Team effectiveness tip: checklists

Ever wondered why some teams are super effective and others screw up far more often? It may be the team isn’t learning from their day-in, month-out work and is repeating old mistakes. If this is problem, checklists can really help. If you’re working remotely, they’re essential.

Sound out some teams about whether they use checklists for their everyday tasks and you can reasonably expect one of these responses:

  • “Yeah but we’re super creative so it won’t work for us here at XYZ” [translation: we think we’re way too cool for anything so literal as a checklist to work for us. Go away]
  • “Checklists? Ew. Aren’t they for people who, I don’t know… drive forklifts or do something manual?” [translation: what do we look like to you? Manual labour? I’ll have you know we are wondrous, rare and gifted creatures to whom your foolish rules couldn’t possibly apply.]
  • “What’s a checklist?” [no translation needed]

Yes, checklists are indeed used in some of the most basic jobs. Checklists are also used in highly sophisticated jobs where those doing them train for years and years. Take health care: checklists have dramatically reduced patient mortality in operating theatres. Surgeon Atul Gawande sets out how in “The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right”.

Checklists include such seemingly basic things as ‘check patient’s name’ and the procedure they’re about to have. Critically, checklists have allowed nurses to question doctors and their decisions as they work through surgery.

Checklists are also used in cockpits of commercial aircraft. Their use became more widespread after a tragic incident where two officers in the cockpit didn’t question the actions of the third, more senior-ranked officer, probably because they didn’t dare. As with surgery, adoption of checklists has allowed more junior team members to question senior colleagues.

These are highly-trained, highly-skilled people, with enormous responsibility (and sometimes with big egos in the case of surgeons or The Captain), yet even they can slip up on processes, hence the use of checklists.

Does every task need a checklist? Probably not. You’re unlikely to need a checklist on your team bonding day – but the people organising it would find one rather handy in the run-up to the event. Checklists are very useful for tasks that need to be completed in a tight time period and/or there’s a clear deadline.

Creating your checklist

Best to start with a routine task that your team-mates are all involved in. Look at the last few instances of the task being done and separate the good instances from the not-so-good (especially where basic errors were made), then answer these questions. You may want to write each answer on a Post-It, the better to rearrange them in

Thinking of the times the task has been completed on time and to the right standard:

  • What worked well?
  • What exact steps were taken and in what sequence?
  • What was done (or not done) differently in the good instances compared to the others?
  • To what extent was everyone involved clear on the process? How did they know?
  • To what extent was everyone involved clear on their role? How did they know?
  • Who was responsible for which elements?
  • How were people held accountable for their part in the process?
  • How did the team communicate with each other and with key stakeholders?

Answer these questions and you’ll have some key elements of what needs to be in your checklist. Then you can apply it next time the task is done. Be sure to review and update your checklists over time – they may be missing essential steps and there may be some superfluous ones you can take out.

But wait: there is – of course – a checklist for creating checklists.

Example checklists

For managerial roles, take a look at the Chartered Management Institute’s three most downloaded checklists from their online knowledge base, which they’ve kindly bundled together here.

On the domestic front, Holiday Extras has a pre-holiday checklist.

Real Simple has a party planning checklist.

After the party, you might need Molly Maid’s cleaning checklist

You may also find this blog post useful: 8 signs your team might need a tune-up.


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’


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