Aston-Blair is a producer of “precious metal alloys and other specialized alloys for commercial and industrial use” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6, 13). At the time of the case, this company is experiencing difficulties due to the economic slowdown that occurred in the early 1990s and the declining price of gold, caused by the start of the Gulf War. At the end of an executive committee meeting, Wynn Aston III, CEO of Aston-Blair, charged Peter Casey, Vice President of Marketing, and Chris Trott, Vice President of Corporate Planning, with examining the company’s forecasting processes in order to achieve better inventory control, financial planning, and improve production scheduling. Aston believed that “poor forecasting was one of several underlying factors contributing to the firm’s poor performance” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6, 13).
Trott and Casey assembled a task force to investigate the forecasting problem. They mandated that the task force would focus its research on the Marketing Division, because this is where the final forecasts for product demand are created. They allocated members to the task force and decided that Michael Bacon, Trott’s special assistant, would lead the task force. During the first meeting of the task force, it was quickly decided that the team should be divided into three different subgroups. One group (Holt and the three product managers) would focus on the Marketing Division, one person (Meir) would focus on gathering data for the new forecasting model, and one group (Bacon, Reiss, and Bodin) would concentrate on the Sales Division’s inputs into the forecast.
The subgroups worked on their analysis to meet the August 4th deadline set by Casey and Trott. Shortly before the deadline, Bodin presented Bacon with a report that exposed some “systematic biases in the Sales Division’s inputs into the forecast” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6, 17). This data was kept confidential and it was decided that would not be presented to the rest of the task force until Bodin could first discuss the data with Jed Burns, his boss. On August 4th, the task force came together to give their presentation to Trott, Casey, and key members of upper management. The first part of the presentation focused on the forecasting processes and was not taken well by the Market Managers. Due to heated disagreements, the group took a break and decided to reconvene at 3:00pm.
During the break, Bacon discovered that Meir had found the confidential report that was given to him by Bodin. Meir was upset because this information would have made his data-gathering task much easier and he also expressed his anger about not receiving support in the morning’s meeting. Meir leaked the confidential information to his boss, Dr. Cornelius, who was about to share the information with Burns, without Bodin’s approval.
The following analysis will analyze the current situation of Michael Bacon before he returns to the meeting. Team MBA Smackdown will act as consultants to Bacon and identify problems, alternatives, and make recommendations for action.
STAKEHOLDERS AND THEIR RELATIONSHIPS
“Stakeholders are groups of individuals or other organizations who play a role in the survival and success of the organization and who are affected by an organization’s activities…”(Ancona, Kochan, Scully, Van Maanen, & Westney, 1999: M-9, 8). There are several key stakeholders in the Aston-Blair case. This section of the analysis will focus on the different stakeholders within Aston-Blair that are directly involved in this case. We will compare and contrast concerns, interests and the distribution of power.
The first key stakeholder is Wynn Aston III. As the CEO and Chairman of the Board of Aston-Blair, Aston’s primary interest is to return the company to a prominent position in the industry and to improve the company’s forecasting capabilities. Aston-Blair was once the industry leader, but due to acute problems both internally and externally the company has lost its position. Aston has appointed two Vice Presidents, Peter Casey and Chris Trott to form a task force to address the internal problem of forecasting.
The next key stakeholders are Peter Casey and Chris Trott. These two Vice Presidents of Marketing and Corporate Planning have the task of assembling a task force to look at the Marketing Division and devise a plan to improve forecasting. Their interests are carrying out Aston’s request for improvement, as well as forming a diverse and productive task force to look at the problem.
Another key stakeholder is Michael Bacon, a member of the Corporate Planning Division and the chairman of the newly formed task force. His main interests are managing the task force and providing Trott and Casey with a viable solution. He has the difficult task of balancing a diverse group of individuals who all have different ideas of on what the goals of the task force should be.
The next key stakeholder is Russell Cornelius, Vice President of Economic Analysis. In the past, Cornelius’ division has played a major role in the company’s forecasting by using their macroeconomic models. Cornelius’ main interest is to make sure his representative, Randy Meir, is able to keep these processes in place and not move the forecasting away from his division. If they continue to oversee the forecasting, this will increase Cornelius’ power within Aston-Blair. Cornelius does, however possess what could be viewed as an ulterior motive. He feels that he should be heading-up the task force since its focus is forecasting, a process handled in his division.
