Tag Archives: Democratic Workplace

A checklist is more powerful than an org chart?

Most of us so-called ‘knowledge workers’ don’t particularly fancy the term ‘checklist’. It smacks of an antiquated top-down command-and-control Dilbert-style bureaucracy where someone sitting on 42nd floor of corporate headquarters hands down a piece of paper for you to blindly follow and to make you feel dumb and outright humble – for it dilutes your role and underplays your intelligence as if anyone else in your position could have done it! In short, it seems to trivialize the knowledge, skills and expertize required for the job into a mechanical routine requiring no human intelligence, and places the decision-making into hands of people irrespective of their competence levels. And we hate it!

Wikipedia defines a checklist as:

“A checklist is a type of informational job aid used to reduce failure by compensating for potential limits of human memory and attention. It helps to ensure consistency and completeness in carrying out a task. A basic example is the “to do list.” A more advanced checklist would be a schedule, which lays out tasks to be done according to time of day or other factors.”

From the definition above, it seems like an innocuous tool that just helps you keep focus on the most critical things – things that you might skip rather unintentionally or lose track of during one of the numerous hand-offs, or mix-up their sequence when there is time pressure. Obviously, there is no way a checklist could enlighten a dummy into being an expert overnight!

Atul Gawande has done a wonderful job of elevating the good old checklist in his pathbreaking “The Checklist Manifesto” to a modern management tool that can be used to prevent unintentional human mistakes and improve collaboration and decision-making in emergency situations – even in the areas that require utmost brainpower. He cites real-life examples from some of the most complex endeavors – complex human surgeries, constructing tall building and flying jet planes, among others, that no doubt require very high

A short pencil is better than a long memory…

amount of individual cognitive skill in respective functional areas, but also require a high precision in the steps to be followed – both during meticulous planning and preparation, and in making split-second decisions during an emergency, be it flying at ten miles above ground or a complex brain surgery on operation table. One after other, he repeatedly presents compelling data from such hi-intelligence professions that reinforce his assertion that something as rudimentary as a checklist could have such dramatic impact in complex human endeavors.

In this article, I have taken some teasers from this book that I liked and made a lot of sense to me. I have also included my own commentary and perspective for each of these.

Knowledge continues to grow at an astounding pace. No one person can hope to ever keep pace with all latest advances in any one single field, let alone build a body of knowledge around core specialization area and adjacent knowledge areas. And yet, in many cases, we have no option but to rely on the individual judgment by a supposed ‘expert’. What if that ‘expert’ was not good enough, or as good as we make out of them? What if that one single source of true knowledge, the true ‘Master Builder’ was more like someone who was a mediocre talent as best, and could not live up to the high expectations of infallibility, and yet we place almost entire decision-making into their independent charge? That would be a true disaster. Gawande calls out such challenge:

“…in the absence of a true Master Builder – a supreme, all-knowing expert with command of all existing knowledge – autonomy is a disaster. It produced only a cacophony of incompatible decisions and overlooked errors.”

So, while autonomy is the desired end-state, we need to be cognizant that perhaps there is no such single person in real life who deserves to be the undisputed knight of all things worldly! At best it is an urban myth and at worst, it is a nightmare played out multiple times in each field! A cacophony of incompatible decisions and overlooked errors! Sounds outrageous, but apparently not so rare.

Let’s walk a bit with the fact (?) that there is no one single person supremely capable of mastering all the knowledge so as to be the single source of truth. What would then be the second-best way to manage complex human endeavors? Perhaps assign it to teams who are then chartered to figure out the solution? A group of perhaps regular people who individually posses a bit of knowledge each, and collectively represent whatever it takes to address the problem at hand? That does seem like a logical way, because we believe more heads are better than one. However, it is difficult enough to get a collocated team perform in top gear, imagine distributed teams in multiple time zones, contractors from different companies with different and often incompatible cultures and processes working together, employees coming from various departments for whom local departmental gains are more important than the global organizational goals. Can checklists provide some guidance?

