We are a society of list-makers. We gather groups of to-dos and to-don’ts, would-bes and should-bes, and we slap them down on legal pads and post-it notes, fancy journal pages, and stained napkins. Far too often those lists fail to translate to measurable success.
It doesn’t have to be this way. When making lists, a little strategy and intentionality can go a long way. It’s a discipline that far too many of us—especially those of us who the Wall Street Journal says are drowning in lists—are unaware of.
The truth is, you can actually get better at making lists and those lists can help you become a better leader. It starts with making the right lists. Here are 4 kinds of lists that can greatly aid the decisions you make for your business.
As the broadest of all list categories, “checklists” can be populated with any data imaginable. Spencer Smith, a former VP of Sales at two Fortune 100 companies and recent founder of social media marketing firm Ampliphi, recommends a three-step checklist approach to stay on track:
- Create a daily checklist that determines what success looks like. “Small business owners can work 24/7 since there’s no longer a definition of a proper work day,” he says. “Without checklists, small business owners have a very, very hard time of knowing when they’re on-the-clock and when they’re not. Create a realistic daily checklist, and once you’re done, you can allow yourself to leave work feeling great.”
Create a not-doing list: “It forces you to reconcile the best use of your time right now, and by knowing what you’re not doing, you’re telling yourself that the things you are doing are the most important and high-value items. A ‘not doing’ list also helps assuage that gnawing feeling of ‘what am I forgetting?'”
Use the first two checklists to create systems for other team members. “Think to yourself, ‘If I was a brand-new person working in my business, what would I need to do, step-by-step, to complete this task/project?’ These step-by-step systems will prevent employee/contractor issues in the future since they’ll know what’s expected of them,” Smith says.
Like Smith, Helena Escalante, founder of Entregurus, also uses checklists on a daily basis. They are especially important when she is engaging in a repetitive process.
“Anything that I have to repeat more than twice merits a checklist to ensure uniformity in the outcome and quality,” she explains. “The more familiar you are with any process, the more you tend to become complacent and leave it to memory, but that’s when you are more prone to making mistakes. Checklists are wonderful to avoid mistakes because there is no decision-making. You simply follow and check every step, and at the end you will have the result that you set out to achieve initially.”
Pros and cons
In the hierarchy of lists, pros and cons may be just below to-dos in both popularity and ease of use. Most of us have probably been using them all our lives—from making dinner plans to deciding who to play with at recess—even if they were never written down. These lists are just as valuable in the business world.
Lazhar Ichir, founder of the AI-powered content marketing platform Topicseed, says that lists of pros and cons are like “fictional partners” that lend necessary reason and data to his decision-making process.
“You need to be at peace with criticizing your own ‘genius ideas’ and tearing them apart after thinking them through,” Ichir says. “Having cons does not mean the initial thought is not worth pursuing. Instead, cons allow you to be prepared once you start working on whatever it is that you have in mind.”
While relatively straightforward in design, Nate Masterson, CEO of Maple Holistics, argues that the most effective pros and cons lists don’t just reflect the obvious positive and negative aspects of a project or decision. They should also reflect the values and future vision of the company.
“Longevity is probably the most important factor to consider when you face a decision—tough or otherwise,” says Masterson. “When you make your pros and cons list, every factor of the decision should be filtered through longevity and values; if represented this way you can only make the best possible decisions.”
If the goal of most businesses is to be as efficient as possible—to work smarter, not harder—it stands to reason that those businesses should be tracking how their work is actually done.
“Mapping workflows are critical in finding choke points and areas of inefficiency,” says business consultant Aaron Pfeifer. “When I work with organizations to optimize their operations, I insist on sitting with a person from each position within a workflow to understand not just the overall process, but the minutiae that can derail a process.”
Members of a team generally have a verbal understanding of their related workflows, whether their role is to publish blog content or process retail orders. But, says Pfeifer, writing them down often uncovers inefficiencies that can significantly impact operations.
“Often, we’ll find out that people are using workarounds for a broken system, duplicating data input, or waiting on a single person to approve work before it can continue,” he says. “Any delay in workflows results not only in delayed billing, but it increases employee frustration, mistakes, and upset customers—risking future opportunities.”
Louisiana-based business consultant Connelly Hayward is also a staunch advocate for developing workflows, noting that they “open up and enhance big picture thinking.”
“It allows everyone to see everything and prepare for seasonality, specifically the busy season,” Hayward explains. “When things get busy, where are problems likely to happen? What will be the nature of those problems? What can we do now to prevent those problems? If we can’t prevent them, what can we do to be best prepared to solve them when they do happen?”
Hayward also offers guidance on how to develop worfklow lists, suggesting that starting from the beginning may not be the best strategy.
“My advice, pick something and work backwards and forwards from there,” he says. “The process is basic and straightforward: We are at X, what does having X create/cause? Once we are at X, what is the very next thing that happens? What had to have happened for X to happen? What is the very last event/task before we have X? Many clients are surprised to discover that what they thought was the beginning point actually wasn’t.”
As the founder and CEO of IndustryStar Solutions, a supply chain services and software company that helps organizations launch new products, Williams Crane helps his customers develop lists of vendors who can provide various capabilities or materials. His company also develops an internal Tracked Suppliers list that rates vendors on their performance across several metrics (cost, quality, service, and delivery) and assigns each supplier a status of “preferred” or “no source.”
“It is important to develop a scoring system for your vendors that will allow you and your team to communicate ratings and rankings,” Crane explains. “For example, if an organization’s goal is to optimize buffer stock levels to reduce inventory costs, it should track suppliers with quality or delivery issues and long lead times to reduce the impact of delayed and missed shipments.”
Developing a list of prioritized vendors is a nuanced, multi-step process. For Crane, it’s also one that ensures his company is able to best meet its own needs and those of its clients. He says the list is always in flux—growing, shrinking, and otherwise evolving based on the most current information available.
“Established companies with [prioritized vendor] lists often find that continuous maintenance—removing under-performing suppliers and adding new ones—is a key enabler for maintaining their supply bases,” Crane says. “Modern cloud software tools enable professionals to automate the process of identifying and qualifying suppliers and free up time to focus on engaging suppliers.”