The final key stakeholders are the Marketing Managers. These individuals use data collected from all Divisions to make the final forecasts for product demand. The Marketing Managers have been resistant to change in the past, and feel that the current system should remain unchanged. Their interests are in exerting their influence through their Product Mangers, who are members of the task force, to make sure that the current system remains unchanged.
Other stakeholders involved in this case include Richard Pack, President and COO; Jed Burns, Vice President of Sales; Vicki Reiss, a Corporate Planning representative; Robert Holt, a Corporate Planning representative; Peter Ratliff, Charles Paulson, and David Kolinsky, Marketing Division representatives; Emile Bodin, Sales Division representative; and Randy Meir, an Economic Forecasting representative. These individuals all play a role in the case and their interests are predominately tied to those individuals who appointed them.
Goals are “specific preferences individuals use to evaluate and rank the potential outcomes of a decision or outcome” (Ancona et al., 1999: M-2, 41). The primary goal of the stakeholders involved in this initiative is to forecast efficiently and accurately. Although the end goal is congruent for all, each stakeholder has a different method for reaching that end result.
The first major conflict in the goal to improve forecasting is between the Marketing Managers and Cornelius, as well as the task force. Currently the Marketing Managers make the final forecasts for product demand. This task force will examine their processes and might strip from them the power they hold to make these final decisions. This puts these managers in immediate conflict because their main goal is to not concede this power. It can be determined from Casey’s statement that these individuals will be resistant to any potential change in their current procedures. Casey appointed Product Managers rather than Marketing Mangers to the task force because the Marketing Managers were seen by Casey as “very busy and… resistant to change in the past” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6, 14).
The marketing managers are also in conflict with Cornelius. Under the current system, the managers use forecasts from Cornelius’ Economic Analysis Division to help in their final product demand decisions. One area the task force will examine is whether Cornelius’ Division and their macroeconomic models can provide more accurate final forecasts. Since the Marketing Managers stand to lose their primary responsibility they are in conflict with Cornelius’ theory that his department can handle all forecasting.
Another potential area of goal conflict is between the Marketing and Product Managers. Although they share the common goal of the successful marketing of the products, they stand in conflict in other areas. The main area of concern between these two groups is allegiance. The make-up of the task force has put the Product Managers in a very difficult position. As members of this task force they have been chosen to help solve the problem at hand, an initiative handed down by their Vice President, Chris Trott. They also have the difficult task of satisfying their direct bosses, the Marketing Managers, who want to keep the forecasting their responsibility. The Product Managers will have a difficult time making a fair decision with the political implications of their decisions being so carefully viewed.
Another potential goal conflict exists between Cornelius, Bacon, Trott, and Casey. Cornelius is in conflict with these individuals because they did not choose him to be head of the task force, even though his division currently plays the primary role in the forecasting. Michael Bacon and Randy Meir also have potential goal conflict between them. They have a history of conflict from their work together on previous projects and Meir feels as though he or Cornelius should be heading this task force. The final goal conflict is between Vicki Reiss and Randy Meir. These two individuals are in disagreement as to how the task force should proceed. Meir is committed to moving the forecasting to his division, while Reiss is looking to provide top management with multiple suggestions.
Distribution of Power/Power Dynamics
Power is defined “as the ability to get things done when goals conflict or in plain terms, the ability to get people to do something they would not do if acting alone in their own self interest” (Ancona, et al., 1999: M-2, 42). There are different types of power such as formal authoritative power, control over scarce resources, control of decision-making processes, or even control over specialized information. Power helps us understand who is in a position to instigate certain changes or positively affect the desired change.
The first type of power that is being exhibited in Aston-Blair is formal power. Formal power or position power comes from someone’s stature in the organization. Wynn Aston III and Richard Pack are the primary examples. As CEO and COO, respectively, they are the top management at Aston-Blair.
The Marketing Managers have power within Aston-Blair as well. The position they hold gives them formal power over the Product Panagers who report directly to them. Because they make the final forecasts for product demand, they also hold a certain amount of power because they hold the information about these forecasts. Finally these managers have the power to affect the company’s financial standing since their forecasts are directly tied to the company’s performance.
The task force is in a position where they hold no real power. The task force was formed to examine the current forecasting system and to make recommendations on how forecasting can be improved. While these individuals have been assigned the important task of improving the processes, they have been given no real power to implement any decision they might agree upon.
