A Check-In on Check-Offs – Mark Leheney

What’s not to like about a check-off?

You know, that feeling you get when something is finished and with a satisfied stroke of the pen, you draw a checkmark through that empty box that you drew just so you could put the checkmark through it.

The check-off is particularly satisfying for those whose last letter in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is “J” (Judger). This preference likes closure, completion, resolution and finality. What organization doesn’t like that? I once worked with a group of coaches who insisted on whiteboarding the tasks for our meetings, each one prompting a “woo-hoo!” when checked. In contrast, “P’s” (Perceivers) like keeping options open, exploring possibilities and continuing to think about what could be. I believe P’s actually experience a kind of grief when something comes to an end. After all, all those exciting other possibilities (which they can sometimes surface late in the process, much to the annoyance of the J’s) are now history – at least for whatever just went out the door.

But Steve Jobs once famously said, “Real programmers ship.” By that, he meant they didn’t just indulge their fantasies around cool code. They complete the application and it goes out the door to be sold. Check.

Jobs and Apple are not a bad place to start a check-in on the institution of check-offs – and yes, they are an institution now. They are such a part of the workplace lingua franca that they occupy a special place right alongside the organizational drivers and DNA strands like “goals, priorities,” and “planning.” They are a huge part of work life.

Think about it. There was a big series of check-offs at the World Wide Developers Conference, where Apple released its new OS and cloud-based connectivity. But today, millions of other people will check many other things off, big and small.

But the real question for them, and you, is: Is what is being checked off any good?

Immediately, a provocative question like this can create significant discomfort, defensiveness and even confusion among those wedded to check-offs. Check-offs are binary, either/or. Once this question of quality is raised, everything moves into a new realm that is harder to measure, more controversial, certainly more subjective, laden with differing values, politics, assumptions and worldviews.

Wouldn’t the busy, overstressed, maxed-out management team really just rather hear if it got done (binary), and maybe secretly, quietly hope it was good?

Microsoft and Dell and other companies have their big check-offs, but do you hear much about them? Are they good? I hear much less excitement and enthusiasm.

Could it be that Apple cares both about shipping code, and shipping the right code, the good code?

That’s an important question for any organization trying to stay viable, innovative, leading-edge and valued. A simple yes/no can potentially disguises the real issue.

Broaden and deepen the question. What is it that you’re really checking off? How do you know it’s good?

Then, when you’ve answered it satisfactorily, go ahead and draw that checkmark.

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