“Listen, I would love the reorg to work. But I just can’t trust them.”
I had called Mary* as part of my preparation for an offsite with the leaders of a fast-growing financial services firm. Mary was talking about the newly reorganized HR department.
Before, when she could trust them, Mary had a dedicated HR person — Lucinda — to address her needs. But now? Now she had to call a shared services group who were, collectively, responsible for following through on her requests.
“Why can’t you trust them?” I asked.
Mary had a hard time answering. It wasn’t that they had failed to deliver — but she was pretty sure they would. With so many different people involved, how could things not fall through the cracks?
“The more people juggling,” Mary told me, “the higher the risk of someone, somewhere, dropping a ball.”
True. But there’s another, more positive, side to group juggling: the more people juggling, the more likely someone, somewhere will be able to catch a ball that an otherwise busy, overwhelmed individual would have dropped.
“How do we keep them accountable?” Mary asked, still uncomfortable. “At least with Lucinda, responsibility was clear.”
Mary had a point. Which got me thinking: when does a ball usually get dropped? I thought of all the mishaps, mishandles, and mistakes I had witnessed in the past month and realized they could all be traced to a single point in time: the handoff.
For the most part, problems didn’t arise because of incompetence, laziness, or disinterest. They arose because of poor communication. At the moment two people were discussing what needed to get done, something, somehow, went awry.
The solution can’t be as simple as one point of contact because, in a large, complex, global organization, one point of contact is never simple. The solution has to be even simpler than that. It has to work with one point of contact or many. It has to work across the hierarchy, across departments, and across all silos.
As I finished my pre-offsite interviews, I made a single request of each leader: read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.
A physician and writer, Gawande describes doctors who resist the checklist — it’s too simple, insulting even — and then shows us how hospital staff who follow a checklist save more lives than most medical “miracle drugs” or procedures.
Gawande makes a strong case for why experts need checklists, especially for the most mundane of tasks. The more expert we are in something, the more we take things for granted, and, as a result, miss the obvious.
Most of us think we communicate well. Which, ironically, is why we often leave out important information (we believe others already know it). Or fail to be specific about something (we think others already understand it). Or resist clarifying (we don’t want to insult other people).
Thankfully, there’s a simple solution: create a checklist and use it during every handoff.
During the offsite, the leadership team looked at where problems happened in the past and where they were likely to happen in the future. Almost all were during handoffs.
So we developed the following mandatory “handoff checklist” — questions that the person handing off work must ask the person taking accountability for delivery:
- What do you understand the priorities to be?
- What concerns or ideas do you have that have not already been mentioned?
- What are your key next steps, and by when do you plan to accomplish them?
- What do you need from me in order to be successful?
- Are there any key contingencies we should plan for now?
- When will we next check-in on progress/issues?
- Who else needs to know our plans, and how will we communicate them?
Time it takes to go through the checklist? One to five minutes. Time (and trust) saved by going through the checklist? Immeasurable.
We came up with this checklist because it addressed the most common reasons for dropping balls in this particular organization. Your handoff checklist may be different.
Here’s what’s compelling about an established checklist: it not only reduces mistakes, it reduces the need for courage.
Why would we need courage? Imagine you just finished explaining the priorities of a project to someone. Wouldn’t it seem a little patronizing, a little insulting to their intelligence, to ask them to tell you what they understood the priorities to be?
With an established checklist, it’s no longer offensive; it’s standard. And when they answer, often with a slight misunderstanding of the priorities, you can correct them on the spot, saving them two weeks of misguided work and the loss of trust that goes along with it. That’s the power of the checklist.
A few months after the offsite, I called Mary to ask her how it was working. Was the new HR Shared Services organization delivering? Did she miss Lucinda?
“Sure I miss Lucinda,” she told me, “but I don’t need her.”
Then she pulled out her checklist to make sure we were both on the same page for our work going forward.
*Names and some details changed