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Spur ReplyMay 15, 2020 11:07:58 PM2 min read

Building High Performing Teams: Culture vs. Checklists

We think a lot about high performance teams. We are in the business of fielding and helping our clients create high-performance teams.

Culture versus checklists

What has troubled our leadership team is the chasm that exists in the literature between what might be called “managing the culture” vs. “managing the checklist”.

We live in that chasm. It seems neither adequate to have checklists (did you know UPS tells drivers what foot to use when getting out of their trucks?) nor to simply have cultural aspirations such as “we are committed to deliver customer service”.

First let me tell you why we think both culture and checklists are really good ideas. Then we are going to tell you what we have concluded with respect to when they should be applied.

In 2011, Atul Gawande published the Checklist Manifesto about the power of checklists. He makes a powerful argument about how checklists can radically improve the performance of organizations.

Regarding culture: Culture is an always-on form of leadership that guides people and their actions without individual leadership action.

And sometimes it can lead long after you’re gone.

The value of culture

In 1962, Thomas Watson Jr. codified IBM’s basic beliefs: respect for the individual, customer service, and excellence. Years later I worked at IBM. During my tenure at IBM, those basic beliefs came up often. And they served to guide the behavior of the whole organization. I suspect those basic beliefs still make an important impact on IBM personnel and a positive impact on IBM business performance.

The positive impact of culture can make us optimistic. It has been said that Steven Jobs was fanatical about the details that created an exquisite user experience. I can’t be the only one that hopes his fanaticism has become part of Apple’s long-term culture and approach.

But there are limitations. IBM was thinking about excellence when it increased mainframe manufacturing capacity just as the PC started to erode the mainframe market. The costs and impact were horrific. Apple no doubt was thinking about the user experience when it released Lisa. Users stayed away in droves.

Lesson: Culture can’t save you from all mistakes.

The value of checklists

We love checklists.

We have an executive communications practice that puts every piece of executive communications through a 40 point checklist. 40! As we use it, that checklist gets longer. But it saves us. Every executive communications is high-stakes communication. Our reputation for fit and finish depend on that checklist and fastidious nature of our executive communications staff.

But no checklist can save you from saying the wrong thing. Arthur Andersen learned that when a beautifully crafted memo suggested staff destroy working papers related to completed audits. The accountants working there likely considered themselves high-quality, ethical business people. No matter. In a couple of months they were all out of work.

Lesson: Checklists can’t save you from all mistakes.

Both are powerful

Together, culture and checklists are both formulas for creating effective leaders. In the case of culture, by imbuing the organization with a steady sense of purpose and direction that impacts thousands or millions of individual decisions. And checklists are detailed guidance that is a recipe for craftsmanship for newer professionals and seasoned professionals that benefit from a steady reminder of the right way to do things.

Your job is leadership. What have you done to extend the reach of your leadership and the direction of your executive team? Let us know.


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