Holacracy® Basics: Understanding Checklists

Holacracy Practitioners Guide

“Good checklists, on the other hand are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything — a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps — the ones that even the highly skilled professional using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.” 
Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

Summary:

  • Checklists are a way to get visibility into any recurring actions a role is performing; e.g. “Invoices sent,” or “List of clients updated.”
  • The purpose of the Checklist review is to surface information, not reinforce accountability. Sure, bringing awareness to something tends to increase its likelihood, but that’s not why we review checklist items. The checklist review is about seeing reality. As it is. Not as we wish it would be.
  • Checklists are only reviewed during tactical meetings. You can ask anyone at anytime to share their next intended action, so the checklist review during the tactical meeting should be understood as something provided for convenience.
  • Checklist review works best when there are only two choices; e.g. “Check,” or “No check.” This binary choice forces a distinction we might otherwise feel uncomfortable making.
  • It’s important to make it clear it’s always OK to say, “No Check.” If others feel tension about it, they should bring their own agenda item. The purpose is to surface the truth — don’t shame one another. It only tends to encourage people hide what’s really happening.
  • Since there is an infinite variety of possible recurring actions, the only things a circle needs to document as a checklist item are recurring actions that others want visibility into.
  • You can’t add new expectations. Meaning, it needs to be something the role is already doing; i.e. “recurring action.” Remember, new expectations can only be added in Governance meetings.
  • If needed, checklist items may be added to “All Circle Members” if based on another agreement. Meaning, you could request a checklist item like, “Completed weekly review,” because according to section 1.2.4 of the constitution, anyone filling a role in the circle must track and regularly review their list of projects and next-actions.
“We don’t like checklists. They can be painstaking. They’re not much fun. But I don’t think the issue here is mere laziness. There’s something deeper, more visceral going on when people walk away not only from saving lives but from making money. 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.” 
Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

Adding, Changing, or Removing Checklist Items:

  • Anyone can request a checklist item be added to any role. This can be done at any time. Just login to GlassFrog® and update it. In the conventional management hierarchy, only the manager might want this kind of transparency (to the exclusion of other team members), but self-organization means anyone can get the transparency they need.
  • New checklist items are always requested, not assigned. Meaning, even if someone added a checklist item for you in GlassFrog®, you have no obligation to report on it unless it’s clear to you that it fits your role (e.g. Just say, “I haven’t agreed to that item” when asked). You can only request checklist items for actions someone 1) has already agreed to do, or 2) agrees to do when you ask them (whether they’ve “agreed to it” because of governance, a constitutional duty, or some other agreement).
  • The process for changing or updating checklist items is unspecified in the constitution. So, use your best judgment depending on the situation. For example, if someone else requested a checklist item for my role, but it no longer seems relevant, I may notify them of the change, or I may not trusting them to process any tension if it surfaces. And one way to process that tension may be to propose a policy around how the checklist is updated.
What is needed, however, isn’t just that people working together be nice to each other. It is discipline. Discipline is hard — harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even than selflessness. We are by nature flawed and inconstant creatures. We can’t even keep from snacking between meals. We are not built for discipline. We are built for novelty and excitement, not for careful attention to detail. Discipline is something we have to work at.
Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

How NOT to Use Checklists:

  • Checklists work well enough to bring transparency to recurring actions, but not in all situations. If you want to be notified every time of something without needing a tactical meeting, then you may need to propose an accountability instead (e.g. New accountability for the Sales role: “Notifying Sales Reporter when a new sale has been made.”) Again, checklists are reviewed only during tactical meetings and, as a general rule, you should never wait for a tactical meeting for anything.
  • Don’t use checklists to “ensure certain things happen.” Checklists don’t work well to reinforce what should be done, but only to surface what has been done. By surfacing information, we can generate relevant tensions to better adapt to reality (i.e. they are intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive).
  • You don’t have to use checklists. Remember, the constitution allows you to modify the tactical meeting process (Section 4.2.3: “A Circle may adopt a Policy to add to or change this required process”). So, maybe you don’t need any checklists. That’s fine. Propose governance to change the default process. But don’t do it just because checklists seem boring or beneath you.

Conclusion:

Checklists help us avoid shades of grey. There are lots of reasons why we might want to hide certain truths from others; from even ourselves. Having a checklist item is a way for the organization (as manifested through the roles) to figure out if certain things are happening. They’re a window into reality. After all, if you saw a physician but tried to impress them with how healthy you are — how little attention you need, then you’re not going to get much help.


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