Mimi Browning | Use your checklist, don't let it use you

IT Strategy'commentary:

"Checklists alone will not guarantee a rosy future." Mimi Browning

Most of us develop a variety of action plans to meet specific goals and expectations. Some of us are more driven in our planning and adherence to these checklists; others are more casual. Either way is fine as long as we realize that checklists alone will not guarantee a rosy future or eliminate life's setbacks.

Two tales that culminated in February 2007 illustrate how easy it is to forget that plans and logic alone do not determine our fate.

First is the story of Susan. She was a dedicated federal executive who planned her life down to the last detail and whose managerial style was characterized by lists, matrices and an enviable collection of personal and professional notebooks going back decades.

Susan and her staff communicated actions mainly by checklists. One checklist included an item to notify a staff member via e-mail of a poor performance rating.

The belief that all actions (financial, human, quality of life, organizational) were convertible to checklists was a Susan hallmark. Susan had detailed checklists for all personal and work actions she wished to accomplish, when and where she would retire and what she planned to do in retirement.

Five years ago, Susan announced that she planned to retire in April 2007 and pursue her retirement dreams.

Those of us who knew Susan were impressed with her ability to so definitively plan the rest of her life, even though we may not have agreed with her obsessive checklist methods.

Last summer, Susan was diagnosed with cancer, and she died in February. Despite her careful planning and detailed checklists, Susan could not outsmart her fate.

The second tale is about Craig, a highly ambitious and successful rainmaker in the private sector. Women love him and, in fact, he loves them, too, since he is now married to his fourth wife.

Craig is superorganized, always wired and has more checklists (electronic and in writing) than anyone else I know. He is the very model of someone who would never be caught short for lack of preparation. But, he was.

Craig, like Susan, manages not to be humanly engaged. If there is a problem or the merest whiff of uncertainty, the checklist will solve it.

Upon being told by his supervisors that he needed to be more accessible to his senior staff and more of a coach and teacher to his junior staff, Craig immediately began a checklist campaign to see all of his staff and tell them what to do. Last month, Craig was fired from his job. The ostensible reason was that his corporation ' due to mergers and acquisitions ' was restructuring various business units, and Craig's was eliminated.

The real reason was his attitude. Despite his legendary rainmaker abilities, Craig treated people like items to be checked off on a list. Unlike Susan's tale, this one may contain a ray of hope. Craig's current wife gets it, and the two of them, with gentler aspirations, have started their own small business.

If we can learn anything from these tales, it is to keep the checklists brief, put people first and allow some room for chaos.

Mimi Browning is a former Army senior executive and currently a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. of McLean, Va. She can be reached at browning_miriam@bah.com.

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