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If We Got Rid Of The Boxes, Would It Cure The Disease?

I started using the phrase, “check-the-box phenomenon” years ago when I was redesigning a “phase gate” structured product development process for my then employer. One of the problems we needed to solve with the new process was to reinvigorate our lost focus on doing things right the first time.

I started using the phrase, “check-the-box phenomenon” years ago when I was redesigning a “phase gate” structured product development process for my then employer. One of the problems we needed to solve with the new process was to reinvigorate our lost focus on doing things right the first time.

Somewhere along the way we shifted focus from absolute quality to prioritizing just getting done. I imagine most of us could tell the tale or write the book on losing focus on one business value or another as we shifted to a priority focus on productivity. I won’t curse my former employer or lament; it’s a natural phenomenon that as we change our focus, we also change our priority on our values. It’s simply part of changing focus and priority.

What I realized, though, is that checking the box is also a natural human phenomenon. The problem is that it is also an illness.

In the case of my past employer, and many others that I have seen, we created checklists for each of the gate reviews that were built into our product development process. In order to move to the next major step or phase of the process we had to present our progress to a management team that would assess if proceeding made sense or if the design was not ready, or if resources would be better invested elsewhere. It’s a risk management approach to product development and project portfolio management.

It can be very successful because it can assure that the vision, pace, expenditures, and requirements of a product are maintained according to plan. The problem is that when the checklist became the basis for the gate reviews all of those things I just mentioned were forgotten. The focus shifted from a successful product to a completed checklist.

I say it is an illness because we readily forget or de-prioritize the success of the design while we focus on making sure that the checklist is completed. After all, we can’t expect to even start a meaningful review if the management team sees that some of the boxes haven’t been checked and sends us back without discussion.

Furthermore, when everyone is in a hurry and not everyone understands the vision, intent, requirements, or challenges of the project the checklist becomes the great equalizer. If the checklist is complete the assumption is that everything is on track. Therefore, if the checklist is complete we pass the gate; if it is not, we get sent back until it is.

What if something on the checklist doesn’t really apply to our project? Just because I checked the box, does that mean I did a quality job? Maybe I just filled out the form template with some meaningless stuff in order to check the box so we could proceed. Maybe I did that because the management team wants things to move faster and I know that they won’t really check or care.

I know that it sounds jaded, but I’m willing to bet most readers have witnessed exactly that behavior. That is why I call it a phenomenon. It’s just a natural thing that is going to happen when the checklist becomes the focus. The problem is that we instituted the checklist to make sure that our teams did the important things to insure product success.

It becomes an illness when the checklist becomes the important thing, instead of the important things. So, while we can accept that it is a natural “phenomenon,” we can also call it a “syndrome” because it is a misbegotten behavior. Unfortunately, “check-the-box syndrome” is an ill-given name. While it fits the checklist behaviors I was focused on when I began to use the phrase, it exists in a great many other places. In fact, it happens with most metrics and quotas.

We establish metrics to measure process health or progress and we monitor those metrics to gage our success. Sometimes, we get so focused on the metrics, both monitoring them and fulfilling them, that we lose sight of what we really wanted to accomplish. What we really need is process excellence, not a number at some arbitrary setting.

We do the same thing with quotas. Here’s the most common symptom of the disease that I can think of as I write. We are trying to drive business and process improvement with some program or methodology. We know that success will only come if everyone is exercising the methodology so we establish a quota of people to be trained and each trained person is given a quota of improvements to make. Sound familiar?

The problem is that we focus on the quota, not the purpose. We pick a simple set of projects or improvements we know we can accomplish so we can meet our quota and get back to work. After all, we are expected to get our work done too. We meet our quota and forget about it instead of truly accomplishing a change in mindset and behavior that is what we really needed.

Thus, the “check-the-box syndrome” applies to checklists, metrics, and quotas, at least. If you look around your desk and your office, I’m afraid that you will see that most of your business and process success is gauged by one or more of those things. If we focus solely on the quantitative assessment of checked or empty boxes, and forget the qualitative purpose behind them, then we have succumbed to the syndrome and our program is ill.

Here is where I make my readers’ day and propose a cure for the syndrome. I have indeed identified a cure, but like many such things it is a medicine that can be hard to find and even harder to take. The cure is basic, down-home leadership. I know… that answer doesn’t exactly make your day.

I’m sorry. I don’t know of a process recipe or fancy dashboard or language that cures all. Well, that’s not entirely true. I have used a language change as a basis for “taking the medicine” that seems to help, but it also only works with the leadership to back it up.

The way to prevent the syndrome is to maintain the focus on the real purpose, vision, and intent of the metrics and checklists, not on the metrics and checklists themselves. That is done by leaders who constantly, persistently, communicate an expectation that the intent is fulfilled and not just the checklist. Then those leaders must follow through and ensure that those expectations are satisfied, with or without the checklist or quota, or regardless of what the metric indicates.

It does help inspire everyone to focus on the intent if we replace the language, “Did you do,” with “How do you know?” Asking if something is done, is asking if a box is checked. It does not inquire about whether, or otherwise establish if, the qualitative value is upheld. However, if we ask, “How do you know that it is done correctly,” we are requiring some proof of due diligence.

Changing the language helps because it asks a different question and implies a different focus. Unfortunately, if the answer is, “I did it,” without any further evidence presented or required, then we are right back into the syndrome. Only a leader intent on maintaining the vision and purpose of the process, the product, the program, or the work, can ensure that the right work is done appropriately.

Setting expectations based on the vision and intent, and then following through to ensure that they are satisfied is the only preventative I know of for the “check-the-box syndrome.” Sadly, even the most basic leadership quality described here can be hard to find, ironically, because people will be rewarded for checking the measurable box and maybe not for defending the immeasurable qualitative vision.

Start inoculating your organization by curing yourself. Stop catering to the syndrome. Fight it with your own awareness and behavior. Believe me, it takes a great deal of courage. Once you have corrected your own behavior and set the example, begin pressing your peers and direct leaders to do the same. Dare them to join you in doing what is right. If you show the courage, they will join you. It works.

If I accomplished nothing else with all of my work and my writing and my own meager influence than stamping out the “check-the-box syndrome” I would feel like I somehow changed the world. I know it’s too much to expect, but it’s perhaps my greatest pet peeve.

Stop checking the box. Focus on the intent, not the metric or the quota. Succeed with making the change or doing the design the best and right way instead of just checking a bunch of boxes. Inoculate yourself and your organization against the syndrome with a little basic leadership.

Stay wise, friends.

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