There is a design thinking concept we’ve encountered that is simple, but powerful. Once you are exposed to it, you see it everywhere and wonder how you didn’t see it before. The concept has to do with the process of design itself: design is an iterative process of moving from here to there, that starts at point A with a great deal of uncertainty, moves through a discernment process of patterns and insights, and arrives at point B, clarity.
True to the tools used by many design thinkers, we’ve most often seen it expressed in images. You can see one version of it here created by our facilitation partner, Lisa Brawley:
- From starting point A, the first stage is to open: go wide, push boundaries, invite unexpected ideas.
- The middle stage is the time to explore: combine ideas, discover insights.
- To get to clarity, point B, the final stage is to close: organize and choose the best ideas and move forward.
When you’ve arrived at point B with a sense of accomplishment and alignment, there comes a moment to ask “Now what?” Hopefully, the answer is to move from clarity to action with your collaborators in sync.
The purpose of this post is to offer a basic, participatory tool groups can use to plan discrete, accountable next steps. It is a powerful thing to have a group arrive at an aligned vision for what to work on next, but collaboration also depends on people taking responsibility for tasks and timelines. It is necessary to channel enthusiasm and eagerness into actual outputs.
When we break a project down into tasks and create a plan, we move from vision to manifesting our ideas. There is momentum, learning, and tangible progress when the tasks are distributed equitably and with transparency.
Susan likes to say, “Accountability is a form of support.”
Being held accountable to commitments is invigorating when there is a common understanding that we’re operating from trust and helpfulness, rather than pressure and blame. If a member of a working group makes a commitment to an action item, it is motivating to know they are moving forward and have support for completing the task.
We aspire to a culture and practice around accountability that involves committing to a task, trusting others will make their best efforts, and staying connected and supportive. Ideally, we hold ourselves and each other accountable in a context of mutual respect and transparency as we manage our shared work together. We believe this is one of the hallmarks of healthy collaboration. Hence, accountability as support.
When reality intervenes
If we are operating in a culture of empathy and pragmatism, we can acknowledge that the reality of manifesting a vision often has obstacles and unforeseen frictions, and we can prepare for that reality. Our well-laid plans will need to involve a certain dance between sticking to tasks we agreed to, being transparent about what completing them entails, and being open to the unexpected.
In mainstream approaches to managing a group project, where tasks are assigned by a leader and deadlines are imposed, we might feel like we are alone to shoulder the burden of completing difficult tasks. Or perhaps the culture says we should be ashamed of not hitting a deadline or navigating past obstacles. This can be demotivating and demoralizing, leading people to withdraw their effort even if they were committed to the original vision.
We propose a version of task management that is based on shared accountability. Using a simple system, based in transparency, we can support each other to stay motivated and continue to contribute our time, efforts and talents over the long haul.
Benefits to clarity and accountability
There is a huge benefit in being clear about the specifics of tasks within a framework like the W3 tool we share below – a way to track “who will do what by when.” Assigning responsibility for tasks is not an exercise in Big Brother project management, but rather a supportive forum for seeing what is stalled, what is hard, and what someone might need help on. It also provides an opportunity to collectively see and celebrate progress.
A clear task list provides a shared view on what is in motion and how tasks intersect. It ensures work is distributed equitably, each member of the group can craft and consent to their tasks, and help can be offered when a task is falling behind schedule. The goal of accountability over time is building trust and faith in a group’s capacity to work together.
Putting the W3 to work
Something we have encountered is that sometimes we do not look at the W3 between meetings! This diminishes the tool’s usefulness; it becomes a reminder of undone tasks instead of fulfilling its fuller potential to support momentum for the work. We’ve learned that the W3 needs to be coupled with a commitment that tasks land in each group member’s individual tracking systems. Given different working styles, this can vary enormously. Some people are enamored of project management software and naturally think in terms of tasks and deadlines, whereas others keep everything in a notebook or on post-its at their desk. Some are more apt to react and work in the moment and therefore might need the support of reminders or check-in meetings to move things forward.
Over time, it can become a source of tension if differing personal accountability styles result in forgotten tasks or undone work. This is never easy to navigate, but we recommend addressing it head-on and normalizing it as a common human issue. We’ve all been there! As stewards of working groups often composed of volunteers, we want to create a context of empathy for the reality of everything people are juggling in their lives. At the same time, we want to provide a space of supportive accountability that allows everyone to feel like their work matters and they are contributing in a meaningful way to the effort.
The goal is to create an environment of self-responsibility. Depending on circumstances and working styles, people might have different needs to get there. You might decide to implement a buddy system or reminders. Or hold a few minutes at the end of the meeting to review the W3 and give people time to add their tasks to a chosen task management system. Depending on how complex the group work is, and how digitally savvy your members are, you might want to use an online task management tool like Trello.
The ideal solution is that people refer back to the W3 often enough that it sparks motivation to complete their tasks.
Like many tools, task management requires a certain commitment and discipline to be helpful rather than superfluous or, even worse, a source of eye-rolls and anxiety. The W3 tool we share here is user-friendly and can be used effectively in a wide variety of contexts. Enabling groups to see their progress and identify barriers to task completion can help everyone feel energized and on task. Feel free to tailor the W3 to your own needs as your group evolves.