No Time to Focus on The Employee Experience? Try Checklists. I mean we’ve all heard the advice: “Don’t forget to schedule time to work on the big-picture items.” Sometimes, this guidance is packaged as: “Block out and schedule uninterrupted time to be creative and to work on high-value projects.” Yet, in a world that seems to place tremendous value on “inbox zero,” where does a leader possibly find the time to create, plan, think strategically, or focus on his or her value proposition?
The answer may lie in the more effective use of checklists to minimize the brain power and effort we spend on routine tasks. Dr. Atul Gawande, in his book, The Checklist Manifesto (2009, Metropolitan Books), is a vocal advocate for this concept. For me, however, I became a believer in the theory after several coaching sessions with a young and talented business executive. Let’s call him Stephen. Stephen was responsible for a significant chunk of revenue, and he oversaw several key retail locations within an important territory for his company.
Stephen and I had been exploring his value proposition, both on professional and personal level. Finding a leader’s value proposition is a coaching exercise we go through that is designed to help leaders focus on those areas where they create the most value as opposed to focusing on tasks that might yield a lower ROI or which might be a distraction. Stephen was convinced that he could create far more value for his company by developing and training his team and direct reports than by focusing solely on the administrative and operational tasks that comprised the bulk of his job description.
For several weeks, we explored ways he could devote more time towards his goal of developing others while still maintaining an appropriate level of operational proficiency. Our efforts seemed futile. Then, one day he delightedly explained that he had found the missing ingredient; he had taken the time to create a checklist for each of the various operational tasks for which he was responsible. Then, with discipline, he had been carefully adhering to these checklists. His mental approach was to first take care of his daily, core items so he could then turn his attention elsewhere. It became a challenge: How fast could Stephen get through his checklist (in a competent manner) so he could start working on what he loved to do?
What he found in the process were significant blocks of time that he could devote to training and developing his people. In other words, by becoming disciplined in his routine, he found the time he needed to focus on the extraordinary – those initiatives that might be “game-changers” for his company and his career. He also found another added benefit, as he was using less emotional energy on routine matters, which meant he had more passion and drive for the challenging projects that require brain power and resourcefulness.
Now to some, Stephen’s example might be construed as another suggestion along the lines of: “Improve your productivity and you’ll have more time to focus on the more important things.” You might be right, but I think that level of analysis is a bit too shallow. The idea is a bit more nuanced.
In Stephen’s example, it’s not that he became more productive by learning to perform his routine tasks faster, it was that his checklists helped him to maintain operational focus and avoid switch-tasking. His checklists helped him focus his energy, which also produced the side benefit of conserving energy. Stephen was then able to spend the balance of his energy account elsewhere.
A “bank account” is often used as a metaphor to explaining interpersonal relationships. We have “trust bank accounts.” We have “goodwill bank accounts.” And, I am going to add one more, which is an employee’s productive energy bank account. Energy is finite resource. It cannot be created or destroyed. This is the first law of thermodynamics in physics, and it applies to organizational and human dynamics. If energy cannot be produced, then one possible way to get more from yourself and those you lead is to better focus energy on routine tasks by using checklists.
This tiny nugget of advice holds true at the organizational level as well as the individual level. As you examine the Employee Experience for which you are responsible, ask yourself whether you have spent the time needed to create checklists, processes, systems, etc., to manage and improve those tasks and operations that must be done an ongoing operational basis. By taking the time to focus your organization’s operational energy, other energy will become available to work on creative endeavors and innovation.
Consider using checklists both at a personal and organizational level to organize and focus key activities. A disciplined approach to accomplishing the “must-dos” may lead to additional time to focus on those activities that support high-value activities and organization-wide objectives.