Passing the Baton

Coming into the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, the American 4X100 relay teams seemed like a lock to win gold. The women’s team had recently posted the best time of the year and had their eyes set on a new world record. The men’s team boasted some of the fastest 100 meter sprinters in the world. In the end, though both teams came up short. The men finished second. The women didn’t even finish the race.

The deciding factor in both races? A botched hand-off. You see, in relay racing, passing the baton is everything. A smooth hand-off takes timing, skill and communication between the runners. A smooth hand-off helps maintain speed as one runner takes over for another. The slightest hiccup can be costly.

The men’s team was certainly faster than their competition. But they hadn’t practiced passing the baton and didn’t communicate well. The poorly executed hand-off put them in third place going into the anchor leg. Maurice Greene ran an incredible lap, quickly moving into second place. He was about to pass the leader but ran out of track. Britain’s team beat the United States men by one one-hundredth of a second.

The women’s relay team took three attempts to pass the baton following the race’s second leg. By the time they got it right, they were outside the allowed hand-off zone and were immediately disqualified. They could only watch in tears as the other three teams finished the race without them.

Four years later, the USA teams looked poised for a huge comeback. But apparently neither had learned their lesson. Amazingly, both the men’s and women’s 4×100 relay teams not only failed to pass the baton, but actually dropped it. Once again, they’d underestimated the importance of the handoff.

Now think about your team. How well do they pass the baton?

I’ll bet you have some star players on your team. But it doesn’t matter how much talent you have on board if the hand-offs aren’t smooth. Do you lose sales because of poor communication between front-line and support staff? Do your customers get frustrated because their issue takes too long to resolve? Do projects get stalled because someone doesn’t know when to let go of or accept the baton? Does the competition seem to beat you in spite of inferior talent or products?

Here are three steps for improving your hand-offs:

1. Identify the hand-offs that are critical to your business.
Ask yourself (better yet, ask your team) these questions:
~ Where does the sales/service delivery process most often get stuck?
~ What are the biggest sources of customer frustration?
~ Why does it take so long to get ______ done?

2. Determine the best way to execute them.
~ Map out the process as it exists today.
~ Zero in on the steps that cause the delay/breakdown/frustration.
~ Map out a new process to eliminate/improve the problem area.

3. Practice, practice, practice.
~ Communicate clearly how hand-offs are to be conducted.
~ Make sure every player on the team understands their role in the process.
~ Hold team members accountable for executing the process as communicated.

Everyone wants to be on a winning team. Your customers are no different. Make perfecting hand-offs part of your game plan and they’ll reward you with a gold medal.

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