When some teams of high performers don’t quite gel, it’s due to breakdowns in communication. Each member may have the strengths required. They may mean well. But they’re not working well together. Look to the points of intersection, the hand-offs for the fix.

Recently, I was at a concert reading for a new musical. At one point, there was an awkward pause. It seemed like one of the actors had forgotten his lines. But it was a reading. He literally had the full script in front of him. Then it dawned on me. The director had had another actor modify one of her lines. The actor looking awkward hadn’t forgotten his own lines. His cue had changed and he didn’t know it.

You’ve seen the same thing with missed passes in sport matches and with missed cues, passes and hand-offs in organizations. A perfect pass is only perfect when paired with a perfect catch.

The old total quality SIPOC tool applies. It suggests that all work is a process with inputs from suppliers and outputs to customers.

Supplier => Input => Process => Output => Customer

Assuming you’ve got the right people in the right roles with the right direction and training, breakdowns happen at the hand-offs. Things go badly when the supplier is not clear on what inputs the process owner needs at what time in what way or when the process owner is not clear on what outputs the customer needs at what time in what way.

SIPOC works for those collaborating, but not necessarily as a team. One tool that can make the hand-offs work better is briefing documents. Briefing documents help clarify specific, one-off deliverables. Time invested in briefing documents and specifications reduces errors and re-work from missed hand-offs later.

General briefing document

  • Lay out the context for the work, taking into consideration customers, collaborators, capabilities, competitors and conditions as appropriate.
  • Clarify the objectives, fitting specific project objectives within the organization’s overall purpose to make it clear how this work fits within the broader picture.
  • Be definite on policies that must be followed and guidelines that may be followed in guiding how the work is completed.
  • Specify mandatory executional elements and deliverables.
  • Agree timeline for what gets delivered to whom, when, and how.

It’s different for teams. The fundamental difference between a work group and a team is that members of a work group, like a law firm, may or may not collaborate on any specific work. Each member is fully capable of completing their own work. Members of an interdependent team cannot complete their work without help from other members on the team.

For example, the case team within a law firm may consist of a client relationship partner to work with the client, a researcher to investigate things, and a litigator to argue the case in court. These three have complementary strengths and must work together.

Teams with strong tactical capacity can work under difficult, changing conditions to translate strategies into tactical actions decisively, rapidly, and effectively. These teams empower each member and communicate effectively to come up with critical solutions to the inevitable problems that arise on an ongoing basis and to implement them quickly. Their hand-offs are flexible, clean and decisive.

Strong teams

Work together to build a common understanding of the context for the work, taking into consideration customers, collaborators, capabilities, competitors and conditions as appropriate.

Co-create shared objectives, fitting specific project objectives within the organization’s overall so all know how any work fits within the broader picture.

Have a bias to flexible guidelines over hard and fast policies that must be followed so they can adjust to new learning on a continual basis.

Put themselves in each other’s shoes as they think through executional elements and deliverables.

Generally operate well in advance of timelines for what gets delivered to whom, when, and how with clean, almost seamless hand-offs.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #657) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.

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