Dennis Grady teaches mathematics at Whetstone High School in Columbus, Ohio. Grady is also the track sprint coach, and he has a thing or two to say about sprint relays, and the importance of passing the baton in the correct way. The baton pass matters because the stakes can be high.
"No other country has won more 4 x 100 golds in Olympics or World Championships competition than the USA," writes Grady. "Generally having the world's fastest sprinters is pretty much the reason for our success internationally. That's what makes it so frustrating — to coaches, athletes and fans — when our sprint relay teams crash and burn."
Grady believes most of the crashes and burns are due to poor passing techniques that appear when relay runners must transfer the baton to one another.
"At the 2004 Athens Olympic Games a bad exchange cost the United States men's 4 x 100 relay team the gold medal. At these same Games the U.S. women's 4 x 100 team was disqualified for making the second pass outside the ex-change zone," he said. "Add to this list the disqualifications at the World Championships in 1995 and 1997 for the U.S. men's 4 x 100 relays, and you start to wonder why the athletes with the fastest feet in the world seem to be cursed with the worst hands in the world."
Grady's observations by no means are exclusive to track, since they can affect business, too.
I had an encounter with a major appliance retailer who "passed the baton" to its service organization to install a new washer/dryer I had ordered. The service provider botched the order, a refund for my prepayment was due back to me, the baton never got passed to the accounting department, and it took me three weeks to get a refund. I even tried to call the original salesperson, who in turn tried to engage an "escalation team," but by that time, no one could find the baton.
This is the worst kind of baton drop because the customer sees it and may not do business with your organization again. There are other types of baton drops that occur when different departments and individuals within enterprises must collaborate on projects or important business initiatives.
"We had finally reached a point where we had worked with the end user and had gotten all of the final app checkout done, and we were ready to go," said one developer acquaintance. "We finalized the loading procedure for the application on a Friday, intending for the app to be installed over the weekend so the new app could go live on Monday. Then on Monday, when everyone was waiting with eager anticipation, the app fell flat on its face. Unknown to us, someone else in IT had installed a new operating system patch release, and this introduced all kinds of performance problems into the app that we'd never seen before."
Somehow coordination of effort — and a vital baton exchange — had failed to occur.
How do we avoid these baton misses as IT managers?
1: If you are at a critical project task pass-off point, wait for the other party who must take the project over the next relay link and ensure that a "pass" of project work and goals occurs, even if it isn't perfect. Follow up to provide any missing information that might be needed by other team members — this can make all of the difference when it comes to avoiding frustration and even project failure.
2: When communications in a project break down or slack off (and they almost always will in a project of any duration), pick up the project, and renew whatever coordination or collaboration that is needed to move the project forward. Just because a "handoff" is missed doesn't mean that you can't find a way to bridge the gap and make up lost time.
3: Timing matters. If you're impatient, but the next person in the team to take the project "baton" isn't ready, correct your timing. You also owe it to others to stay on top of project deadlines and to be ready to grab the baton when it is handed to you, because in the end, the baton passes in project work have to be effective for the team to reach the finish line.
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.