Here again, Gawande has some interesting viewpoint:

“in the face of the unknown – the always nagging uncertainty about whether, under complex circumstances, thing will really be okay – the builders trusted in the power of communication. They didn’t believe in the wisdom of the single individual, of even an experienced engineer. They believed in the wisdom of the group, the wisdom of making sure that multiple pairs of eyes were on a problem and then letting the watchers decide what to do.

Man is fallible, but maybe men are less so.”

However, we often believe that by simply crowdsourcing, we can fix the problem. We expect a reasonably sized group to eventually gravitate towards one common solution. While this might be true for simple party games like ‘guess the weight of the cake’, how do we extend and apply this to more real-life problems that entail tangible risks, such as do we need an additional overhead beam to distribute the load on the 37th floor of a highrise building, or whether we need to give more anesthesia to a 63-year old patient of severe diabetes and hypertension on the table for his bypass? In traditional management, a manager would be supremely empowered to make such decisions – his knowledge and experience was ‘supposed’ to mitigate any risks associated with such centralized decision-making, because, well, the ‘workers’ in that quintessential industrial age were after all dumb. In such one-sided match, the worker participation was almost always zero, and the decision-making was the elite preserve of the management class. We can’t say if that was effective or not (though we do know that was not the most motivational way), but apparently that’s the only thing that was! However, the advent of knowledge-economy brought with it three important changes : rapid pace of creation of new knowledge, new means and mechanisms to rapidly mass proliferate the newfound knowledge and a faster obsolescence rate of old knowledge have all collectively led to a more balanced play at work. No longer is ‘manager’ the Mr. Know-all, but is increasingly dependent on the critical inputs from her team member – most of whom have much more current knowledge and also hate a centralized hoarding of decision-making.

In such workplaces, it’s time the decision-making was made more democratic. What would be the risk of democratizing decision-making? Would it be akin to the inmates running the asylum? How can we ensure that best decisions will be made, and who will be accountable for those decisions? Can checklists help in this regard?

“In response to risk, most authorities tend to centralize power and decision making. That’s usually what checklists are about – dictating instructions to the workers below to ensure they do things the way we want. ….it spelled out to the tiniest details every critical step the tradesmen were expected to follow and when – which is logical if you’re confronted with simple and routine problems; you want the forcing function.”

So, apparently, the checklists ‘decentralized’ the decision-making but more as a forcing function. In a way, we can say that since Managers couldn’t be everywhere, Management created Checklists! Clearly, that’s not the best reason to justify or support checklists, even though we might have succeeded in our nefarious designs.

However, history has repeated shown us that every new invention has two sides – the good and the bad. While a checklist might have succeeded in its ‘forcing function’, it also has a positive side. This is the aspect that helps pilots and brain surgeons achieve better planning and performance. This allows for teams to create better bonding as much as making life-or-death calls in a split second. You have the read Gawande’s book to believe that.

So, why is that people hate checklist? Do they fear loss of individuality, respect, authority? Gawande offers some perspective and the counterintuitive wisdom:

“The fear people have about the idea of adherence to protocol is rigidity. They imagine automatons, leads down in a checklist, incapable of looking out their windshield and coping with the real world in front of them. But what you find, when a checklist is well made, is exactly the opposite. The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with.”

As an example, he cites an interesting anecdote about what makes a team high performing by a simple act of just making sure that people follow the simple checklist of introducing themselves to the team by just telling their names:

“People who don’t know one another’s names don’t work together nearly as well as those who do.

The investigators at John Hopkins and elsewhere had also observed that when nurses were given a chance to say their names and mention concerns at the beginning of a case, they were more likely to note problems and offer solutions. The researchers called it an “activation phenomenon”. Giving people a chance to say something at the start seemed to activate their sense of participation and responsibility and their willingness to speak up.”