The final type of power present in Aston-Blair is referent power. Individuals who hold this type of power have a high level of respect from those people around them. They are able to easily identify with people and their positive relationships give them a source of power over their co-workers who respect them. Emile Bodin and Robert Holt hold a large amount of referent power within Aston-Blair. Bacon stated when he was appointed to the task force “Bodin…..was in his late 50’s and had spent almost his entire career in sales……..he, like Holt, is well-liked and widely respected within the company” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6,14). Trott and Casey are also hold referent power. Their positions within the company as Vice Presidents would be very helpful in the successful “promotion” of the task force and the emphasis of its importance and credibility.
The following section of the Aston-Blair Case Analysis will present current problems the task force is facing. This section will help identify the weaknesses and problems that are hindering the success of the task force. Although the task force is faced with numerous problems, this section will only touch upon the most significant ones. The problems identified are the team’s structure and effectiveness, communication, and boundary management. The time frame used to identify these problems includes the first task force meeting, the meeting on August 4th, and the period between the two meetings and after the presentation to the stakeholders.
Team Structure and Effectiveness
One of the major problems facing the Aston-Blair task force is its structure and effectiveness as a team. The team was created to provide effective solutions to the organization and improve its forecasting processes. Originally it was set up to be a comprehensive team, which according to Ancona et al. is “extremely effective in dealing with many other groups, well integrated with other teams and functions through the work-flow network, and is connected up the hierarchy in the power structure” (1999: M-6, 7). Trott and Casey, Vice Presidents of Marketing and Corporate Planning, set up the task force by using very simple methods. The task force included the four Product Managers “who made the final forecasts for product demand,” but not the Marketing Managers who were “resistant to changes” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6, 14). The rest of the members were chosen based on experience and area of expertise.
There are several negative outcomes affecting the team’s present performance as a consequence of the first meeting and first weeks of the task force working as a group. The team consists of professionals who were appointed by the two Vice Presidents and each expressed no real personal interest in working on this specific task force. Each member clearly demonstrates this indifference and even resistance to working in the present team set. This is indicated in the relationship between Bacon and Meir. Their working experience with each other is described as “less then satisfying” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6, 14).
“Team building begins with setting goals and priorities and having team members get to know one another” (Ancona et al., 1999: M-6, 8). The task force members get right into the assigned responsibilities without even introducing themselves to one another. Without much discussion, the task force is divided into subgroups that would take on different assignments and the meeting is dismissed.
Based on Ancona et al., framework for “Tips on Managing Task Forces,” some of the key elements for reaching common understanding of the team’s tasks and goals are “encouraging everyone to participate…, preventing a premature consensus on a solution…, and developing a sense of joint responsibility and appropriate next steps” (1999: M-6, 22). None of these elements were implemented in the first meeting or were addressed throughout the existence of the task force. Another key element of the “Tips on Managing Task Forces” is “setting interim project deadlines” (Ancona et al., 1999: M-6, 22). The task force not only didn’t set any soft deadlines but the first time it reported back to the Trott and Casey was when Bacon, the assigned team leader, “felt that the group had made enough progress to report back to Casey, Trott and the market managers” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6,17).
Another major problem facing the team is its credibility in front of the rest of stakeholders who will be affected by the task force’s recommendations. Some of the more important stakeholders who need to trust the task force are the Marketing Managers and Russell Cornelius, Vice President of Economic Analysis. After Meir’s presentation at the beginning of the August 4th meeting, the marketing managers insisted that they wouldn’t take advice from “Cornelius’ group that can’t even forecast what the economy is going to do” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6, 18). None of the other team members offered support for Meir’s ideas, therefore this incident proves that the task force lacks the ability to defend itself as a team. The task force members are not prepared to defend their own ideas and suggestions.
According to Ancona et al., “Those who do damage need to be courted or controlled; those who have expertise and stake in the team’s output need to be brought into the teams decisions making at the appropriate time” (Ancona et al., 1999: M-6, 8). There is no evidence that the task force has attempted to bring any of the Market Managers or other key stakeholders in this matter, into the process of finding a solution for the Marketing Department’s forecasting. Although the task force is very deep into the process already it will have to take the appropriate steps to convince these stakeholders that the proposed solution is the best solution. It also has to get Casey and Trott involved in this process. The two Vice Presidents are the founders of this task force and they also have the power to develop the group’s credibility in front of the rest of the stakeholders.
Casey and Trott originally created this task force as a comprehensive team that would bring innovations and credible solutions to the company’s problems. However, over a short period of time the task force shaped itself into an isolationist team, a team that has “relatively few external contacts and is not very well connected in terms of power, work flow, or information” (Ancona et al., 1999: M-6, 7). The team’s failure to develop its structure led to low effectiveness and credibility in front of the key stakeholders interested in the solutions that the task force was supposed to deliver. This ineffectiveness as a team led to other problems such as boundary management and the lack of proper formal communication.
