Handoffs are Not a Bad Word

I had a great conversation last week with someone taking a leadership course. (Not one of my courses. His instructor wouldn’t talk to him!! He’d seen one of my posts and emailed me. Of course I talked with him.)

He was confused by the word “Handoff.” He thought it meant that people hadn’t done their job and other people had to cover for them.

Sometimes that happens. But more often, handoffs occur when you bring people together in a complex project or program, and they deliver their parts to make it a whole.

Here’s the analogy I created for him during our conversation. Imagine you’re a chef at a famous restaurant, creating a great dining experience for your customers. You have the meat chef, the potato chef, the vegetable chef, the sauce chef, and you, the lead chef, all bringing the dinner together for the customer’s delight.

Not all meals need a lead chef, but sometimes they do. In this example, they do. Why? Because my colleague has a new team of volunteers who don’t know how to perform their tasks. He is the master chef. He’s not command and control. But he needs to show them the first few times how to put everything together. Does this sound like some new-to-agile teams, working with a coach, to you? The coach isn’t a master chef. The coach is a facilitator. It’s a little different. Okay, back to our example.

My colleague, in his role as master chef, asks each chef to handoff their parts to the plate. (Integration to the software people.) As master chef, he would do the clean-around-the-outside-of-the-plate thing that master chefs do, add a sprig of herbs, handoff the plate to the server and now the plate goes to the diner for a delightful culinary experience.

As the people in the kitchen evolve, they don’t need the master chef to supervise them, do they? No, they become a self-organizing team who can do this by themselves. But, they still have handoffs, because the meat chef still focuses on meat, and the potato chef still focuses on potatoes, etc.

In kitchens, chefs are trained to be generalizing specialists. In software, we aren’t always trained. But we can learn, if we want. We can pay attention to the handoffs.

In an agile team, especially with continuous integration, we don’t notice handoffs. Continuous integration makes handoffs trivial. If we work together to achieve a feature, as in swarming or mob-programming, we don’t even have handoffs.

In a non-agile or when you don’t have software, we want to know when the handoffs occur, so the team can synchronize around them. In a geographically distributed team, we want to highlight the handoffs, so we know what to expect and when.

Handoffs aren’t bad. It’s how we manage them that can make them good or bad.

4 Replies to “Handoffs are Not a Bad Word”

  1. Hi Johanna,

    With teams that depend on eachother, I have already proposed teams to create a set of integration tests that tell the creating team what they should make. That way the handoff was more specificly designed up front.
    It made dilivery easier: when our test work: you can deliver it to us. We kept a local version of the tests in our own buildsystem.
    That way we made expectation management much more explicit. And easier to deal with from both sides.

    Yes the recieving teams did not always like to create these test. (Actually before doing, they hated the idea) yet once they saw how it imporved the quality of what they received + their own understanding, it was quickly adopted.

    What do you think of these a handoffs?


    1. Yves, integration tests make it test-driven. It’s a lot easier to know what your handoffs are when you have criteria. Yes, they are explicit.

      I like it for software very much. I bet it was hard at first, for the receiving teams. They had to work, instead of to talk 🙂 But it made the handoffs collaborative, which is a much better idea.

      Gee, now you have me thinking, how can I make handoffs more collaborative in more circumstances? Thanks, Yves.

  2. I really liked your kitchen example. I thought of Iron Chef America show and how a team of chefs creates a culinary masterpiece within a pretty tight time box. And that is very Agile. Great post! Thanks! – Alex

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