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The Power of Checklists in Distributed Teams

Checklists have saved lives, helped teams succeed, and… sent people into space (more on that in a bit). But did you know that they can also make your distributed team self-reliant and more productive? (checklist template inside!)

A checklist—simple list of steps/tasks arranged in sequential order—is one of the most powerful organization tools in our personal and professional lives.

In this article, we explore the origins of checklists and the benefits of using them in a remote workplace. Oh, and we also answer a handful of questions along the way:

💡 Before you start… this article is part of our series on remote team management. Be sure to check our other stories when you’re done reading:

  1. 🏆 One App to Rule Them All: How Remote-First Teams Succeed
  2. 🤹‍♀️ Multitasking for Remote Cross-Functional Teams
  3. 📨 Why Distributed Teams Need GTD Workflows

There’s a Time and Checklist for Everything ✅

checklist(1)

1. a list of things to be checked or done
2. a comprehensive list

What’s a Checklist Anyway? 💭

“Nah… everybody knows what a checklist is, right?”

Not really.

The thing is, we often confuse checklists proper with to-dos or… shopping lists. While all three belong to the same family, they vary in complexity, utility, and longevity.

Most to-do lists are short-lived. Their life span and utility extend only as far as the last task/reminder/item. Once we’re done, we scrap the list and start with a fresh one.

Checklist proper, on the other hand, are process-oriented lists of critical tasks that need to be performed as part of a larger, more complex process or project. 

Just like this WHO Surgical Safety Checklist. 👇


Surgical Safety Checklist by WHO(2)

The checklists we discuss in this article are recurring frameworks that are routinely used across a number of industries, especially those where predictability is key.

They’re also notoriously underrated.

Simple ≠ Simplistic: The Power of Checklists ⚡️

In a 2009 New York Times bestseller, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, set out to uncover the true nature of checklists.

Prompted by a seemingly miraculous recovery of a near-drowning victim, Gawande noticed a pattern that underlies many successful feats in the field of medicine.

The use of a checklist.

Long story short, Gawande’s search took him way beyond the operating room. He discovered that there’s much more to checklists than meets the eye:

“Everywhere I looked, the evidence seemed to point to the same conclusion. There seemed no field or profession where checklists might not help.”

—Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right(3)

Gawande found that while a checklist may seem like a blunt tool, its value can’t be overstated. Checklists are designed to remind us of the “stupid,” really basic stuff—like washing hands with soap before an operation—that can and do save lives.


“The Checklist” designed by Peter Pronovost, MD, PhD to prevent central line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSIs) via Johns Hopkins Medicine(4)

The reasoning behind checklists is simple. People are fallible. Even world-class performers forget things, cut corners, or fail to perform once in a while.

The more advanced our knowledge and skills become, the more likely we are to trip, take a shortcut, and generally care less about the process.

“Failures of ignorance we can forgive. If the knowledge of the best thing to do in a given situation does not exist, we are happy to have people simply make their best effort. But if the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly, it is difficult not to be infuriated.”(3)

And this is where checklists come into play. 

Where Do We Use Checklists? 🚀

In his investigation, Gawande traced the origins of the checklist to the U.S. aviation industry of the 30s, more specifically to the ancestor of Boeing’s B-17 Flying Fortress, a plane that would play a significant role during the Second World War.

In 1934, Boeing created Model 299, a test plane that was meant to win the company a substantial order for long-range bombers from the Army Air Corps (USAAC).

However, in 1935, the plane crashed during an evaluation flight. Both test pilots died in what was later found to be a result of a pre-flight omission on the part of the crew.

To prevent such accidents in the future, Boeing created a “pilot’s checklist” that included basic tasks the pilots had to perform during taxiing, takeoff, and landing.

“The checklist became a permanent and mandatory tool, for both routine and emergency conditions, to be used by all pilots in the Boeing fleet, in all of military aviation, and soon after in commercial aviation as well.”

— “Checklists to Enhance Safety” by Boeing(5)

The early concept evolved and soon became a gold standard across the entire industry. Here’s a formal checklist used by B-17F bomber crews during WWII. 👇


B-17F and G cockpit checklist from
B-17 Training Manual, United States Army Air Force (1944)

Here’s another story.

At 9:08 p.m. EST on April 13, 1970, due to an explosion of an oxygen tank and a multiple system failure that followed, the Apollo 13 mission was aborted.

