The Checklist as Empowerment tool

In an earlier post I talked about how many of the ideas in The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right  support for agile values. One of the  observations in the book that caught me by surprise was that checklists help people function as a team by making it easier to distribute decision making and empower individual team members. Checklists also help teams make better decisions by making it easier to distribute decision making. A team of empowered cross functional people, working together to decide how to get work done sounds a lot like the model of an agile team.

Checklists can help by institutionalizing a process where someone other than “the expert” is the center of decisions. In a discussion of a surgical checklist, Gawande discusses that nurses are the best people to own the checklist process but they needed to be able to stop a surgeon who skips a step without risking disciplinary action by a surgeon who feels free to avoid the process. Making the checklist part of the endorsed process clears a path toward a more empowered team.

An interesting case study from the book involved construction management. Since a building project, like a software project, involves a number of disciplines and teams.  And as a software pattern enthusiast, I’ve learned much from the study of Christopher Alexander’s patterns. Much like agile and lean software development techniques have show us the advantages of moving away from a command and control process, the construction industry has learned similar lessons. According to Gawande:

But by the middle of the twentieth century the Master Builders were dead and gone. The variety and sophistication of advancements in every stage of the construction process had overwhelmed the abilities of any individual to master them. In the first division of labor, architectural and engineering design split off from construction. Then, piece by piece, each component became further specialized and split off, until there were architects on one side, often with their own areas of sub-specialty, and engineers on another, with their various kinds of expertise; the builders, too, fragmented into their own multiple divisions, ranging from tower crane contractors to finish carpenters. The field looked, in other words, a lot like medicine, with all its specialists and superspecialists.

Or for that matter, a software project with people with expertise in various technologies like database design, user experience, etc. He further describes how a construction process uses checklist to remind people to think of the other aspects of a project.:

Pinned to the left-hand wall opposite the construction schedule was …  a “submittal schedule.” It was also a checklist, but it didn’t specify construction tasks; it specified communication tasks. … The experts could make their individual judgments, but they had to do so as part of a team that took one another’s concerns into account, discussed unplanned developments, and agreed on the way forward. While no one could anticipate all the problems, they could foresee where and when they might occur. The checklist therefore detailed who had to talk to whom, by which date, and about what aspect of construction—who had to share (or “submit”) particular kinds of information before the next steps could proceed.

The line from the book that seemed most like it could have been just at home in a book on Agile Software Development was:

They had made the reliable management of complexity a routine. That routine requires balancing a number of virtues: freedom and discipline, craft and protocol, specialized ability and group collaboration.

By focusing on the shared responsibility of everyone to get the job done, we can strive for quality:

“That’s not my problem” is possibly the worst thing people can think

He sums up the role of checklists:

Just ticking boxes is not the ultimate goal here. Embracing a culture of teamwork and discipline is.

By embracing the idea of a team-based approach  to solving problems, we may need to give up some of our beliefs of what makes a person a valuable contributor:

It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us—those we aspire to be—handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists. Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.

So, how can you figure out  how to use checklists to make teams more effective? Start with the basics and write down what you should be doing: The flow of a standup, minimally good coding practices, etc. Use iteration reviews and release retrospectives to identify what other issues can be avoided by adding a line to a checklist. Also review your current checklists and revise and improve them, especially if they get too long, or are mocked or ignored. Agile software adoption is as much about cultural change, as it is about specific skills, practices, or  tasks.