The Huddle/Break Problem

Have you ever played a game of Football (Yes American football, not soccer :P) , where everyone comes into the huddle, and the quarterback says something along the lines of “Ok, you’re going to run diagonal, you’re going to run straight and then cut right, and then you’re going to go straight for the end-zone — got it?! BREAK!” And then once the ball is hiked, the plan somehow flies out the window and everyone runs in their own direction irrelevant of what was discussed in the huddle?

Similarly, I see this same problem happen all the time in business after meetings and phone calls. While on a call or in a meeting, everyone is on the same page. Ideas are discussed, plans of action are created, everyone knows what they need to do, and the plan is set in motion. The excitement is palpable for the execution on the way.

Yet somehow, one week later, many of these items were only half completed and eventually everyone ran off in their own direction. How the hell did things happen like this?!

I’ve seen this in my own company, and I’ve talked to others and found that this is common across organizations of all sizes, irrelevant of the stage. However, I do feel that this is especially true for early stage startup companies that don’t have strong systems of documentation and processes in place quite yet.

The reality is, many times what is discussed in a meeting or phone call isn’t always acted upon, or is acted upon incorrectly. It’s what I like to call the “Huddle/Break” problem. People discuss ideas, fail to document them properly, and then simply run off in their own direction and forget all about what they were supposed to do.

I personally think it’s human nature. People don’t want to do what is asked of them, they want to do what they find most interesting. They put off the boring things, and go after what excites them most. Especially in the context of a meeting or call, if what is said doesn’t strike a particular chord with the individual, it will most likely get brushed under the rug in your never ending to-do list of things to accomplish.

I also believe that people write things down based on how they understood them, rather than based on what someone actually asked. Take any interview for example, someone can answer a question in a certain way but two people can interpret it differently and write down two different responses. Although someone said something the same way to both people, the way in which it was recorded is different.

Similarly, in a meeting someone can ask you to do something, and you can say “got it.” That person now believes that you understood what was asked of you, and you believe you know what you need to do. Next thing you know a week passes and the information is complete, but done completely differently than the person who asked for it had originally envisioned. Funny huh?

Although two people can believe they are on the same page, without fully walking through every step of the process you can find out that people are actually miles apart. This is especially true when it comes to non-techies working with engineers, and vice versa. Give a product requirement that isn’t fleshed out in every way possible? Expect a headache when you get it back.

What is the solution? Documentation + Followups = Accountability.

It’s important that you not only document what was said, but also document points of action with incredibly thorough steps and procedures, and then hold each other accountable through followups for what was discussed over a call/meeting. If two weeks go by and you notice that what was said over a call wasn’t acted upon, you have to follow up with that person and make sure it gets done. Otherwise, people will all eventually veer off in their own directions and do what they want. It’s human nature.

It’s also important that we have room for “audibles” as well. In football, you can walk up to the line of scrimmage and see that the defense is going to rip your play call to shreds. In this moment, it’s important the QB has an audible he can throw out so that the team can change their plan and execute on a new one.

Similarly, we need audibles in a business context when things can’t get completed properly or on time. We need contingency plans. If a week goes by and you aren’t able to get done what was promised, or need to change the plan entirely due to a new set of circumstances that have arisen, you now must call an audible and change what you promised you would do.

Now, communication is a huge aspect of audibles. I’ve seen people make excellent audibles, but not tell the rest of the team. The downside to this? If an audible is made without communication, it just seems like that person has veered off in their own direction with the rest of the team saying “where the hell did he go?!”

Audibles are great — It means that you have noticed that the plan you are about to act on won’t work, and you have figured out a better way for to handle the oncoming onslaught — but if you make an audible without telling the rest of the team, your QB will get blindsided and perhaps suffer from a concussion :P

Hopefully this problem I have experienced with my own team will help you to stay focused, stay organized, and stay accountable to each other. It will help you all to remain on the right track, and get done what needs to be done. It will help you to work better as a team, and make sure that you get all of the touchdowns you need for your business to survive.

Thoughts? Comments? Stories experiencing similar problems and what worked for you? Let me know!