The damaged spacecraft was inoperable so the Mission Control team had to figure out how to bring astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert back from orbit.

They created a checklist that allowed the astronauts to improvise the necessary equipment and carry out new flight instructions that brought them safely home.

As Swigert recalled during the 45th anniversary of the event:

“The flight was a failure in its initial mission. However, it was a tremendous success in the ability of people to get together, like the mission control team working with what they had and working with the flight crew to turn what was almost a certain catastrophe into a successful recovery.”(6)


Lunar Module Systems Activation Checklist
by Heritage Auctions of Dallas, Texas via Phys.org(7)

Of course, checklists also come in handy in more down-to-earth (pun not intended) applications, like creating a morning/evening routine or… improving your character.

Take, for example, Ben Franklin’s famous 13 Virtues.

The virtues chart follows the traditional “checkbox” format and lists a series of tasks/steps that make up a bigger, more complex process, i.e. improving character.

Benjamin Frankling virtues checklist template.

Benjamin Franklin’s Virtues Chart by thirteenvirtues.com(8)

Checklists x Distributed Teams 👨‍💻

Ok. We know that checklists are perfect for literal life-or-death situations.

They help ensure that people don’t forget the small, “stupid” steps so big things, like a complex construction project or open-heart surgery, unfold without complications.

But they also do one more thing surprisingly well.

According to Gawande, checklists are perfect for domains where we need to balance autonomy, flexibility, and a great deal of collaboration. Sounds familiar?

Thanks to the power of checklists, distributed teams can:

  • 📤 Delegate work more easily.
  • ☝️ Give individual employees more autonomy.
  • 👷 Better coordinate complex projects.
  • 🏓 Reduce the need for back-and-forths.
  • 💡 Make sure that everybody knows what to do.
  • 💬 Improve communication and collaboration.

Here’s a more detailed list along with a handful of free checklist templates from our catalog. Apply them generously and be sure to drop by here if you need more!

Better Autonomy 🕺

Remote teams are a peculiar bunch, especially when it comes to communication.

On the one hand, there are ample tools like chat, video conferencing, and VoIP served in high fidelity, available 24/7. On the other, we need to factor in subtle inconveniences like time-zone differences that make it a tad more difficult to coordinate work.

This less-than-ideal communication scenario means individuals need more autonomy to make decisions and act on them whenever they come across a problem.

So, instead of:

  1. ⏰ Waiting for a senior employee to wake up. 
  2. 👉 Pestering whoever’s available for help.
  3. 🔥 Putting the problem on the backburner.

…they can always refer to a checklist for help.

A well-prepared checklist will let your team approach problems, difficult projects, or time-sensitive situations with confidence and better odds of success.

So, if you need a checklist template to put your team back on track, here’s a handful of top picks from our collection. They’re all free!

  1. 📅 Weekly Team Workflow Checklist
  2. 📔 Project Planning Checklist Template
  3. 🤝 Successful Teamwork Checklist

Improved Teamwork and Camaraderie 🤝

The success (or failure) of big, complex projects is a product of cooperation, that can involve hundreds or thousands of people.

Checklists break those intimidating projects into smaller bits and bring experts from different fields to work on them together.

That, in turn, requires a solid understanding of who does what and a great deal of communication to keep things running smoothly. According to Gawande:

“Complicated problems are ones like sending a rocket to the moon. They can sometimes be broken down into a series of simple problems. But there is no straightforward recipe. Success frequently requires multiple people, often multiple teams, and specialized expertise.”(3)

Since everybody has to deliver a small element of the puzzle, the entire team becomes responsible for the wellbeing and potential success of a project.

There’s no checklist template that could completely prevent miscommunication and team conflict. But we have many others that’ll help you tame problems when they come:

  1. Diffusing Conflict Checklist Template
  2. 🤗 Improving Employee Morale
  3. 🚨 Crisis Management Checklist

Fewer Errors and Omissions 🤷‍♂️

When your team works remotely, there’s much less supervision than in a regular office environment. People still make mistakes, but double and triple-checking is up to them.

In other words, it doesn’t matter if you’re the most experienced person in the room. If you don’t know how or fail to put that expertise to good use, it’s a lost cause.

Checklists impose a structure and logical order on everything your team does. Not only do they remind you what needs to be done but also how it should be done.

And the best part?

The effect compounds with every team member that applies the new way of thinking. In the spirit of Kaizen, a consistent 1% improvement every single day can bring a substantial productivity boost over time.

