The Effective Huddle
Teams that don’t talk together cannot live up to their potential. If you want your staff to work as a team, the daily huddle that includes every member is essential. A series that encompases the whole organization generates the pulse that brings informational lifeblood to everyone. And anyone whom this daily pulse does not reach will likely be alienated, unengaged and disconnected from the organizational information flow.
Many organizations seem to neglect this practice, adopt it haphazardly, or struggle to recognize that ineffective huddles are a symptom of deeper organizational problems. Just as we don’t stop a human’s pulse because it is weak, irregular or throbbing, so also we need to improve rather than abolish the practice of the daily huddle.
Organizations that master the daily huddle typically enjoy a 25-40% boost to productivity. Along with establishing highly efficient and transparent handoffs, the daily huddle is foundational to organizational discipline and is an essential ingredient of high performance.
The daily huddle impacts us in three fundamental ways:
- We do better. It forces us to think about what we do, plan ahead, analyze completed work, share it with our colleagues, thus promoting the cycle of continuous improvement, discipline and understanding. Because everyone knows what everyone else is doing, there are fewer unnecessary workflow interruptions during the day. Enriching the work rhythm with a daily huddle increases awareness and reduces operational risks. Simply implementing this habit vastly improves productivity and strengthens all other performance improvement initiatives.
- We learn. The daily huddle develops and maintains the capabilities of every team member. To participate in the huddle everyone has to plan, organize and analyze. Everyone has to talk and listen, improving communication and empathy skills. Everyone can learn from others’ experiences. The huddle is an excellent place to develop and maintain soft skills in a friendly, controlled environment: the habits of listening respectfully, speaking concisely, planning, thinking things through, and learning that account for the vast majority of each individual’s positive performance. Perhaps most importantly, everyone has to learn to assess their own work, and have their assessments be calibrated by their colleagues. Feedback, or even the anticipation of feedback, is a powerful mechanism for learning.
- Everything becomes transparent. When we systematically interact every day, we get to know and trust each other. We see who is struggling and who is doing well. In a matter of weeks it becomes clear how each person contributes to overall team success. We notice when someone’s performance drops off, or when team dynamics are less than optimal. All the ailments of a team become readily apparent and this can provide an opportunity to start addressing them. This last part is particularly painful, but it beats just letting the problems fester.
Each of these impacts is worth its weight in gold, and the best part is that the impacts support each other to unleash even more positive change.
Below are the keys to an effective huddle:
- Pick a time of the day that works well for everyone on the team.
- Invite the right people. Only have the people who should have a reason to care about each other’s work. Who are the people you really work with? Sometimes they are not in your department. Sometimes they are not even a part of the same organization. While checking in with anyone, even a complete stranger, if done daily, is powerful. It is much more powerful when you do it with people whose work really impacts you and who are impacted by your work. It’s not important that they understand the technical details of your job, just that they want to be aware of how you are succeeding.
- When possible, keep it small. It is better to conduct three huddles of five people than one of 15. Even if you as a leader have to go to three huddles instead of one, chances are each meeting will be much shorter and the quality of communication will improve. Better yet, have each team conduct their own huddle, then have a representative from each team huddle with you.
- Keep key individual contributors who don’t want to take the time to become aware of team events out of huddles – these people can be rapidly debriefed one on one before or after the huddle to optimize their time.
- Make sure that all levels of the organizational hierarchy are a part of a huddle. Huddles are a particularly effective way to manage and develop entry-level staff, who are most in need of feeling connected to the larger team and to the organization’s goals.
- Make sure everybody talks. Start from the most entry-level members on the team and work up to the leader. This insures that everyone is heard and no one is too intimidated to share their view. The leader learns what the team is really thinking and everyone has a chance to get a leader’s feedback on their thoughts.
- Format. The leader can open the meeting with objectives and news for the day, then each person presents. At the end, the leader presents their own priorities and outcomes, as a regular member of the team. If there are any guests, visitors, or upper management that drop in to listen, they don’t have to share but can be given a short word in the end.
- Structure communication. This ensures that we hit the main points without getting bogged down. Each team develops their own structure over time, adjusting for desired time and depth expectations. It is up to the leader to communicate how much information and in what format each member presents. It’s good to experiment with these elements:
- What were you able to accomplish?
- What did you do outside the original plan? How could you have anticipated these activities better?
- What were you not able to accomplish? What prevented you?
- What worked well during the previous day? How can you keep doing more of that?
- What was the success of the day? Don’t brush off small successes: cheer each other on, one small victory at a time.
- What would you do differently?
- What did you learn yesterday?
- Who was the leader/champion of the day? Why? Whom to thank? For what?
- Plans for today. Eventually, we want to have the key daily activities pre-recorded, so a person only comments on how they will do the most complicated part of today’s work and what help they need.
- For bonus points, each person should self assess how well they did the previous day from a standpoint of business impact, personal learning and accuracy of planning. Recording these values publically allows everyone to weigh in on their perception of their accuracy and creates a trendline that helps a person review their long-term performance.
- Make it visible – pick a public place to conduct the huddle. Walkways work really well because they keep people standing and this discourages speakers from taking too long. The notes from the meeting stay visible throughout the day on the wall in the hallway and any time anyone wants to learn about the daily priorities and concerns, they can see them. Lunchroom or any other place where people naturally congregate is a a great place.
