When In Doubt...Make A List
Insurance Experts' Forum, October 14, 2009
Michael H. was a smart guy. As a senior business analyst, he was the subject matter expert (SME) in many areas. However, he was occasionally asked to come up with improvements in areas about which he had little knowledge and no expertise. Over the years, he learned a technique to bail himself out of these situations. He would simply convene one or more meetings with the real SMEs for the process under investigation, set up a flip chart, and make a list. He threw out a series of questions (which was easy, since he had no answers) and wrote down everything that was said. Then, he sat down with the SMEs and department management to interpret and prioritize the findings.
Sarah S. was a smart woman. She had been a member of a number of development and implementation teams. She had a thorough understanding of the key processes, and was well-trained in techniques for documenting and analyzing them. Sarah’s problem was that she rarely actually completed anything. She always had a number of activities that were 60% complete or 75% done, but the tasks always seemed just a little too large or too complicated to finish. In Sarah’s case, the solution was also—make a list. As her manager, I sat down with her every morning and we made a detailed to-do list for the day. We included personal activities like “call your Mom” so that all the distractions would be identified in advance and could be marked off when completed. A very important factor was that we began every list with the same task: “Make a list.” No matter what happened, she started off the day by marking that item off her list.
The Power of the List
As managers, we are all familiar with project plans, system request prioritization documents and a variety of other planning tools. At their heart, though, these are nothing more than lists.
The power of the list is its ability to bring focus. Simply adding an item to a list gives it something in common with every other item on the list. You can later discard the item, or you can downgrade its importance, but for a brief moment, it is the subject of attention. A specific decision to add it or erase it from the list requires thought on the part of the list-maker.
So, how can lists be helpful? Let’s make a list:
The list can help determine importance or priority. The first question is, “Is it important enough to be on the list in the first place?” Then, you can begin to question if item 3 is more important than item 4. This can be easy if you are using the same, simple criteria (e.g., cost, geography, ease of implementation and so on). If the criteria used are more complex, a matrix or weighted evaluation might be required.
The list can help determine timing. Everything cannot be done at once. At its simplest, a list can be reordered to indicate that item 6 really has to be done before item 3. This, of course, is integral to the development of any kind of project plan.
The list can help determine responsibility. Another key component of any project plan is the identification of responsibility for each activity. Many times, this just takes one look at the overall list of activities. “Activity 4 is John’s area of expertise; he’s our man.”
The list can measure progress. Whether it is a complex project plan, or a simple, daily to-do list, activities are completed and marked off the list. Those activities that are not marked off in a timely fashion stand out and can be addressed directly.
A list is a simple tool. But its simplicity gives it flexibility and power. We can dress it up; we can automate it; we can make it hundreds of pages long. But it still begins with a need to sort things out and make a list.
Eugene Reagan is a senior consultant for the Robert E. Nolan Co., a management consulting firm specializing in the insurance industry.
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