Imagine if the simple act of sharing names could accomplish so much, what else lies unexplored? However, in the absence of a checklist that ‘mandated’ such ‘routine’ we were potentially wasting this opportunity. Surely we could do away (and perhaps should do away) with checklists if only we could do such ‘common sensical’ stuff without them!

So, if checklists are an important management tool, how best to operationalize them? Should the manager ‘own’ the checklisting process? Here is an interesting take from the field of aviation, where, as we all know, once you take-off, you are literally hanging in the mid-air, and hence must do everything right to land safely:

“In aviation, there is a reason the “pilot not flying” starts the checklist. The “pilot flying” can be distracted by flight tasks and liable to skip a checklist. Moreover, dispersing the responsibility send the message that everyone – not just the captain – is responsible for the overall well-being of the flight and should have the power to question the process.”

So, there we are. It seems that there is a significant body of work to support the conjecture that checklists can be beneficial in more ways than one. They are not simply a forcing function, nor do they impede empowerment not stifle creativity. On the contrary, they help facilitate conversations during unexpected non-trivial situations. They also make the decision-making more decentralized and often democratic. To that end, a checklist is more powerful than an org chart. Too bad if that scares you!

Use checklist for all reasons and all seasons. As they say, a short pencil is better than a long memory…

How to establish credibility in a democratic workplace?

Flattening of organizations is an oft-repeated phrase that means different things to different people. My favorite connotation is what I call as ‘democratization of management’, which essentially means a more symmetric power distribution between erstwhile ‘management’ and the erstwhile ‘worker’- if at all such words make sense anymore. While there are serious advantages of such an organization structure, it obviously doesn’t come free of cost. For example, a key byproduct of such change is moving away from ‘leading with authority’ to ‘leading with influence’ where leaders can’t rely on their positional power or the organizational title to basically get things done. Instead, they need to establish their ‘credibility’ to be accepted as a ‘leader’ and the harbinger of change, and get things done. Sounds simple? Well, it may not be so easy…

In the old world where management unilaterally made rules, managers were empowered with making all key decisions and the workers were simply expected to follow them. Henry Ford created the moving assembly line where basically the supervisors made all decisions and the shop-floor workers were fungible to work on any of the low-level tasks. Naturally, it didn’t require much for a supervisor to demonstrate his ‘power’ – all he literally had to do was show up and shout orders. People knew who was the boss, and given the roles they were hired into, either they were not of adequate intellectual level to be able to see the big picture, or were not allowed to think of the big picture. And even though last few decades were prime examples of worsening industrial relations, the workplace conflict between management and workers essentially got managed because of ‘clear’ division of labor – management made the rules to govern the work and output of workers, and the workers made the goods by obeying orders from management.

Enter the new world, the flat hierarchy, the knowledge economy, the informal Gen X and the indomitable Gen Y, and the old system comes down crumbling fast. Gone is the bad old world that essentially ‘exploited’ the workers. The good new world is all about collaboration, shared leadership, joint decision-making and other similar 21st century values and norms. There is simply no place for three-piece suits and bombastic titles in such a workplace. There is no corner office – at best, there is a corner cubicle! Everyone gets their own coffee, and everyone picks up their own printouts (from a common printer, did I say?). The notion of ‘experience’ gets blurred in such a context. I blogged about it earlier on inexperience is the new competency.

Such workplace sounds so romantic! Gone are the high walls that separated managers from real people. There is much freer flow of ideas and feedback, and makes the perfect setting for some real work. Right? Well…maybe…

But it also comes with one BIG caveat – how does someone, anyone, establish their ‘position’ in such a flat world? There is no title anymore to rely upon or hide back behind. Decision-making is often a teamwork and though it might have some real dangers of groupthink, it still has more advantages to be taken up seriously. If you are new to the team, or have the onerous task to bring in new ideas, how do you do that? What are the chances that the team will give you any hearing, let alone adopt your ideas? In short, what is your credibility to bring in new ideas? In the absence of any demonstrated credibility, why should anyone listen to you and waste their time?

