In 2012, I was approached by a large international IT company to get a stalled project team back on track. It was a classic scenario of the difficult handover of a project between 2 teams, one based in Paris and the other based in Delft.

The Delft team recently took ownership of the software application developed by their colleagues in Paris. Now, they have to keep it running, and that is where our adventure begins.


The perfect scenario for a catastrophic project handover

The cooperation between the two teams was not going well. When we came into contact, there were monthly meetings between the project managers of both organisations to align and it was not going well.

I quickly understood what I was facing:

  • No personal contact
  • Cultural mismatch
  • No kick-off
  • Unclear goals, expectations and directions

I know from experience that in multi-site projects it is very important that people see each other regularly, or at least have met each other in person once. This ensures that mutual trust grows quickly. It may sound strange, but having seen each other once makes a huge difference.


The conversation with the program director

When we sat down with John, the program director at the time, to analyse the situation, I asked him how often the team members had met and what results he had achieved during the kick-off of the project.

I was shocked when he said

“Kick-off? They know what to do, don’t they!”

I found that really shocking. The people in the project had never met each other. How could they build trust between each other without ever having seen each other? All communication within the team was by e-mail; meetings were held remotely using the internal meeting system.

According to John, the project was very simple: the software had to be transferred to the Delft environment and the French team had to provide all the support needed to make this process as smooth and fast as possible.


The Similarities between Project Handover and Child Adoption

When I heard John’s story, I was reminded of adoptive parents who had to give up their child.

The French team had put their heart and soul into creating a software product. They were the parents of this product. And now, from one day to the next, they had to give up their ‘child’ to someone else. And they had never seen that person before!

When I described this to John, he immediately understood what I was getting at.

“What would you want to know if you had to give your child up to adoptive parents?”

John replied that he would want to know who the adoptive parents were and whether he could trust them. Now he saw the importance of a kick-off where the team members would meet.


Do in person meetings still bring value for project handover in the zoom meeting era? 

The first question I asked myself was: why was there no kick-off? The answer that I find at least satisfactory is that the search for contact was a kind of grey spot for the program director. After all, not everyone seeks contact by nature. Of all the people I have worked with in the last 10 years, only about 40% are naturally looking for contact.


The two types of people when it comes to making contact

In my opinion, there are roughly two types of people when it comes to making contact – there are of course more, but for this case I will distinguish two – namely the Writer and the Stand-up Comedian.


The Writer

Writers are the ones who make contact when they know what they are talking about. If they feel that they have too little knowledge, they will first look for the missing information before talking to anyone about it.

If they are talking to someone and don’t think they have the right information, they get uncomfortable, as it feels like failure to not know something. On top of that, it makes them feel exposed to rejection. That is why they first look for the (right) information before they contact others.


The stand-up comedian

Stand-up comedians, on the other hand, seek contact with others in order to find out something. They don’t fear rejection or embarrassment, they just for the fastest path to find the information they miss.

When I was working abroad recently, my phone didn’t work properly. I immediately called the helpdesk of my provider to explain the problem. The answer I got from the customer service representative was an epic: “But sir, you could have just found this information on our website!. “I know that,” I responded, “but this is much faster for me.” That shows that I may be more of a stand-up comedian type of person.

The essence of this is that the Writer is quite often much more sensitive to failure and rejection than the Stand-up comedian is.

The magical trust building power of physical presence

We invited both teams to a meeting in Delft. As it is customary in French culture, we provided a good lunch and dinner.

Between meals, we did what should have been done during the kick-off, which was to give the team members the opportunity to get to know each other and talk about the common goal of both teams.

We did not have to do much more than that. Because the team members had seen each other, the threshold for picking up the phone the next time was a lot lower.

From that moment on, the cooperation between the teams went much better. The French now knew that they could trust the adoptive parents and that their ‘child’ was in good hands.

The team members got to know each other a little better that day, which gave them a better understanding of each other and improved cooperation considerably.