Lessons from the 4 x 100

The American 4 x 100 meter women’s relay team was favored to win Olympic gold in Rio in 2016. But in an extraordinary qualifier where women from eight nations blistered a quarter-mile track in 42 seconds, the Americans dropped the baton on the second exchange.[1]

Years of preparation and sacrifice. Peerless athleticism. In a flash they were out of it.[2]

And so it goes with many excellent organizations. In the best of intentions, among highly educated and prepared leaders and team members, bad handoffs kill. Boards turn over. Staff turns over. Major vendors turn over. Somebody doesn’t get the word. And something doesn’t go right or at all. People who plan and prepare and drill and are held professionally accountable for handoffs in one part of their lives nonetheless miss the connection in another part, putting whole enterprises and significant resources at substantial risk of failure. Or at least making success much more difficult.

Drops are almost always the result of bad or nonexistent planning, or ineffective communication. Often, as in Rio, external forces play a role. In Rio, a Brazilian sprinter bumped Alison Felix who dropped the American baton.

What factors contribute to baton drop risk in organizations?

·       Fear. Of looking bad. Of making someone else look bad. Of not knowing or, worse, appearing not to know. Of asking the wrong question. Fear in an organization derives from an absence of trust among its participants.

·       False assumptions. This is the way it’s always been done. They know. They should have known. They got it done. Maybe unrealistic and undocumented expectations. In passive-aggressive cultures, they should do it without being asked and should be allowed to fail. A lack of a sound strategy and a documented plan is the most common symptom, followed by the lack of training on it.

·       False confidence. I’m the only one that can do it. Nobody else knows or can possibly understand. It’s too sensitive. Or, planning this sort of stuff is a waste of time. True fact: it’s not all about you.

·       External pressure. We were distracted. I couldn’t focus. Didn’t see it coming. Not enough bandwidth.

·       Swiss cheese. Even a very good plan can have holes. Stacking good plans one over the other lines up the holes and risks things to drop through.[3]

What are the solutions?

·       Build and protect a culture of safety. Without safety and trust, you won’t get far and you won’t be remembered fondly once you depart the stage. Simply saying “this is safe” is not enough. People watch what you say, what you do and who you are. You think safety is for snowflakes? Try making sure the quiet one with the information critical to your enterprise gets heard.[4]

·       Have a strategy. It’s your connection between your organization and its major stakeholders, customers, members, suppliers, investors and financiers.[5]

·       Make a plan. It should flow from your strategy. Who needs to know what, when, and in what way?[6]

·       Train on the plan. The plan is a paperweight unless the participants know it and can carry it out. It’s not the part of organizational life that generates the thrills. But just like the cellist who practices diligently, the transcendent symphony that comes from everyone’s practice is the reward.[7]

·       Evaluate the plan while and after it’s used. Make and validate improvements as needed.[8]

So what happened to our American sprinters?

Officials disqualified the home team and permitted the Americans a re-do. They qualified. And on finals day they won gold – in 41.01 seconds.[9] Wow.

Not everyone gets a re-do. Organizations can plan their handoffs. But unless they also train for them, they’re unlikely to be as fortunate as our Olympians.


Frank Talk is a product of Cardinal Waypoint LLC, a new consultancy for health policy and leadership. You can have Cardinal Waypoint at work for you. Contact Cardinal Waypoint here.


[1] See it here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3tUwiqxjzo, retrieved 6/1/2018.

[2] Myerberg P. Alison Felix bumped on 4 x 100 relay; USA gets second chance. USA Today Sports, Aug. 18, 2016. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/rio-2016/2016/08/18/us-women-drop-baton-4x100-relay-and-file-an-appeal/88945320/, retrieved 5/30/2018.

[3] Reason J. Human error: models and management. BMJ 2000 Mar 18; 320 (7237): 768-770. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1117770/, retrieved 5/30/2018. A further critical look at the concept in both quality and safety spheres may be found at Perneger T. The Swiss cheese model of safety incidents: are there holes in the metaphor? BMC Health Serv Res 2005; 5:71. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1298298/, retrieved 5/30/2018.

[4] For example, Grenny J. 4 ways leaders can create a candid culture. Harvard Business Review, July 8, 2014. https://hbr.org/2014/07/4-ways-leaders-can-create-a-candid-culture, retrieved 6/4/2018.

[5] Kenny G. Your strategic plans probably aren’t strategic, or even plans. Harvard Business Review, Apr. 6, 2018. https://hbr.org/2018/04/your-strategic-plans-probably-arent-strategic-or-even-plans, retrieved 6/4/2018.

[6] On the other hand, Mike Tyson observed, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Your plan should be able to stand up to something like that. For an explanation see Berardino M. Mike Tyson explains one of his most famous quotes. Sun Sentinel, Broward County FL, Nov. 9, 2012. http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2012-11-09/sports/sfl-mike-tyson-explains-one-of-his-most-famous-quotes-20121109_1_mike-tyson-undisputed-truth-famous-quotes, retrieved 6/4/2018.

[7] An extensive study into the aphorism “you fight in the way that you practice” is nearly 500 years old: Musashi M. The book of five rings. Amazon Digital Services, https://www.amazon.com/dp/B078YSNPM9/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1, retrieved 6/4/2018. Originally intended to help tutor the martial arts, Musashi has a following in many strategy applications including business and organizational development.

[8] Among the classics in the field of quality management is Flynn B et al. A framework for quality management research and an associated measurement instrument. Journal of Operations Management 11:4(1994), 339-366. https://experts.umn.edu/en/publications/a-framework-for-quality-management-research-and-an-associated-mea, retrieved 6/4/2018. Crisply, “Top management support creates an environment in which quality management activities are rewarded.”

[9] Seriously these ladies were scary fast, 0.2 seconds short of a world record time. http://www.nbcolympics.com/video/united-states-zips-victory-womens-4x100m-relay, retrieved 6/1/2018.