- Write things publically. This is perhaps the easiest and most important practice to implement. When we talk, people capture 5-10% of the communicated information. Yet, when we start to write or sketch together, we not only vastly improve our retention, but even the speaker gets instant feedback on how others understood what they said. Project what you type on a screen, take turns at the whiteboard, scrawl on a napkin. It does not matter, so long as we are writing and drawing where everyone can see what we are talking about. Write things down. If it’s not important enough to record, it’s probably not important enough to discuss. Write down commitments, outcomes, recognition of colleagues, and questions and concerns. Not only does this increase engagement and understanding, but the commitments that are publicly recorded beside the name of the person whose task it is, with that person able to improve the phrasing and everyone able to ask what each commitment means, are much more likely to get carried out in a way that represents the consensus understanding of the group.
- Notes on the board should include a) assessment of fulfillment of prior objectives and commitments, b) priority activities for the day, c) gratitude toward colleagues and success stories.
- Ideally, the assessment for any non-menial task should not be binary (did/didn’t do), but rather % or quality based, with a summary of overall daily performance as % of plan and % of satisfaction with outcomes. Each member should also be ready to answer, if asked, what practices from the prior day worked well and they will continue doing and give one example of something that they would like to do differently/better.
- A list of up to three things that are most critical/desirable to get done beyond everyday processes, including improvement and working on a mastery of a particular skill or habit. Each member should be ready to answer how they will do a key task for the day in a safe and efficient manner, including how they will prepare for and follow up on the task.
- An example where a colleague’s behavior helped the team be successful, or something that the member figured out and wants to share with the team. Any successful outcomes, or events like birthdays and holidays, are also appropriate here.
- Help people record their commitments in a way that makes them actionable, measurable and realistic to complete within a day with the resources they control. Use the SMART acronym to help form better commitments.
- Use of parking. Any tangent or rabbit trail that comes up can be written down on a separate page and handled outside of the meeting. Any questions or discussion can be done after the huddle with those for whom the topics are relevant. This is particularly important when not all parties are present to have a meaningful conversation or there are people present who don’t need to be a part of that conversation. Any time anyone goes off topic, record the tangent in a “parking space” and invite them to come back to the topic after the huddle to select the best time and place to work through the issue in question.
- Don’t be afraid if the first couple weeks the huddle feels awkward or too long. You are finding your groove. Don’t stop asking the question of what worked well and what you would do differently after each meeting. Focus on quality first, then, once the quality is decent, keep compressing the meeting time to really get efficient.
- Keep it short and sweet. Once the basic flow of the huddle has been established, use of timer as a way to discipline everyone. It’s important to only do that once the flow is established, to tighten it up. Otherwise, quality will suffer.
- Adapt the practices to the context of each team. Keep it organic.
- The same person can participate in multiple huddles if they are a part of multiple teams, supporting horizontal, vertical and cross-organizational information flow. Remote locations conduct huddles via internet or phone. When the real-time huddle is impossible, even an asynchronous huddle or one-on-one debrief produces many of the same benefits.
- Coach team members outside the meeting. Especially in the beginning, many team members will need coaching to polish their participation. It’s a big time commitment, but it is an investment into organizational effectiveness. The same lack of skills and communication problems existed before the huddle; the huddle simply made them visible. This function can be largely outsourced to professional coaches.
- It is hard to assess your own performance while performing. Yet, it is essential for improvement. One practice that helps is using a checklist to review the way the huddle went. Ideally, someone who is experienced in conducting huddles can calibrate what you saw in your huddle dynamics. After you reach consistency in huddle assessment, you can more confidently trust your own assessments to keep improving.
- Stay disciplined and don’t be discouraged. New habits take a while to form and even longer to engrain. Once they do, they are that much more valuable because of it.
- Begin with outside help. You would not start on a new physical fitness regime without an experienced personal trainer by your side just because you read a list of recommendations for getting it done. You would not quit if it felt awkward or did not feel comfortable the first time you did an exercise. Team communications are more difficult than physical exercise, so make sure you are working with a trained professional, to get optimum results.
- Prepare thoroughly. The power of the team huddle comes from taking a few minutes to reflect and plan privately beforehand. By writing out key points in a place that will be visible to the team, you save time and make your communication more effective and confident. Develop the habit of preparing. Each team member, including the leader, should update their public display before each meeting, saving the meeting time for commenting and making adjustments based on team feedback. This board becomes a great place to show executives, guests, and visitors, helping to explain visually how your team works.
- Upper management can occasionally drop in during the huddle or have a team member brief them during the day to assess the quality of the huddle and the flow of information.
- Value the huddle. Don’t view the time for the huddle as a time away from work – assume that every bit of useful information that you would otherwise learn throughout the day, or not learn at all, is worth at least 10 minutes of your time. If you learned one thing you broke even; if you learned two, you are ahead. If you learned a dozen, you just got two hours back in your day. Even if you did not learn anything at all, but were able to reduce the number of unplanned interruptions that you would experience during the day by one, you have already more than recovered the time invested in the meeting.
- Recognize the team and the journey of improvement that you travel together. Take time to review how people and processes changed over the past 6 months or year. Document individual and team success stories and make them visible.
Organizations that excel in communication flow use the same basic principles for weekly, monthly and quarterly gatherings. They often practice regular visits to the huddles from other teams, to cross-pollinate and build relationships, or to have upper management drop in to check the quality of multi-layer vertical communication. Even the quality of shift and process handoffs is largely controlled through the daily huddle.
With huddles, team and organizational performance is a journey, not a destination. With this properly laid foundation, all other organizational improvement efforts become easier to accomplish and sustain. Getting this right is the key to a healthy and productive organizational culture.
If you are ready to begin, let’s make sure you do it well. Call me.
Oleg Tumarkin, CEO Americas
Global Performance Improvement, Inc.