On Not Ticking The Boxes

I have written several times in recent weeks about how proud I am that I have, despite very real challenges and obstacles, written an article and published a newsletter every week so far this year. That would be foreshadowing. Or hubris. Or both.

Last week I didn’t write an article. Or, more importantly, I did write one, but I didn’t publish it. I had something to say, but it wasn’t coming out the way that I wanted to. I could have published it anyway, and kept my publishing record pristine. I could have ticked the box that said ’done’ and gone on my merry way. But that wouldn’t have been fair to me. And it would have been even less fair to you.

What I wrote last week was, once again, about 1800 words. They just weren’t awesome words. They were competent, workmanlike words. Overall, they made a point. But they took a very long time to get there. They certainly didn’t nail the point to the wall.

I could have made the words better. In fact, I think I have. Many of them appear here, reordered and restructured. It’s just that last week, I ran out of time. By the time I hit Friday, I could have struggled to make what I had written more coherent in order to simply get it out the door. Or I could step away and come back to it, when I was in the frame of mind to do it well. This is what I have done.

This story actually illustrates very well the point I was endeavoring to make last week. We have different modes of work, and those modes produce different results. Sometimes we fully show up; we are immersed in the task and in producing results that are relevant and entirely engaging. Other times, we may be present physically, but mentally we are going through the motions. When we are lucky, we still get away with producing a reasonable result. If it isn’t good, it’s at least good enough. More often, we miss the mark, sometimes by a very wide margin.

The test is what we do—and how we respond—when that happens. For some of us, we learn that we can just get by with a minimum amount of effort, and that’s what we do. We tick the boxes, getting work off our list as quickly and efficiently as possible. We make the minimum effort to produce a minimum viable product, and we throw it over the wall. It’s off our desk, and it’s now someone else’s problem.

For others, we take our failings and missteps to heart. We course correct, we adjust, we make the effort to improve. We strive to put our best work out the door, and we recognize when what we are doing doesn’t measure up. We strive to improve, we own up to our mistakes, and we make corrections and alterations when necessary to deliver our best work.

I know these things to be true, because I have lived both of these realities. I suspect I drove my high school teachers to despair with my approach to school. “Doesn’t live up to his potential” was an oft-repeated phrase on my report cards. I did the minimum necessary to get by and had a very finely calibrated sense of where I needed to be to get the results that I wanted.

Somewhere along the way, things shifted. I began to value my work, and to value the impact of my work on others. I wanted it to be relevant and to make a difference. I was acutely aware of when it didn’t measure up, and was arguably my own harshest critic. Just showing up or getting by was not sufficient.

But these are personal attitudes to personal work. We also need to align our personal perspectives with organizational attitudes and the expectations of others. That’s particularly complicated In the context of project work. Projects are long and arduous journeys. There are deadlines. The work is stressful. We often hit a point where we simply want to get it done and finished. That’s when ticking the boxes becomes sorely tempting.

The very structure of how we plan and manage projects also complicates things. We start by trying to figure out what the project is really about. We examine the problem that we are trying to solve, the solution that might best support our needs and the feasibility and impact of actually doing that. We consult with stakeholders, negotiate requirements and define expectations. We clarify outcomes, articulate success and figure out what done looks like.

From there, though, we dive into the planning process. We translate those outcomes and expectations that we began with into work. We start with dreams, ideas and outcomes and wind up with scope. That statement of scope becomes the essence of what will be managed to in delivering a project. It is the basis of how the activities are defined, changes are assessed and ultimately delivery of the project is judged. It’s described as the ‘contract’ between the project manager and the sponsor, and it’s very much utilized in that context.

In defining scope, we shift the definition of what is important about the project—the results—into the work of the project—what it will actually do. From that point forward, everything hangs off the scope. Activities are defined, risks are assessed, estimates are produced and quality is evaluated based upon the scope. It is, quite literally, the basis of everything that comes next.

This brings two competing tensions struggling to the fore. First, we have moved from understanding why we want to do the project to focus on what we are going to do. And we want to get to the finish line of delivering on the work. The longer the project, the more impatient we become. Exhaustion, inertia, ennui and inherent laziness conspire to make ticking the boxes look awfully appealing. And the decomposition and structuring of work that makes managing large projects possible makes it easy to disconnect the work we do from the results we wanted in the first place.

