The checking boxes culture and mentality of work is pretty pervasive.
You can call this a lot of different things: shallow work, for example, or “chasing bullet points.” On marketing teams, they often over-focus on “campaign assets” as opposed to “What’s the end-game value of this idea?” As a result, many marketing campaigns ultimately miss the mark.
There’s also a lot of no-ROI deliverables at many jobs, “sense of urgency” projects that aren’t even remotely urgent, a confusing of “busy” with “productive,” and tons of “process for the sake of process.”
Checking boxes. A lot of it.
This leads to unclear economic value on guys making low six-figure salaries, which is costing firms trillions of dollars. Think about it: back in the day, a $135,000/per annum middle manager justified that salary by “I make the trains run.” The sentence “I make the trains run” is essentially a synonym for “checking boxes.” It means “I move shit from A to B and back again so that executives can have their reports in the formats they prefer.” It’s not real, value-add work. Then technology came along. High-powered CRMs and solid apps mean those same execs can stand on line for coffee and see all the numbers they need. Middle managers are now less relevant.
What should happen there? A greater focus in the front-line ranks on developing people.
What did happen? More chest-pounding, assertions of relevance, and checking boxes.
Not a pretty picture. How did this happen, and what can we do next?
Quick little story on checking boxes
I have about 33,149 stories of people checking boxes as opposed to doing real work, but here’s a recent one. Was working with some guy on the launch of his product. I was gonna do some emails, etc. He got shafted by a SEO vendor and fell behind, etc. We talked a few weeks ago and he says he’ll let me know when the site has soft-launched so I can work with him on some emails. I figure I’ll hear from him, etc.
Randomly at about 3pm on a Friday, dude texts me that we need to review the emails now. There’s no site. Launch isn’t happening anytime soon. There’s not even a list. But now, on a later Friday afternoon, we gotta do this. It’s urgent right now.
No it’s not. Even if we did those emails at 3:05pm, I never would deploy a brand launch email on a Friday afternoon.
Checking boxes. It’s pervasive.
Why is it so pervasive, though?
Easiest bouncing ball would be:
- At work, people want to be seen as relevant
- Unfortunately, the hiring process — how people enter companies — is deeply flawed
- Because it’s rooted in Temple of Busy-adoring hiring managers demanding headcount…
- … it often creates horribly unclear, essentially unnecessary job roles
- Those job roles are compounded by unclear priorities from the top ranks
- [Guys who want to make money essentially speak a different language from everyone else, which also muddies priorities]
- No one really knows what they should be working on, or in what order
- But everyone around them is saying “I am so slammed!” all the time
- They want to feel relevant and be seen as competent
- Heck, they want to feel slammed too!
- But because the role is unclear and the priorities are too, what can you focus on to showcase your value?
- Checking boxes.
Can we reduce the checking boxes mentality?
We can sure as hell try.
Group this into three broad-based categories:
- Middle/front-line managers
- Rank-and-file employees
(Yes, I realize more groups than that exist in a workplace. This is a simplicity-driven exercise.)
Now, what should each group be doing?
The group breakdowns to avoid checking boxes
Execs: Building relationships, developing revenue streams, prioritizing work, setting up and living the mission. More here.
Rank-and-files: Executing on work, hitting targets, making deadlines, collaborating, learning the business, etc.
If the three groups focused in those areas, there’d be less checking boxes and more value-add work. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.
What tends to happen?
Execs take meetings all day, usually to discuss money and very little else. At all-hands meetings, maybe they say “purpose” a few times.
Middle managers kiss as much ass as is allowable under the law up the chain, then deem every project “urgent” down the chain, running their direct reports in circles.
Rank-and-files have no idea what project would drive the most business value, and then suddenly get put on a PIP six months later.
Dramatic? Yes. Reality? Unfortunately more than we all think.
Most people are checking boxes. Money’s seeping out the sides. But we can make it better.
What else would you add on a checking boxes culture?