Handoffs: Handshakes or Hugs?

“It fell through the cracks.”  How many times have you heard this explanation when something went wrong?  A 2011 study showed that 35% of medical errors were caused during “handoffs”. What would a study like this yield in your workplace?

Consider the classic case where NASA lost a $125M Mars orbiter because NASA used the Metric system and Lockheed Martin was using English units.  Both parties completed their work accurately, the problem was in-between. How often have you traced the root cause of an issue only to find out it was no one’s fault, it was a misunderstanding between 2 people or teams?

Where are the “cracks”?  
The cracks happen anytime you have a handoff, a dependency or coordination between people or groups.  

Most of the time at work we focus on the work units to be completed.  We define them, we track them, we deliver them. When in fact, most of the failure, the opportunities, and the risks happen in-between the work, the handoff.  Lean-Agile promotes the reduction of handoffs, which is a wonderful thing, but in large, complex work you still have handoffs. Even on a small team, there is some handoff.  Let’s take a look at how to reduce the risk in those handoffs.

Traditional management seals up these cracks with “handshakes”.  Modern management creates more of what I’m going to call a “hug”.  That sounds really new age, doesn’t it? A handshake implies a very targeted, transactive exchange.  Whereas as hug has a wider range of possibility, more connection points. Some hugs have more connection points than others. When my friend Karen hugs me, she connects all the way down to our toes.

There are a lot more connecting points than there are work units.  Which is why we have such complete uncertainty when it comes to delivering anything.  Agile teams have compensated for this by forming teams. But they struggle with dependencies outside the team.  They compensate for that by building connection point forums like the scrum of scrums and portfolio teams.

General Stanley McChrystal wrote a book called Team of Teams where he describes how he compensated for this problem of connections by holding daily calls, up to 7 hours long with hundreds of people on the phone.  This solution is better than what they had in the past and made huge strides in connecting people and work. It’s cumbersome and time-consuming, but until someone finds a better way, it’s the best we have.  

What if we shifted our focus to spend the majority of time on connections and very little on work parts?  In today’s typical corporate culture, this might be assessed as spending time on administrative tasks and not work.  Six Sigma would label this “non-value add”. Would the outcomes differ?

In today’s complex world, it’s impossible to manage the parts.  All we can do is build connections.

Here are some things I’ve seen work in building connections.

Expand the possibilities of the connection.  Stop handshaking, start hugging.  I don’t mean this literally but literally is fine too.  What we mean here is when 2 groups meet to coordinate, don’t limit the scope to the task at hand.  Broaden the discussion to include other opportunities and risks. Spend a little time exploring the relationship.  Don’t take this too far into analysis paralysis and useless work. You want just enough discussion to loosen the reigns of the task, establish some common goals and dream a little together.  A great time to do this is at dinner.

Day-long, Face-to-face meetings, including dinner!  Yes, breaking bread together builds connections.  I had a team once tell me, “we went out for drinks one night and I don’t know what happened but the next day our productivity hit high gear.”  They built connections.

Did you ever notice how a day-long face to face meeting puts you light years ahead of where you could get from months of phone meetings, emails, and status reports?  Why is that?

I often hear the sentiment after face to face meetings that “a month’s worth of work just got done.”  People grumble about taking time to meet face to face, but I’ve never seen it result in waste.

Daily Meetings.  In Agile this is known as the “Daily Standup”, it’s 15 minutes where the team talks about what’s important and what’s blocking them.  Expand your Daily Meeting to encourage the phrase “here’s a crazy idea”. It doesn’t matter what format you use, simply connecting frequently will yield benefit.   

Get to know people.  Companies used to have things called “company picnics” and “company outings”.  I don’t see much of that anymore. Today’s world seems to be largely transactional. When you boil everything down to a transaction, you miss the rich possibilities in the connections.  Create opportunities for people to have a shared experience. Look for possibilities in the relationship beyond the task at hand.  

What have you seen work/not work in your organization? Let us know!