How we relay information to keep things running smoothly

The clean hand-off principle and the default action principle: how we communicate efficiently and keep things moving.

Communicating takes up a large portion of the workday for our SOUTHIES, and the quality of that communication has a direct knock-on effect on the rest of our work. Supplying our clients, and colleagues with information that can be used as efficiently as possible and clearly informing each other what we’re up to are extremely important practices. We use two key principles – clean hand-off and default action – to make sure we’re doing this.

Communicating efficiently: the clean hand-off principle

Our clean hand-off principle is all about how we present our communications to the recipients. To understand what we mean by this, consider the relay race at the Olympics – the team with the fastest runners won’t win if they drop the baton, wave it around awkwardly or fail to pass it on cleanly, forcing their teammates to slow down, turn around or pick it up. The most efficient team wins – and that’s exactly why we always prioritize a clean and efficient communication “hand-off” over a speedy one.

In Don't Make Me Think, Steve Krug explains how to build software products or websites for others to consume and benefit from, and so they should be created in a way that allows them to achieve their intended outcomes. At SOUTHWORKS, we apply the principles outlined in the book in our communications. To do this, we follow a few simple rules:

  • Set the stage for the recipient, laying out any decisions with reference to the information and research you’ve used, sharing a link to any original sources for others to assess for themselves.
  • To ensure a clean hand-off, only share the information you want the recipient to have.
  • Send a complete message that stands alone – with a beginning, middle, and end and the key messages prioritized – in other words, “don’t make me think”! Highlight what the recipient needs to know, what they need to read to understand it, and explain your decision, action, or the situation you’re relaying.
  • Don’t look too far back when giving background information, just explain what the recipient has to know in this case.

What’s more, words can easily be misinterpreted, and if we don’t get straight to the point then the message is open to interpretation. Just like the baton in the relay race, the information you’re sending only goes one way, and not only will it be passed on to others, probably changing hands multiple times after your last sighting of it, it will likely be built upon and embellished as it goes. If you’ve ever played “Broken Telephone”, you’ll know that a message can be lost or its meaning changed as it’s passed on. The best way for us to avoid this situation is to be as clear and concise as possible to begin with.

We always think of the next person when passing on information – that means asking questions like what is it, where did it come from, who else will see it, and how will they use it? We need to give the recipient all they need, anticipating their questions and requirements. For instance, if the figures and details in our messages might end up in a report, we need to ensure that they’re accurate.

Going to this length might seem like overkill to some, but we don’t think so – in the long term, it will save everyone time checking, following up, and worrying about the accuracy of the information. We want to adjust our mindset from being selfish to being a team player, from saying “this is my message that I want to get across” to seeing it as the foundation for something bigger – again, just like the baton in the relay race! The same usability principles we apply to our products are also relevant in our communications. We’ve talked previously about how communication is more than half of our work, and in that sense it’s at the core of our products – which is exactly why high-quality communication is so important to us.

Keeping things moving: the default action principle

Another communication principle we live by is the default action principle. Especially with a written message, there’s the time when you send it and the time when it’s consumed, and oftentimes our customers don’t get back to us the same day – the default action principle ensures we don’t get stuck when this happens. The idea is pretty simple, and it’s a fundamental part of our async philosophy  – when sending a message, we also explain what we’ll do if we don’t hear back.

Why? Because we’re committed to proactivity – waiting for an answer goes against our value proposition, so we offer our default decision, explaining how and why we’ve come to that conclusion, and keep things moving for our customers. By asking them what to do, we’d be asking them to do our job for us, which goes against our culture of autonomy, and we’d also be wasting time doing nothing until we heard back. For us, that’s the beginning of the end – that’s not what success looks like.

Default action plays into our “own it, bring it, prove it” values. Part of owning our work is to treat it as if it’s as much our own project as it is the customer’s. In our world, especially when we’ve communicated our decisions clearly, no news is generally good news, so applying our default action develops trust. When we take initiative, the outcome is always positive as we’re making progress one way or another. If our customers don’t like what we propose, they can change it – and naturally we’ll follow that course – but at least they know what we’re thinking. If it turns out that we’re not on track with our initial decision, we’re still winning because we’re learning more about how our customer is thinking and what they want to achieve, which will help with our future decisions too.

We want to be easy to work with, to make it easy for our clients to succeed, and to be “the help that doesn’t need help”. By investing in how we communicate at SOUTHWORKS, we achieve progress and take ownership, which ensures that we deliver strategic quick wins, acceleration, and scale for our customers.

Our communication principles give us a defined framework that helps us make sure we’re passing on the right information, in the right way, at the right time. Find out more about SOUTHWORKS culture and our ways of working on our Careers page.