Project Practitioners > Avoiding Fumbles

Avoiding Fumbles

By Michael Aucoin

A number of years ago, the Philadelphia Eagles played against the New York Giants in a game remembered for a fumble. The Giants had the ball, leading 17-12 with 31 seconds to go. The Eagles had used all their timeouts, and New York simply had to run one more play to win. For nearly all such situations, the quarterback will take the snap and fall to one knee - a safe call to avoid any handoffs. But this time, the offensive coordinator called for a running play. The handoff from the quarterback to the running back was fumbled. The Eagles' Herman Edwards collected the ball and ran for a touchdown. As sportscasters are known for saying, the Giants snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

On projects, there are opportunities for many handoffs – the transfer of materials, products, information or decisions – as tasks end and others begin. Any such handoff can go well, or as with the Giants, result in a project fumble.

How are your handoffs going?

The primary cause of botched project handoffs is ambiguity – the parties on each end of the transaction have different understandings or beliefs about the particulars of the transfer. In project management, we often focus our attention on defining tasks and give rather little consideration to the transition from one task to another. What often results is a gray area in the transition zone. It’s most common manifestation is confusion over who is responsible for specific elements of each task.

When handoffs do not go well, instead of recognizing the confusion, blame is often cast about. It is important for the project manager to look past the apparent issues of reliability and commitment and see the underlying cause – vague communication. Each handoff in a project is at risk until the parties explicitly identify and agree upon the specifics of the transfer.

To avoid future project fumbles, it pays to get back to basics in communication. A fundamental approach in journalism called the “Six Ws” is just what is needed. In this process, the individuals involved in the transfer meet and agree upon the specifics about the product at the end of one task is conveyed from one party to the other for the start of another task. These specifics are defined by answering the following basic questions.

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Where?
  • Why?
  • How?

The answers to such questions require a balancing act – to be explicit enough to avoid confusion while not so detailed as to be obsessive/compulsive. In some cases, the “What?” that is transferred in the handoff may be stated simply as, “Form MX-920”. In other cases, one may have be more specific, as in, “A completed Form MX-920, signed by the manufacturing and quality control leads”.

In answering these questions, it may be helpful to toss around some trial answers and discuss what each means. Does the answer to “Where?” mean that the subassembly is passed off at station 10 or station 11?

In this way, ambiguity, doubt and blame about poor handoffs can turn into confidence for the project. This Journalism 101 approach to explicitly defining handoffs pays substantial dividends and enables teams to become fumble-proof.


B. Michael Aucoin, D. Engr., PE, PMP is president of Leading Edge Management, LLC and author of Right-Brain Project Management (Management Concepts, 2007). He can be reached at



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