What impact does the humble checklist have on developing a manager’s skill set?


I had an interesting conversation the other day about removing the standardised assessment categories at review meetings.  There appears to be a desire to move away from pigeon-holing colleagues into the ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ and using the sessions to identify and quantify development needs.  Wonderful news.  There would appear to be a bit of trend emerging here with other leading companies recently ditching the performance reviews altogether.  Anyway, the conversation was interesting as it was not about gaining support for making this move (the decision had already been taken) but more about how could we check that colleagues were sufficiently prepared to implement this change.   Was it really possible for a colleague to have reached a position where they led others without being able to host a development meeting and if so how was it possible?   I began to consider if this really could happen and then struck upon a thought; could the humble checklist have anything to do with colleagues not developing their full bag of manager skills?

could the humble checklist have anything to do with colleagues not developing their full bag of manager skills?

We’ve all done it, when faced with a problem where you need a group of people to confirm they have carried out an instruction, we’ve created a checklist for colleagues to follow and then sign and file away to demonstrate their compliance.  It is an unremarkable document, often presented as lists with small checkboxes down the left hand side, where a small tick is placed to signal that the task has been completed.  The checklist was created as an informational job aid to help prevent failure by compensating for the potential limits of human memory and attention.  Most of us will admit to having a ‘love hate’ relationship with them – we love the auditing evidence they provide, but hate how they can restrict us, especially when faced with the prospect of using them in a time critical situation. I think we would all agree that we would never intentionally use the checklist as a replacement for intensive training, but are we doing just that without realising? In the same way as the checklist is used to demonstrate compliance with a task, we have also taken to using it to measure and compare colleague performance.  We can say that if you can tick a certain percentage of the checklist, then you can be a classed as a ‘the good’ performer. A much lower percentage, grades you as ‘the ugly’ performer.   The merit in this approach is that we can collate all this standardised data and show how colleagues are performing against the expected performance.  If there are more ‘good performers’ than compared to last year, it is interpreted as staff capabilities must have improved, as they have managed to achieve more ticks in more boxes. But is that what the data is really telling us?  Have these people really improved?  What evidence is there to support this ‘improvement’ other than an increased number of boxes ticked?  And what about the leaders who are ticking the boxes – do they really understand what they are confirming as having been achieved? I know you will say that colleagues are ‘trained’ in how to use these performance review checklists, but often the training assumes you understand the competencies behind the prescribed performance criteria and focuses more on how to complete the form in order to produce the desired audit trail.  In my experience, the bulk of the discussion in these training sessions focuses on dealing with anomalies and how best to record them.

Taking this one step further, what happens when you learn your role from a series of checklists?  I said earlier that we would all agree that the checklist should never replace rigorous training to acquire the necessary skills, behaviours and knowledge to execute your duties to a standard necessary to discharge your responsibilities, but could this be happening as a by-product of having so many checklists in place? A little far-fetched you may think but consider the following:

When we join a new company, the Induction training tends to try to immerse you in the company’s culture – their way of doing things.  The recruiter would have made sure you have the correct level of knowledge, skills and experience to carry out the role and the induction programme is there to help you to understand the expectations of you in your new role and the standard to which you must perform.  However, as you progress upwards through the career ladder, do you get the same treatment every time you start a new role?  All too often, and more commonly after the ever more frequent re-shuffles after another round of streamlining of roles, new leaders take up their positions with less and less training.  They are moved sideways into a new role or if lucky enough, find themselves promoted with more responsibility, but, often, without an introduction to their new duties.  Quite frequently their new position is a newly created role and I’ve often heard the words ‘they need to make the role their own’, which I’m sure is code for ‘we don’t know what they really should be doing either and just need them to get on with it and we will judge them later when we are more sure of what they should be doing’.  In their attempt to understand what they should be doing, they turn to the checklists used to make sure someone is doing the job compliantly.  I have written before of the dangers of masking our true training needs with creative CV’s and the fact that by doing this we may progress up the career ladder with gaps in our learning and understanding.  I spoke of similarities to a structure lacking the correct foundations and liable to collapse.  If we ask our colleagues to inadvertently ‘learn by checklist’ they miss out on acquiring and developing those important skills that we know provide a strong leadership foundation.  If we cannot be confident that we know our Induction training programmes, both for colleagues new to the organisation and new to a role, provide the opportunities to attain a strong leadership foundation, we should not be making assumptions about a colleague’s knowledge and their ability to understand and assess someone else’s competence.

Without realising, is your organisation’s capability improvement curve starting to look a little like the end of the ski run, off which you’re about to launch your staff.  TC2.1.11 states that ‘Firms should ensure that their employees’ training needs are assessed at the outset and at regular intervals (including if their role changes). Appropriate training and support should be provided to ensure that any relevant training needs are satisfied…’    If we are inadvertently ‘learning by checklist’ then surely it is something we need to look to resolve… and fast!


About Author

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As an experienced and professional Consultant and Training Professional, I have had the privilege of working across a wide range of companies and business areas predominately in the Financial Services sector. Wherever I am and whatever job role I am undertaking on behalf of a client, you will always find me influencing and driving others to produce results.

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