Secondary Problem and Problems That Can be Addressed In The Future
The task force is also facing several secondary problems as a consequence of its ineffective structure. In this case the two major secondary problems are the absence of specific roles within the team and the lack of norms. The task force is already too deep into the process of working together in order to change habits and informal ways of how things are handled. Most of the data collecting and analysis is already finished and presented to the stakeholders. Assigning roles within the team would only lead to further confusion and disagreement among team members. Creating norms as a guidance would be also very helpful but not in this specific case because the major part of the team’s work has already been done. The creation of these norms could lead to arguments among team members because of the different preferences each one of them brings into this task force.
A problem that doesn’t have to be addressed at the moment is the team’s diversity. Casey and Trott created a team of some old timers, such as Robert Holt, and some younger employees, such as Vicky Reiss. The diversity of the team was to help the creation of flawless solutions with different aspects taken into consideration. The problem arising here is that the younger members are representatives of higher education where the older members are representatives of years of experience. Friction between the two different types of knowledge could lead to unnecessary argument among team members. This problem shouldn’t be categorized as less important, however, if the company’s overall structure requires team diversity, then this problems is beyond the task force’s capacity to resolve.
Communication and Information Sharing
One of the major problems that the task force faced going into the August 4th meeting was that Bacon, the task force manager, did not properly manage communication and information sharing among task force members. Based on the framework outlined in Ancona et al., “Tips on Managing Task Forces,” one of the key elements for managing internal team dynamics is to “hold full task force meetings often enough to keep all members informed and up-to-date on team progress” (1999: M-6, 22). This element would have been particularly important given the nature of the Aston-Blair task force, since the team had been subdivided into smaller isolated groups to investigate different aspects (sales, marketing, and forecast modeling) of the current Aston-Blair forecasting process.
Prior to the August 4th meeting, Bacon only called the task force to order once to discuss their findings and assess the team’s progress. In addition, not all members were present at the meeting. Meir, who was assigned the task of making recommendations for developing a forecasting model, was out of town collecting sales data. As a result of his absence, Meir missed key information found by Bodin and Reiss regarding what they referred to as “some systematic biases in the Sales Division’s input into the forecast” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6, 17). Information of this nature would have helped Meir in his forecast model analysis and his presentation on August 4th. However, the existence of this data was never brought to his attention even after he express to Bacon that “gathering his data had been a frustrating experience and that he suspected that the regional sales managers were hiding information from him” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6, 18).
Information is inherently viewed as a source of power; those who have the information tend to have the power. Information sharing ensures that the informed individuals are on equal ground. If information is not communicated evenly throughout a team then the balance of power is thrown off and it can negatively impact team functioning and team relations. These problems associated with poor communication and information sharing came to a head at the meeting break on August 4th. Bodin and Reiss had only shared their findings on the Sales Division forecasting biases to Bacon, who based on their recommendation as to the sensitivity of the data, had kept all knowledge of the findings from the rest of the team.
Meir, who happened upon the report at the break, and who was already sensitive and frustrated by the existence of “information hiding” by people outside of the task force immediately went on the defensive. He notes angrily that “Bodin’s data would certainly have made his own task much easier…” and that “he suspected all long that the Regional Sales Managers had been withholding information from him” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6, 19).
After Meir found the report that Bacon had kept from the rest of the team, loyalty and trust among key members of the task force began to dissolve. This is evidenced in Meir’s statement to Bacon “that he was angry that he had not received more support from Bodin and Reiss when the marketing managers had attacked him during the morning meeting” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6, 19). In addition, when Reiss found out that Cornelius had acquired the information from the report she seemed “incredulous at what had transpired.” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6, 20). She was angry that Bacon had violated his promise of confidentiality. Now her once good working relationship and admiration for Bacon was put in doubt. She even threatened Bacon, stating, “if Bodin ended up in trouble because of it (the leak of information), Bacon’s word would not be ‘worth a plugged nickel’ in the future” (Aston-Blair Case, 1999: M-6, 20).
Secondary Problem and Problems That Can Be Addressed In the Future
The task force is also facing some secondary problems arising from the communication issues. One of these secondary problems addresses the lack of brainstorming. The absence of brainstorming affects the teams information gathering and decision-making. It leads to solutions made by only some of the members. The team members were chosen because of their diverse areas of expertise. If each member isn’t given the chance to express his or her thoughts and ideas then there is no point of having the task force in the first place.