When in doubt, use these checklist templates:

  1. 🙇‍♂️ Programmer’s Productivity Checklist
  2. 🙇 Best UX/UI Practices Checklist Template
  3. 👩‍🎨 The Ultimate Design System Checklist

How to Write a Good Checklist ✅

Not that you know the basics, let’s see how you and your team can use Taskade to create a checklist template, or a battery of those, for every occasion.

Find Room for Improvement 👆

Checklists are perfect for patching up small inadequacies in day-to-day business.

If there’s a process that yields subpar results or is never done “just right,” think about how you could systematize it so your team can succeed 99.99% of the time.

Use the following list to identify the areas that require intervention:

  • 🤝 Meetings
  • 💬 Communication
  • 📅 Planning
  • ✅ Prioritization
  • 👩‍💻 Research
  • 🏗 Maintenance
  • 🎓 Education
  • 🗂 Organization

In each area, select a process you think could be improved, e.g. “taking meeting minutes,” or “designing a marketing campaign.”

Ready?

Good. Now head to your Taskade Workspace and create a new Project. Once you’re inside, choose the Create a Template ➕ option from the selection bar.

Selecting a checklist template in a Taskade blank project.

If you don’t want to start from scratch, pick one of the templates listed in the sections above or drop by our Templates page to access the full catalog.

Taskade checklist template catalog.

Your team can now access all reusable templates in the Templates menu of your team Workspace. Your new checklist template will also be added to the Project selection bar. 👇

Taskade checklist template selection screen.

Make It “Stupid” Simple 👌

Long, complex checklists suck. Nobody’s going to have the patience to go through a 300-item-long list, especially in the middle of an emergency.

Remember the “hands and soap” rule? Focus on what Gawande aptly calls “killer items,” essential steps that can’t be omitted, no matter what.

Ideally, a single checklist should wrap in 5-9 items. If your team’s dealing with a more complex project or process, use indentation to create several sequential lists.

Like so. 👇

Indenting a checklist template elements in Taskade.

On the visual end, make the checklist as readable as possible:

  • 📑 Apply a clear formatting scheme
  • 💬 Use simple, professional language.
  • 🌈 Apply a consistent color pattern
  • 🔠 Segment list using headings
  • 👉 Indent to create sub-tasks if needed

Encourage Ownership and Collaboration 🏈 

Gawande argues that checklists should not be a “check and forget” robotic process but rather an opportunity for a discussion and true team collaboration.

“Just ticking boxes is not the ultimate goal here. Embracing a culture of teamwork and discipline is.”(3)

For that reason, the creation process should involve people with hands-on experience who will actually use and rely on the final product in the field.

A good checklist also imposes ownership for the process, not only on individual team members but also the team as a whole.

Here are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • 🤝 Involve the entire team in the creative process
  • 🚨 Include “emergency contacts” for each process
  • 📣 Make running a checklist a team responsibility.
  • 🙋‍♀️ Clearly indicate ownership for each task.

In Taskade, you can invite team members to co-edit the checklist template, leave feedback, and discuss each point via chat, call, or during a video conference.

You can also use @mention functionality to assign checklists, segments, or even individual tasks. Just so everybody knows what to do!

To make sure all those wonderful checklist don’t go to waste, add due dates and create recurring tasks where appropriate. Here’s how you can do that in Taskade:

Conclusion 🐑

If you’re looking for a dash of order and predictability in your distributed team, checklists are the way to go. They’ll help you organize work, prevent common errors, patch up subpar processes, and put your team on a track to success.

Till next time! 👋

Resources 🔗

(1) https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/checklist
(2) https://www.who.int/patientsafety/safesurgery/testing/participate/starter_kit-sssl.pdf?ua=1
(3) https://www.amazon.com/Checklist-Manifesto-How-Things-Right/dp/0312430000
(4) https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/articles/special-report-fifteen-years-of-patient-safety-milestones
(5) https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/articles/special-report-fifteen-years-of-patient-safety-milestones
(6) https://www.boeing.com/features/innovation-quarterly/dec2016/feature-technology-checklist.page
(7) https://www.nasa.gov/content/members-of-apollo-13-team-reflect-on-nasas-finest-hour/
(8) https://phys.org/news/2012-01-nasa-apollo-cmdr.html
(9) http://www.thirteenvirtues.com/