The Secret to Ensuring Follow-Through

Peter Bregman

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Peter Bregman for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.

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[Note: The excerot begins mid-narrative. To read the complete article, please click here.]

As I finished my pre-offsite interviews, I made a single request of each leader: read The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.

A physician and writer, Gawande describes doctors who resist the checklist — it’s too simple, insulting even — and then shows us how hospital staff who follow a checklist save more lives than most medical “miracle drugs” or procedures.

Gawande makes a strong case for why experts need checklists, especially for the most mundane of tasks. The more expert we are in something, the more we take things for granted, and, as a result, miss the obvious.

Most of us think we communicate well. Which, ironically, is why we often leave out important information (we believe others already know it). Or fail to be specific about something (we think others already understand it). Or resist clarifying (we don’t want to insult other people).

Thankfully, there’s a simple solution: create a checklist and use it during every handoff.

During the offsite, the leadership team looked at where problems happened in the past and where they were likely to happen in the future. Almost all were during handoffs.

So we developed the following mandatory “handoff checklist” — questions that the person handing off work must ask the person taking accountability for delivery:

Handoff Checklist

• What do you understand the priorities to be?

• What concerns or ideas do you have that have not already been mentioned?

• What are your key next steps, and by when do you plan to accomplish them?

• What do you need from me in order to be successful?

• Are there any key contingencies we should plan for now?

• When will we next check-in on progress/issues?

• Who else needs to know our plans, and how will we communicate them?

Time it takes to go through the checklist? One to five minutes. Time (and trust) saved by going through the checklist? Immeasurable.

We came up with this checklist because it addressed the most common reasons for dropping balls in this particular organization. Your handoff checklist may be different.

Here’s what’s compelling about an established checklist: it not only reduces mistakes, it reduces the need for courage.

Why would we need courage? Imagine you just finished explaining the priorities of a project to someone. Wouldn’t it seem a little patronizing, a little insulting to their intelligence, to ask them to tell you what they understood the priorities to be?

With an established checklist, it’s no longer offensive; it’s standard. And when they answer, often with a slight misunderstanding of the priorities, you can correct them on the spot, saving them two weeks of misguided work and the loss of trust that goes along with it. That’s the power of the checklist.

A few months after the offsite, I called Mary to ask her how it was working. Was the new HR Shared Services organization delivering? Did she miss Lucinda?

“Sure I miss Lucinda,” she told me, “but I don’t need her.”

Then she pulled out her checklist to make sure we were both on the same page for our work going forward.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Peter Bregman speaks, writes, and consults on leadership. He is the CEO of Bregman Partners, Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of Point B: A Short Guide To Leading a Big Change. Sign up to receive an email when he posts.


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