(Also known as “Notes on a train,” otherwise described as the experiences of being on the Amtrak Northeast Corridor commuter rail system finishing a work task while watching the cities roll past.)
Although it is the middle of football season, my first thought these days when I hear the word “huddle” is not of grass-stained uniforms or winning touchdown drives, but of men and women in suits in an office or conference room with pads of paper. They are, in fact, one of the primary ways that State Department offices keep themselves organized and updated. I find these huddles fascinating for that reason; both the similarities and the differences compared to GROUPER meetings are critically important to me. Yes, the leader wants to hear from everyone, and there can be moments of banter and amusing references to recent activities (including those grass-stained uniforms). However, what differs is also important, especially as I consider what I’m learning now and what I will bring back to Purdue next year.
A primary difference: why is it that a weekly 9-12 person huddle at State can take as little as 20-40 minutes, or that in a schedule-fluxing day, a five-person huddle can be completed in 14 minutes? I had a sense that the reason had something to do with the experience, expertise, and professionalism of the team members. At first, I thought it was that these teams were not getting involved in the messiness of the scrum activity of recognizing and responding to problems; I was informed, though, that this was not correct. Yes, there are problems, and one purpose of the huddle is to inform the leader when there is a situation that needs to be “escalated” in ways that only the leader has access or resources to accomplish. It’s not the formal structure of an agenda: most huddles I’ve attended only have advanced communication at the level of “9:15 Huddle”.
No, the professionalism takes a very different form: one of preparation. I have begun to notice that, on each pad of paper, there was a set of bullet points set off and highlighted about specific topics. In each case, these bullet points seem to evolve into “what do I want my person to know about this topic, and what is the BLUF (bottom line up front) that I can share in 10-20 seconds?” (Lest you dismiss this style of work as old-fashioned just because it’s on paper, keep in mind that some of our meetings are held in rooms where electronic devices are not permitted.) The leader may ask about a particular topic, or provide additional “top-down” updates, but this upward-flowing expertise is of vital importance.
Those who have spent time in GROUPER know that I directly address the distinctions of people, products, and projects in my interactions. Huddles aren’t professional development focused on people, although one may hear about when someone will be out or unavailable or otherwise tasked. There is a recognition of ongoing projects, with timelines ranging from days to months. But there is substantial focus on products: things due this week, or tomorrow, or maybe even in a couple of hours. (Remind me to write about “paper” sometime soon.) Huddles usually don’t get moved due to such deadlines, although they may be shortened. That also seems to be a fundamental aspect of the professionalism—a strong sense of, and respect for, both time and advance information as critical resources for effective recognition and response to dynamic events.
So, whether we are working to 2-3 day deadlines for paper, or highlighting preparation for international efforts requiring 4 months of preparation, it’s not just the product deadline cycle that drives efficiencies in huddles. I can’t generate the type of experience that a consular officer gets when trying to evacuate citizens after an earthquake or during political instability. But I do think there is a fundamental difference between “what do I need from my person” and “what does my person need from me” that is of significant importance here. Good huddles tend to focus on the latter? Stay tuned.
 Actually, the term “leader” is rarely used at State. I hear “principal” a lot, and I will admit that I have a certain reluctance to t calling someone my “boss”. So, let me use “person” as a very generic term of a member / leader in greater authority and responsibility in the huddle.