Whether it’s Michael Drucker (knowledge worker), Geoffrey Moore (engagement), Gartner (mid-office), Forrester (iWorkers) or McKinsey (smart jobs), there is a consistent theme that the kind of work that matters most in organizations is less structured, demands deeper skills and requires more interaction with other specialists. But where are the models and technology to support these smart jobs?

At one end of the spectrum are classic automation approaches like ERP and BPM that have done the job for the back-office, and increasingly for the front-office. However, what they do well -- automate standard processes -- is a complete mismatch with these smart jobs.

At the other end of spectrum are the classic tools of document repositories and email. If we just give people in smart jobs more information and more ways to interact, productivity will happen! Getting over the barriers to information-access certainly eliminates a lot of friction, but consuming content without a focus on a business result isn't a smart job, it’s called entertainment.

So smart-job workers fall back on using technology to manage content, with team interaction managed by email. There literally is no process. You see scenarios such as "Where are we with onboarding that new client? I’m not sure -- I'll email the finance group to see if the account is set up in our ERP and the project manager to see where the project charter stands and if the client has sent us the list of people to interview."

Social technology can certainly help with interaction by connecting teams and speeding learning, but just like free-form repositories, social technology lacks the key element of some sense of approach and purpose.

Checklists: Necessary for Success

What's needed is something to bring these elements together in a way that’s easy to define and easy to understand by the real people doing these smart jobs, such as an approach that puts people at the center and drives business performance by leveraging team skills, experiences and knowledge.

Such a tool already exists and is already used in some of the smartest jobs. It’s the simple but powerful tool of the checklist, popularized by Atul Gawande in the Checklist Manifesto. As he notes after observing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, “under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success. There must always be room for judgment, but judgment aided -- and even enhanced -- by procedure.”

Checklists are used by many professionals, including surgeons, pilots, engineers and investment bankers. Checklists don’t tell them how to do something, but they make sure each person understands his role and that all the bases are covered. Checklists not only make sure project teams complete the basic but important things, but also that teams interact to stay on the same page.

Checklists can be used not only within a team, but also to manage interactions, set expectations and communicate overall status to clients so they can do their part to keep things on track and without getting bombarded by emails asking for different information and documents.

Checklist vs. Project Plan

How is a checklist different than a project plan? A checklist is more of a reminder, a set of guard rails. Good checklists focus on the essentials, not only for things to be done, but also where hand-offs should happen and to confirm objectives. You may use multiple checklists, or switch to new checklists based on what you learn about the situation. Most importantly, they are understandable by everyone involved.

A Model That Anyone Can Understand

Where does this model work in business? It applies to almost every function -- from marketing, developing plans or conducting product launches, to finance leading due diligence on the latest acquisition and to operations on-boarding new customers.

Checklists are a model that anyone can understand -- with just enough process that even surgeons will use them. They are a powerful approach to strike a balance between the classic automation approaches and free-form approaches to help get the most out of smart jobs.

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