Increase your effectiveness with no increase in skill

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Jun 22

Let’s be clear: more and more of our work is complex. Yet, the complexity is being addressed by simply saying that we need to work harder. Or study harder. Or build a bigger plan.

But working harder doesn’t translate into better effectiveness; it simply translates into working harder.

The answer to becoming more effective without increasing your skill is something simple: build checklists.

In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande makes the argument that checklists help ensure that multiple errors can be avoided during something pretty complex: surgery. It is a pretty compelling argument, too, in that checklists help break down barriers to communication while building the teamwork needed to produce better results.

We’re not doctors, of course. But if you are not using checklists to help you in your work, you should. It is, with some thought, pretty easy to build them for your use and helps you not only be more effective, but more efficient as well.

Checklists eliminate basic errors

Do you know what one of my most successful checklists were working in the cubicle? The Meeting Checklist. It got to about fifteen lines long. Every time I had to arrange a meeting, I reviewed what happened during the meeting and see if I needed to add anything to the checklist.

Like: do you need a projector? What about a screen for the projector? What about power and extension cords? Do you need printed copies for the meeting? And how many?

All of this was above and beyond the basics of inviting the right people, having an agenda and a clear idea of what the purpose of the meeting was so that it was successful.

Here’s your challenge: for all of your meetings this week, build a checklist from what was done right and what needed adding if the person arranging the meeting (not necessarily you) was using a checklist. Count how many times there isn’t an agenda, someone forgot to bring something or the conference room that you knew had some device and didn’t.

Then notice how unproductive the meeting becomes because basics were missed for the meeting or the presentation.

Much of your day to day work in the cubicle can use this type of checklist to ensure the basics are not missed.

Checklists support effective teamwork

Checklists like the meeting checklist are simply points to check off. Do we need a projector? No. Check.

But there is a separate type of checklist where we pause during some event and ensure communication is taking place. As work becomes more complex — say building a skyscraper — bad things happen. Complexity means not everything will work according to plan. Yet what we often do in business is figure out something is not working, so we change it.

And we don’t tell anybody. Then it blows up.

The second type of checklist, then, is an issue to be resolved — and who needs communication before the decision is made to change it. These are the customers and stakeholders involved in the process as well as the people doing the work. When some problem happened, this checklist insures all the disciplines are brought to the fore, agreement is made on a direction forward, and then the change is made.

This helps with the “did you think of this?” before making the change and impacting people because you didn’t think of this.

The Ten Checklists

I will bet you right now that if you looked hard at the work you do, you follow the elegantly written and pretty processes documented by someone else hardly at all.

Yet, if you were to build a five to seven line checklist for each of the top ten things you do at work to ensure you don’t miss the basics or ensure proper communications, you would greatly increase the effectiveness of your work.

As the book notes, the very first point on the single engine failure on a single pilot plane is this one: “Fly the plane.” You know, because people panic at trying to restart the engine and forget to fly the plane to give them enough time to restart the engine.

It’s the basics. Checklists can help. Do you have any checklists you can share in the comments?

Photo by Mufidah Kassalias

  • You can certainly provide one in the comments that you think is a good one.

  • Really a fabulous look at checklists and I would highly recommend reading it. Hey, if checklists work in surgery, they certainly should work in business.

  • One of the reasons checklists are so good is that we are thinking about other stuff…and miss the basics that a checklist will have. We can only keep 7-10 steps in our head, so having checklists around to ensure we don't miss something or address something or communicate with someone is what supports the thinking.

  • J. Hewitt says:

    Checklists are good, but your two examples — meetings and presentations — are really bad.

  • Good article. The book you referenced gives and excellent example of how checklists can help with improving medical care. I recently wrote a similar article on my small business blog on to-do list and how it can help with Time Management. You can find it here –

  • nate99 says:

    For a great checklist resource, look up “The Checklist Manifesto.”

  • Jagad5 says:

    Checklists are great as long as they are used to guide thinking rather than replace it.

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