Ink drawing of items a person might have on a chaotic desk. A no smoking sign, a mug of tea, a yorur (not yogurt) jar, a notebook with a spoon on it, a bar chart labeled only THINGIES, a report that says Itemize-Used for bird specifications and rouge[sic] animals, a bottle of pills with some lying next to it. Own work 2023.

The paradox of the handoff document

by AK Krajewska

In theory, a handoff document is a collection of everything the person taking over your project (or job) needs to know. Of course, that's impossible to write down. So, in reality, it's a series of hints and links and people to talk to that you hope will help the person to avoid the worst disasters. Even if your literal job is to literally write technical documentation (hi, hello) a handoff document is one of the most difficult things to write.

Writing a handoff document confronts you with "the paradoxical nature of knowledge."[1] You might think that what you know about a project can be stored and passed on, or at the very least that you know what you know, but as you try to write it down, the impossibility of the task becomes more and more evident. In his 2002 paper, "Complex Acts of Knowing: Paradox and Descriptive Self-Awareness," Dave Snowden argues for thinking of knowledge as a flow, and not just a static thing. He quotes an earlier work by Ralph D. Stacey:

"Knowledge is not a "thing", or a system, but an ephemeral, active process of relating. If one takes this view then no one, let alone a corporation, can own knowledge. Knowledge itself cannot be stored, nor can intellectual capital be measured, and certainly neither of them can be managed."[2]

Snowden doesn't think it's completely hopeless, and then gives three heuristics for thinking about knowledge management in the model of knowledge as flow. The third heuristic explains why it's so hard to bring to mind all the things you should put into a handoff document:

We only know what we know when we need to know it.[3]

While you might easily remember all the contextual details and procedures when a colleague shows you their screen and asks "What does this thing do?" trying to remember it all cold is another matter. You might not even remember to add the topic to the document. And even if you do remember, Snowden's second heuristic comes to mock you:

We can always know more than we can tell, and we will always tell more than we can write down.[4]

Even if you remember to write a particular thing in the handoff document, it's impossible to get all the knowledge down. There's only so much time, and even if you had the time, there are always questions of context and depth--that is how much context do you need to give and how deep should you go? Whatever you choose, it will be less than you actually know. And when you read over it, you will know that it's incomplete.

Given all that, it's no wonder that writing a handoff document feels so daunting. I don't want to imply it's pointless to try. It is both kind and useful to leave some hints for the next custodians of the work, even if it's never enough.

  1. "Complex Acts of Knowing: Paradox and Descriptive Self-Awareness" by Dave Snowden in Journal of Knowledge Management, v. 6, no2 (May 2002), p. 100-111 ↩︎

  2. Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations: Learning and Knowledge Creation (2001) by Ralph D Stacey, as quoted in "Complex Acts of Knowing." ↩︎

  3. Snowden, "Complex Acts of Knowing." ↩︎

  4. Ibid. ↩︎