Creating flow in your work (Part 2)

I've been thinking a lot recently about how to improve flow when you're dealing with complex, low-volume, high-mix knowledge work. The process for creating flow is pretty well documented for repetitive, task-oriented work. (That's not to say that it's easy. But it is well-defined.) However, what do you do when you're the creative director at an ad agency? Or a trial lawyer? Or in charge of marketing communications for a specialty chemical manufacturer? How can you bring flow to work that is inherently so unpredictable and highly variable?

In a previous post, I suggested that you should look for the elements of your work that are predictable and repetitive. Now, I want to suggest that you transforming complex, creative work into simple, “transactional” tasks that can be done easily. Checklists are a perfect example of this concept. They ensure that individual steps within a complicated process are both remembered completely and done correctly.

NASA astronauts and ground operations use checklists for all space missions. The Columbia Journalism Review advocates that journalists use checklists to reduce errors in reporting. Since the crash in 1935 of a prototype B-17 bomber, pilots use checklists when taking off and landing planes – the process is just too complicated, and the downside risk is too great, to rely upon mere memory. Checklists are increasingly finding their way into medicine as well, dramatically reducing infection and mortality rates where they’re being used. Dr. Peter Pronovost has been leading the way in this area, as Atul Gawande reported in The New Yorker:

The checklists provided two main benefits, Pronovost observed. First, they helped with memory recall, especially with mundane matters that are easily overlooked in patients undergoing more drastic events. (When you’re worrying about what treatment to give a woman who won’t stop seizing, it’s hard to remember to make sure that the head of her bed is in the right position.) A second effect was to make explicit the minimum, expected steps in complex processes.

Your work may have less riding on it than the lives of patients or passengers, but there’s no doubt that there’s complexity in your work that, if eliminated, would improve flow and reduce waste. Chip and Dan Heath wrote in Fast Company about the benefits of checklists in business:

Even when there is no ironclad right way, checklists can help people avoid blind spots in complex environments. Has your business ever made a big mistake because it failed to consider all the right information? Cisco Systems, renowned for its savvy in buying and absorbing complementary companies, uses a checklist to analyze potential acquisitions. Will the company's key engineers be willing to relocate? Will it be able to sell additional services to its customer base? What's the plan for migrating customer support? As a smart business-development person, you'd probably remember to investigate 80% of these critical issues. But it would be inadvisable to remember the other 20% after the close of a $100 million acquisition. (Whoops, the hotshot engineers won't leave the snow in Boulder.) Checklists are insurance against overconfidence.

Checklists reduce ambiguity and uncertainty, thereby allowing faster action with less deliberation. They provide the same benefit that habits do in setting free, as William James put it, the “higher powers of mind” for creative thought.

Checklists improve flow in one other significant way: they dampen the tendency to multi-task in favor of serial-tasking. In a rapidly changing, always-connected work environment, serial-tasking may sound heretical. At the very least, it probably sounds slow and inefficient. And yet, serial-tasking leads to a smoother flow of work (and value). What we often forget is that the most complex activities are composed of individual actions – done one at a time. A good analogy might be the performance of an elegant prima ballerina in Swan Lake: her dance is composed of a series of individual movements – turns, steps, and jumps – done in sequence, one at a time. But when they’re linked together, they create a seamless, flowing whole. The same is true for your work. Because even if you’re not creating an artistic masterpiece, you can nevertheless strive for the same smooth, uninterrupted, flow of work.

How can you use checklists in your work? How can you turn the creative into the "transactional"? Let me know in the comments section.