Inspired by Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, I found a new approach to guiding change: I created a checklist.
Organizational change is often a complex undertaking that takes place in an already complex system. As a surgeon and health reform thought leader, Gawande understands complexity. Think about an operating room. A team works under intense pressure on a patient whose body is complicated; there are both strict procedures and emergent challenges; systemic issues like the nurse-doctor hierarchy are entrenched; errors can cost lives. Sound in some ways like your work place?
Gawande shows that checklists have lots of appeal as a way to get complex processes right. They:
- Make a “cognitive net” to catch gaps in knowledge, memory, and attention when individuals or teams are busy doing intense and complex work.
- Identify critical decision points. Each decision point is reached by using process tools that go with the list item.
- Are created from knowledge (how to do a surgical procedure); experience (how critical incidents have been handled in the past); input from many people (how various neighborhood Ebola response teams worked); hard data.
- Teach and improve a whole organization, industry, or sector.
How would I create a checklist for guiding change? There are so many theories and models of change that it is hard to wrap your arms around them. As I worked with clients and refined my MBA course in managing change, I searched, not for a “theory of everything,” but for a practical approach that would be deliberately eclectic, flexible, and also coherent. I wanted clients to avoid the mistakes I often see and that research verifies: failing to include the right people, not communicating enough with stakeholders, failing to anticipate obstacles, and neglecting to anchor change through skill building and new business processes.
Here are the first of eleven items on my checklist.
1. Have initiators firmed up the rationale for the change project, including timing and resources?
2. Have initiators evaluated the complexity and impact of the change?
3. Have initiators done stakeholder analysis in order to make three key decisions (3a-c on the checklist)?
4. Have initiators formed the change project team based on steps 1-3?
Like a Gawande checklist, the change checklist is built on a body of knowledge. For example, for #2, users need to understand what “complexity” and “impact” mean and how to evaluate these factors.
For each item, a set of process tools shows people “how to.” Clients choose the tool(s) they need in order to complete each checklist step. For #2, there is a complexity/impact grid, for instance. For #3 you can choose from several ways of doing a stakeholder analysis.
The checklist reminds you to:
- Talk about each important step in a change project.
- Thoughtfully choose the process tools you need.
- Make decisions based on process tool results.
With the checklist, people realize that change management is a body of knowledge that can be grasped and learned. You do not make it up as you go along. You no longer manage change by following a leader whose experience may not be relevant to this change. Leadership for guiding change can come from anywhere in the organization. The checklist complements and “completes” what are primarily technical approaches to change, like Project Management and Quality Improvement. The checklist is marvelously suited for responding to complex situations because it is both step-wise and flexible.