The consequence is that we often get most of the project, but we don’t necessarily get all of it—at least not all of the project that we expected to receive when we started. And this is not a rare occurrence. Significant numbers of projects start off well, but by the end wind up settling for only delivering 70% or 80% of what they promised. Or worse. The numbers of projects that I have personally reviewed, audited or simply been witness to where corners have been cut and compromises made simply to get it done and off the books number in the hundreds.

Very early in my consulting career, a client gave me a piece of advice: “Never let them see you sweat.”

It’s an interesting comment, because it can be taken in a number of different ways. It may reflect not wanting to know about the work that was required. Or that results matter. Or that the work should be kept in the background. Or that the secret to success is making things look easy. Or, alternatively, that making it look easy is a competitive weapon. There are a lot of possible interpretations in a very simple message.

The comment arose in discussing work that I had been leading. I had mentioned that the activity in question had several more challenges than anticipated, and had taken a great deal more effort than expected to successfully complete. I suspect the comment was motivated by not wanting to know about the work, or alternatively hoping I wasn’t going to bill him more. At the time, I took it as a suggestion that the top performers deliver results in a way that looks effortless.

On reflection, I think we need to turn that idea around a little bit. It’s not really about making hard work look easy, although it’s always nice when you can pull that little trick off. It’s about making hard outcomes easy to realize.

This requires a little bit of a reframing of how we think about our projects. We translate outcomes and results into scope. We parse scope into activities. And then we reinterpret activities on the fly into what we can manage and reasonable conceive delivering. All of this is about us, and a whole lot of it is about getting things done as quickly and painlessly as possible (for us). Whether it serves others is an entirely different story.

Going back to the original premise of the article, if we are truly to show up and be present in our projects we can’t simply tick the boxes. In fact, we shouldn’t be measuring our success by whether or not we’ve just delivered on the scope of the project (because that’s simply an abstraction of what was important to us in the first place). What we need to be focussing on is what is required for the results to be usable, to be used and to deliver on their promised value. Doing that is a whole different conversation.

The goal of a project is to produce results. But the ultimate point is that those results need to be used. And they won’t be used unless they are valued, valuable and support the attainment of concrete value that matters. That requires an entirely different approach and level of effort.

It is a fundamental truth that if an organizational change is going to be successful, people need to see themselves as being more successful using the new approach than whatever they currently have in place. Doing that is truly where the work lies. Delivering a change that is compelling, useful and usable—and convincing stakeholders that is true—is where the real effort lies. Yes, you can go through the motions, tick the box and call it done. But that should not be the measure of success.

Real, meaningful and usable change takes work. Shortcuts simply short circuit this. A recent planning exercise for a client is a really good example of this. I did the work that I was hired to do. I interviewed their people, mapped out the activities and created a useful holistic representation of how everything connected and mapped over time. Not only did I tick my box in terms of delivering on what was asked, but what was produced was relevant, comprehensive and comprehensible.

While what I produced was arguably good and useful—and what was asked for—it also didn’t fully and completely answer the question that the client was wrestling with. The answer was in the data, but it needed teasing out. There was more synthesis and analysis required to actually get to the “so what” and “now what” that they were wrestling with.

Doing that analysis, and developing an effective means of presenting it, was easily an extra 12 hours of work. But that is the work that actually delivered the value the client needed. I could have stopped with delivering what I was asked for. If I had done so, I would have been entirely blameless. The client may still have appreciated the quality of what I did produce. But it wouldn’t have moved them forward. They would still be struggling with the same problems at the end of the process as they were when they began the exercise in the first place.

Delivering work that matters takes effort. Deliver results that are valued requires more effort, conscientiousness and discipline than simply ticking the boxes. But that is when our work becomes genuinely relevant and we genuinely deliver value. Just getting to done may perceptually deliver on our commitments. But it doesn’t represent done well. Making our work useful and usable is ultimately what matters. Being able to tick that box is an entirely different enterprise.

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