Sounds very humbling and outrightly brutal, isn’t it? But, I believe that is the idea workplace of today – and one has to be lucky to be in such a workplace (and I will come to that later). Such workplaces don’t accept the ideas just because they come from someone sitting on a better chair, or drawing more salary, or wearing expensive designer suits, or is seen hobnobbing with the power that be. Such workplaces are ‘democratized’ and believe in bringing out and bringing up the best ideas just on its sheer merit. Let the game begin and let the best idea win.

While this could be real fun to participate in a workplace with such unbelievable energy, it could be equally frustrating for someone trying to bring a new idea, e.g. trying to convince for a new product, or rallying for entering new markets, or pitching for some process change, etc. Actually, if you think of it, most of us would be doing one such activity at any time (and those who are not doing are anyway getting closer to extinction, but that’s for another blog post). So, how do convince your peers, your team members (yes – even they need to be convinced, you can’t simply shove a decision down their throats anymore!), your boss and other key stakeholders? Why should they believe in your story? Do you have some proofpoints? What if they listened to you and the whole thing bombed? After all, you don’t come with the credibility that IT managers in 60s and 70s often believed in – “No one ever got fired for buying an IBM”. This simple ‘feeling of safety’ made them buy IBM with literally their eyes closed. Do your ideas come with such ironclad 30-day money-back guarantee?

A lot of these questions are because you haven’t yet paid your dues yet. You are too new to the system, or your ideas haven’t been fructified yet. Or maybe they have in the past, but this is a new manager. Or the rules of the marketplace have changed and you have a much shorter runway than in the past. The hard truth is that you don’t have credibility, and the absence of credibility means you don’t have enough ‘political capital’ for others to support your ideas. It’s not that they don’t like you or your ideas – just that you haven’t been able to register yourself in their minds as someone who is innovative, trustworthy and reliable enough to not only bring up sexy ideas that matter to them, but also willing to endure a long and hard fight to set those ideas to fruition. Question is, how do you earn such impeccable credibility?

I have been lucky to learn some valuable lessons in building credibility. Here are seven of them:

Learn from history…but don’t be enslaved to it

When you are new to a democratic workplace, you often find a combination of multiple factors – you are chartered to initiate and execute a change but the organizational history is against that change (and hence you) because of bitter experiences in the past. While it is very important to study the history and learn from it, it is even more important to not let history dictate the future! Quite often, false starts and fire drills desensitize people from jumping headlong into future change initiatives…they become sceptic of motives and impact of such failed change attempts on their own careers, and hence prefer to stay away till there is more clarity. You, as the change agent need to learn all you can learn from all those failed endeavors – without falling in the trap of sympathizing with the status quo. If despite all failed attempts in the past, you have still been given another chance, it is only because someone up there still believes that this change is needed. Don’t shortchange them – and yourself!

Identify passionate practitioners…and let their voice matter

While new ideas often have the power and potential to create disruption and hence create resistance among rank and file, there are always some people who are extremely loyal to some of those ideas – how so much minority they might be, and some of them are often quite good at it. Instead of appointing experts from outside, the better way is to identify those internal subject matter experts, and elevate them to play more important role in change management. Instead of ignoring them, turn them into your biggest allies. They carry invaluable institutional knowledge with them, and understand how and why some of the previous attempts failed. Since their heart bleeds for the given change, they will be willing to risk their own personal credibility to support you in your endeavor. They should be your A team.

Learn the “real world” first…don’t simply forcefit process to it

My favorite pet peeve against the snake-oil salesman (a.k.a. “process gurus”) is how cleverly they use the principles of FUD to scare the hell out of you, and forcefit their version of process to your version of problem. They almost make you believe that your problem is wrong because it doesn’t confirm with their solution. Stay away from those ‘experts’. Rather, look at the real world and understand the issues – whether or not the solution addresses it or not. My favorite is from the Swiss Army manual – if there is a difference between map and the terrain, trust the terrain! If people see you as an internal spokesman for an external paid consultant, then you can safely kiss your chance of being accepted as the neutral and well-balanced voice. Till you have properly understood the problem, don’t rush into a solution. It not only insults people’s intelligence (which is bad for you, and hence the organization too), it also significantly reduces chances of finding a better solution (which is bad for the organization, and hence you too).

