neglected—how to properly define a task. If you want to markedly improve productivity without anything other than the content of your own mind, it will pay to pay attention to the proper definition of a task.
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
But first, let’s get our language standardised. We have no issue when applying our minds to the hard sciences about the need for precision in language. A volt, an ohm and an ampere have very precise meanings and can be measured in a consistent way at any point in time and in any given place. Whether you have travelled to the moon or are in Outer Mongolia, at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean or the top of Mount Everest, the meaning and measurement of these physical properties of electricity are always the same. So, what about the terms we use when we go to work? What is work? How is it different from a task? How do you measure it? Is it similar in any way to the definition used by physicists: the product of the force applied and the distance over which it has been applied?
The late Elliott Jaques spent a lifetime using his professional skills as a psychoanalyst to give us an entire framework for understanding work in a way which allows us to derive tremendous value. It forms a part of his major contribution to the field of organisational design, Stratified Systems Theory, which he codified in his book Requisite Organisation. In that book, he gave us the following definitions:
Task: An assignment to produce specified output (including quantity and quality) within a targeted completion time, with allocated resources and within specified limits (policies, procedures etc)
Role: The position occupied in the organisation
Work: What the person has to do in order to achieve the task: use judgement and make decisions in overcoming obstacles
The focus of this article will be on how we go about defining a task, consistent with Jaques’s framework. Having the discipline to correctly and fully define a task is a prerequisite of achieving the ideal of what I call Just Work—that everyone has the right to be well managed. Amongst other things, being well managed means that people have a right to understand the context of any given task—how it fits into the bigger picture and what difference it could make to the longer horizon.
It is critical for them to know why you are calling for the task to be done. What is the purpose of the work in every circumstance a task is assigned, whether to shovel a piece of dirt or develop a new mine? What outcomes are you looking for when you issue the instruction, in terms of both the quality to which it is to be produced and the quantity required? Is it a single prototype to be used in a proof of concept or is it a final design for mass production of the first million units? What resources will be required to complete the task, be they human, material, financial or information? And by when would you like the work to be completed?
The answer to these questions represents the minimum necessary set of instructions required for anyone to reliably and successfully complete tasks assigned to them. They can be summarised in the acronym CPORT or:
C – Context
P – Purpose
O – Outcome in terms of quality and quantity
R – Resources
T – Timing
In my experience, people are quite poor at providing clarity on each of these dimensions. In addition, whilst each is a necessary condition for successfully assigning a task, individually they are insufficient to ensure consistent outcomes. Only once you have considered and communicated each dimension can you claim to have fulfilled your obligation to the idea of everyone having the right to be well managed.
Jaques discovered that complexity is correlated with the time horizon of the task being considered. These horizons can be arranged into time spans that reflect the cognitive ability required to effectively complete the given task. With each horizon, there is a distinct mode of thinking that is as different one from the other as ice is from water and water is from steam. A feature of the CPORT is that it can be used to define a task at any of Jaques’s levels of work.
The table below shows the horizon of work, the level (what Jaques calls a stratum), the mental process involved and the related position in the hierarchy of a commercial or military organisation:
You will notice in the table that the mental processes repeat themselves from stratum V to stratum VIII. It is analogous to a note played on the piano, followed by one played an octave higher. They both share fundamental characteristics but are nevertheless different in their nature. This is because the object of the mental processing has moved from the task of the individual as a unit within the stratum to the single business unit within the larger enterprise.
From stratum I-IV, the mental processing is largely symbolic and verbal and addresses the specific case in hand, such as the business or military unit. From strata V to VIII it is conceptual and abstract, meaning that the thinking generally involves the class of problem being solved and how the specific instance can be understood as but an example of the general case.
Here’s one for someone at stratum one:
Inspect and repair pump #1234
Context: As we operate a plant which requires fluids containing corrosive mineral elements to be pumped around the purification circuit, we need to regularly maintain those pumps to avoid unplanned breakdowns. Our reliability engineers have determined the optimum interval for inspections of all pumps and developed a task list to repair or replace them if they are at the end of their planned life or if any faults are found.
Purpose: The purpose of the task is to ensure the safe and reliable operation of the pump.
Outcomes: The following outcomes are required for this task.
Resources: The following resource will be required to complete this work.
Timing: The inspection and repair of the pump must be completed no later than 25th July, 2019.
By way of contrast and as an example, what might a stratum four CPORT look like?
Context: Our engineering division, has a record amount of capital spend over the next five years for sustaining, improving and expanding the business. As an organisation, we are not very good at running our capital projects to deliver the full scope, on time and on or below budget. As the biggest asset in the business our division will lead the adoption of TOC, given its proven ability to deliver superior outcomes to any comparable method. For many years we have struggled to effectively use the pool of engineering resources we have in a way that does justice to the demand generated by both technical queries and capital projects.
Purpose: The purpose of this task is to secure the long-term benefits of using TOC as a competitive operating philosophy for our business.
Outcomes: The project will be run in accordance with the newly released corporate standard for projects and project management. The first phase, pre-feasibility, will require the following deliverables:
Resources: The following resources will be required to complete phase one of the work.
Timing: Whilst it is expected that EngCo will be able to achieve the quick wins achieved by most companies who adopt TOC, our intention is that this endeavour is for the long haul. We therefore expect the new TOC system of engineering management will be fully mature within the next three years. That is, the standard operating procedures will have been documented, and people will have been educated and trained to the level required by their roles. Online and class-based training will be available as well as a suite of quick reference guides (QRGs). We will have integrated our variety of vendors and business partners into our new ways of working and will be a learning centre of excellence for the broader Eng Holdings business.
In summary, at all levels of work, we have:
Context: How does this work fit in with the big picture?
Purpose: Why is this task or project necessary? What do you want to achieve with it?
Outcomes: You’re probably familiar with SMART objectives: Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic and Time-bound. (The A and R often stand for different things: achievable/agreed, say, or relevant/reasonable. The SMT are universal.)
Resources: What human, material, financial and information resources do you need to achieve the outcome you desire? How much estimated actual touch time, by resource?
Timing: If your outcome is SMART, timing will be included. But, how much calendar time will the work take. When will be required to finish it?
Like Jaques’s time horizon strata, the CPORT is also fractal; it works for everything from small tasks to large projects. So, the next time you’re briefing someone—even for a smallish task due, say, next week—ask yourself if you’ve been as clear about the context, purpose, outcomes and resources as you’ve been about the timing.
Making the CPORT standard procedure also encourages written requests. For small tasks, sent by email, you may decide you don’t need explicit CPORT headings. But do mentally check you’ve covered them. You’ll often discover you’ve been assuming too much on the part of your recipient. Much better to make your expectations clear than just chat it through and hope for the best. If you want a high-quality result, set yourself up for success at the outset.
My book, More Than Just Work, distils my thinking about three decades of managing work. It’s edited and proofed—and looks gorgeous—but my editor and I are calling it the ‘advanced reader’s copy’. Soon, I’ll incorporate a few suggestions from some early trusted readers and make some changes based on new ideas I’m discovering.
You can buy my book (with free shipping anywhere in Australia). If you do so now, I’ll send you the next edition for FREE later this year, bundled with the ebook and audiobook versions.
[Background photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash]
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