How to Create Distributed Team Checklists

How to Create Distributed Team Checklists to Unlock Your Work

by | Distributed Teams

Checklists. Those tedious, out-of-date forms handed down from managers to team members since time began to make sure everyone colors inside the lines. The ultimate in bureaucracy… right?

The earliest checklists can be traced back to the world of medicine. Surgery was usually a painful affair because safe anesthesia didn’t exist. This was a special problem for pregnant women.

In 1788 an English surgeon, James Young Simpson, introduced the use of chloroform in pregnancy care. Safe and easy to administer as long as certain rules were followed, this breakthrough led other surgeons to adopt similar checklists for their operating procedures.

As the fear of pain went away, surgery opened dramatic new ways for human life to be improved. 

Clearly, a checklist used well is a mighty tool. You don’t have to be a surgeon to benefit from them.

Keep reading to learn how distributed team checklists empower everyone to make great decisions while telling them when to ask for help.

Building Checklists is Easy… If You’ve Created Clarity and Empowered Decision Making

Atul Gawande’s world-famous book, The Checklist Manifesto, opens with his story about bringing checklists to underperforming hospitals where is was all to common for a surgeon to operate on the wrong side of the body, for a nurse to forget a sponge during surgery, or for a patient at risk of infection not to be checked on.

Gawande applied the power of checklists to some of the busiest hospitals working on some of the highest risk problems: emergency surgery. 

To make checklists work, you have to start by creating clarity and empowering decision-making.

Otherwise, you’re building a list of restrictive guidelines focused on the wrong problem, using imperfect best practices.

But isn’t a checklist the opposite of empowerment? Why do we need them if my team knows exactly what to do?

Not according to Gawande.

“Good checklists… are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything – a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps – the ones that even the highly skilled professional using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.”

Now that you’ve created clarity and empowered your team to make decisions, let’s talk about the perks of good checklists. 

The Perks of Checklists

Efficiency is when you complete a process quickly. Effectiveness is when your process gets the job done. Success is when you get the job done well and quickly. In other words, where efficiency meets effectiveness.

That’s what checklists are for: making sure the job gets done well and quickly. 

How checklists make your team better:

  • Identify what needs to be done, quickly
  • Help you avoid common mistakes, especially in long or complex processes
  • Create clarity by putting a process into words, steps, and in order for everyone to review
  • Drive accountability by providing a standard practice to follow
  • Support innovation by establishing a foundation for improvement
  • Give team members guidelines on when to escalate an issue
  • Reduces time to resolution by authorizing team members to act on their own, within guidelines

If a lot of these steps sound similar to what we’ve discussed about creating clarity and empowering decision-making, that’s good. 

Checklists put on paper the clarity and good decisions you’ve established. 

How to Create Great Checklists


Start by brainstorming all the possible factors that could come into play. For teams, it’s best for everyone to brainstorm by themselves and then bring their ideas to the group for review. 


Once you have a comprehensive list, prioritize it according to importance. Work with your team so that you’re not overlooking anything.


For each item on the list, ask yourself how likely it is to occur, and how significant the impact would be.


Bring all this together into a simple step-by-step document


Have your team review the checklist. They can apply it to old problems they’ve sold, and can use it while solving new problems. Review the checklist from time to time for updates. 

By creating a checklist, you can be confident that your team is making the best choice based on the best information.

Common Obstacles with Checklists

Building the perfect checklist may sound too easy. Here are the main issues to watch out for. 

The checklist is out of date

Our world changes quickly. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. To make sure your checklists always serve your mission, review them from time to time with your team. Give team members the authority to challenge a step or even the whole checklist. Make sure they bring specific examples to support their challenge.

Your team treats the checklist like rules instead of guidelines

There’s a famous phrase in the military: “the map is not the terrain”. A map might say that there should be a bridge crossing a river, but that won’t help you if the bridge is closed for repairs.

In the same way, a checklist should always support your mission. If there’s a conflict between following the checklist and doing the right thing, challenge the checklist. More importantly, empower your team to challenge it. But remember, they should bring specific examples to support their challenge. 

Your team doesn’t have the resources they need

If your distributed team checklists tell a team member to always escalate a situation to the Support Engineer if a certain issue occurs, but they can’t reach the Support Engineer, then you have a problem. Trust in the checklist will quickly break down because people want to do a good job and will always find a way around.

It’s your job as the team leader to make sure your team has the resources they need and that the checklist requires, and that your team is bringing these concerns to you instead of working around the constraint. 

Checklists can create complacency

“I did what the checklist told me!” You’ve head it for the fourth time this week – a team member made a bad decision because they were following the checklist. You’re frustrated because you know they know better. Why didn’t they think this through?

Checklists can create complacency. To prevent this, make sure your team understands the goal (clarity) and is empowered to challenge the checklist to make the best decision. 

With great clarity and empowered decision-making, these obstacles are easy to tackle. 

So, what does all this have to do with Distributed Teams?

Distributed Team Checklists

Checklists help distributed teams by providing a clear and concise way to communicate expectations and tasks – challenges every team faces that are amplified by your team being in so many places and time zones. 

By using checklists, team members can avoid misunderstandings and ensure that everyone is on the same page. Checklists also help to keep projects organized and on track by providing a simple way to track progress and identify any potential problems.

In fact, you can use checklists specifically to fix this problem. Create a checklist for checking in with your distributed team!

Today we’ve explored the importance of checklists for distributed teams. What comes next?

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