Don’t preach from the top…demonstrate proofpoints

It is a human tendency to rush into ‘showing’ expertise by taking a position and adopt a condescending stance in an anxiety to establish oneself in a new team or a new organization. Sometimes, being negative or just showing a casual aloofness is considered as a proven way to create an aura of expert. I think all this is nonsense. People are smart, and they can spot fake from miles. Preaching without any proofpoints is meaningless. Preaching creates the impression that all people are naives or idiots, and hence need such prescriptions. However, I think people are basically smart. Anyone in any position of responsibility and accountability must be trusted to have some common sense – they need you to solve some specific problem, but they haven’t allowed you to change their lives. Instead of selling panacea, you would be much better off taking up specific problems that create objective and repeatable experiences, and allow people to form their own views about it. Don’t put words in their mouth that they might not like, instead leave them with experiences that they can relate to and form their own opinion, even if that goes against you – as long as that is good for the business and people.

Validate ideas externally…but don’t hardsell them internally

What do you when people won’t listen to your ideas internally? You have tried all tricks of trade – got external experts to come and talk about it, or shared world wisdom internally, but people are still sceptic. Sometimes, such sustained rejection of your ideas could set you back in your endeavor, and in extreme cases, kill your spirit enough to drop the change agenda. What do you do next? Perhaps the best move it not to pursue it aggressively but first go out and validate your ideas from external world – the professional network, the practitioner community and so on. Listen to their challenges and adventures and share your own with them. Learn from each other and improve upon your ideas. A few things will happen when you do it: your ideas will improve when you listen to feedback, and your own ability to articulate your ideas and your conviction in them will shoot up tremendously when you talk about your ideas a few times. Finally, when the world starts talking about your ideas, even your peers will sit up and take notice of them. That’ just the way we humans behave – we just need someone to initially endorse the ideas for us to support them.

Don’t try to boil the ocean…rather, establish beachheads

Very often, when we are chartered with a change agenda, we immediately start daydreaming of world domination. We start fantasizing how we will change the world with our romantic ideas, how we will become the next big thing that mankind has never known! Armed with such ‘dangerous’ ideas, we run like possessed spirits looking to infect everyone with our newfound ideas, energy and enthusiasm. However, depending on how the world sees us, they either ignore us, or shun or simply reject our ideas! Even if our ideas somehow get decreed by law, people in democratic workplace simply choose to ignore them and keep doing things their own way. So, what do you do? If you force yourself further upon people, their resistance only hardens. You need to back off. In short – don’t try to boil the ocean. That is simply not the 21st century way of doing things. Ideas, take a subset of the problem that is more tangible, and has higher chances of accepting your ideas. Take that up and establish the beachhead, and create a rocksolid success story around it. That will earn you much better support than aiming for land grab.

Socialize with key stakeholders…multiple times

No idea can survive in isolation. Being a lone ranger is of no help in pushing any significant idea in any meaningful manner. It takes a village to raise a child. If your idea is what I like to call ‘laminated’, meaning it can’t be modified or soiled, then it is meaningless. First of all, to make people take any level of meaningful interest in it, the idea can’t be positioned as being immune to modifications or enhancements. If it appears so much change-resistant, people might reject it because they might think of it as a mandate much against their own views about it. Secondly, if they have not had chance to put their fingerprints on it, even the idea might remain immature and not grow up to become strong enough to deal with all complexities. So, the key is to socialize the idea with key stakeholders as many times are it makes sense. Each interaction might make the idea one baby step better and the eventual result might exceed all your initial expectations.

So, there you go. These are my seven learnings on how one can establish credibility in a democratic workplace. What are your learnings?