Talent Isn’t Enough To Deliver Your Best Work
The versatile productivity and quality tool that costs nothing
The single best tool for productivity and quality won’t cost you a cent. It’s not an app. It works better on paper than on your phone. There’s nothing to download and nothing to buy. Benjamin Franklin used a version of it to track his thirteen virtues.
Have you figured it out yet?
The best way to explain it is to show you how failure to use it can cost lives. You’ll see how the presence of this tool saves lives. Finally, you’ll see how everyday people like me use it for team-based projects like complex software deployments and writing sales letters and blog posts.
On August 16, 1987, Northwest flight 255 crashed on takeoff from Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The pilots neglected to extend the flaps and slats, a requirement for takeoff. But why? These were experienced pilots with over a thousand successful takeoffs between them. The NTSB concluded that the probable cause was the failure of the pilots to use the taxi checklist.
Atul Gawande, the author of The Checklist Manifesto, wrote a story how a medical team comprised of scores of people had to carry out thousands of steps correctly to save a three-year-old girl after a near drowning. How did this team of professionals remember all the necessary steps?
In the technology world, we deploy complicated software with dozens of steps and validations, some manual and some automated. It is almost unheard of to miss a step, despite several different teams working on all corners of the globe.
Identifying all the necessary steps is a challenging task. Record them and organize them into a list, and you bulletproof your process.
In Copywriting, we need to make sure we do little things like using the pronoun you and read out loud, where do I stumble. My checklist sports twenty edit checks. I go through my piece twenty times validating one line item each pass. I check it off and move on the next item on the list.
Of course, you’ve figured it out. The productivity tool is the checklist. It’s more than a productivity tool. It’s a perfection tool. Checklists are most critical in domains where perfection or near perfection is vital. On most commercial airplanes, failure to extend flaps before takeoff results in a crash. Checklists are required in aviation and other complex tasks with high stakes because the risks of failure are too significant. Even if you get everything else right, that one mistake could end in disaster.
The stakes are much lower when it comes to things like editing a sales letter or putting together a deck for a presentation, but they enable you to do your best quality work.
More than a “to do” list
You might equate the traditional “to do” list as a checklist. In some sense, it is a checklist but your “to do” list varies from day to day. The power of the checklist lies in doing complex activities that require identical and specific steps each time.
Pilots don’t change their taxi checklist each time they fly (assuming it’s the same type of aircraft). They may take different actions depending on weather conditions, runway length and other variables, but the checklist remains the same.
Why don’t we use them?
In my early days of enterprise software, we experienced countless problems with our software deployments. We’d miss a step. We’d do steps out of order. People argued about who was supposed to do what tasks.
Experiencing the hell of fixing failed deployments and dealing with angry clients forced us into developing a sequence of operations (SOE) checklist. The document is absurdly simple. It lists each task in sequential order, and the person responsible for doing it.
We jeered at the consultant who promised to solve our problems with the introduction of this simple tool. We had no understanding of its value. It seemed too simplistic.
There was a time when pilots and medical professionals didn’t know or believe they needed a simple checklist. There is still resistance to it in some medical circles. Sophisticated investors use checklists to make sure they’ve done their due diligence.
It won’t make you an expert
Checklists don’t tell us how to do something. They remind us what to do. A checklist won’t allow an amateur diver to become a professional diver by merely accessing a checklist, but it will enable the professional diver to ensure he or she takes all necessary steps to minimize risk.
It’s easy to see how checklists benefit us in areas of high risk. It’s not as pressing when the stakes are lower, but it will enable you to do your best work. It frees you from the burden of remembering what to do. You focus your energy on doing quality work instead of asking yourself what comes next.
Create your checklist
How do you create one that works for you? Any repetitive process can be broken down into a checklist. I like to use a spreadsheet for my lists. If you’re creating a checklist for a team or group of people, I recommend a spreadsheet since you’ll need at least two columns.
All checklists have a WHAT — The task you need to complete
Team checklists have a WHO — The designee assigned to the task
If you prefer to use a paper or form checklist, you can create another column to mark the job complete.
You can also add a column for comments or exceptions. This feature can be useful for auditing purposes. Your writing checklist may have a line item to remove the word very, but you decide one instance makes sense. You could put your reasoning in the comments section, so a reviewer or auditor knows why you made an exception.
The sequence is critical in some operations and unimportant in others. Some tasks are dependent on others. You cannot validate your upgrade results until you complete the upgrade. The ladder step is dependent on the first one completing.
In other cases, there may be a soft dependency — Task B is not dependent on the completion of Task A, but it makes logical sense to order Task B after Task A.
My editing checklist has spellcheck as the final step. Could I do it first? Yes, it’s possible to do a spell check at any point. But what happens if I do it first? I may make other changes due to subsequent tasks which means I’ll need to spell check one more time.
Executing your checklist
There are different schools of thought on implementing a checklist. The best method depends on the complexity, the number of people involved and geography (are team members present in one location).
Do and check
In this technique, you do an action or several actions and then validate against your list. For non-critical activities, this may suffice, but you risk missing something. For checklists where steps are dependent on each other, this method increases the likelihood you do something out of order.
Read, do and confirm
In this scenario, you read a checklist item and do the action. If the operation is complex, it may also necessitate a confirmation by you or a third party. This method is more tedious than the “do and check,” but you are less likely to do tasks out of order.
Challenge and response
This method is used in some aviation circles. It works with two or more people. You first read the task. The other person then completes the action and confirms successful completion. In team dynamics, the “completed” column serves as the confirmation response.
You’ve finished your checklist. Now what? It’s worthless if you fail to use it. Incorporate it as part of your process. Print it and hang it up somewhere conspicuous. You need to remind yourself to use it, especially early on until the habit takes hold.
In a team situation, it can be easier or harder, depending on social dynamics. The CEO of a software company can dictate that everyone use a checklist as part of their processes, and dole out consequences for failure to comply. The individual employees lack the power overrule or skirt the consequences for refusal. The leader can further solidify the practice by building it into the culture and creating a stigma around failure to comply.
That may not be the case in other domains where the culture has not created a stigma around lack of compliance. Hubris and pride in our expertise may convince us we don’t need a silly checklist. Some folks see it as an attack on their competence or undermining of their power.
No matter how amazing you think you are, you’re not immune to the limits of human memory and the effects of wandering attention.