Day’s Verse:
Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
Romans 12:4-8

Lately, I’ve been working on creating a checklist for the volunteer program at the Bike Alliance. I figured a checklist was a pretty simple thing at heart, right? How could you have different ways of writing or interpreting a checklist?

Well, a quick unofficial survey of Bike Alliance staff members showed that people think about checklists differently.

Some people use checklists as a “Done” list rather than a “To-do List,” and would like to see everything in past tense:

  • Did laundry
  • Reserved Zipcar
  • Went to Safeway

This seemed counter-intuitive to me. Yes, when you’re done, the list would document what you completed; but if that was its primary purpose, wouldn’t we call it a “Checked List” rather than a “Check List”?

Then there are the people who just write shorthand checklists:

  • Laundry
  • Zipcar
  • Safeway

A shorthand list like that works because you already have context and an entire idea string associated with each of those words. You just need the list as a reminder of what to do. So when a person writes a shorthand checklist like that, here’s what they actually see when they read the list:

  • Wash the towels, bike clothes, and perma-press clothes.
  • Reserve a Zipcar for the trip to Spokane this weekend.
  • Buy groceries for the salad to go with tonight’s dinner.

That kind of list works great if you have the context, but if you don’t have the background knowledge, those keywords won’t trigger any meaningful reminders for you. You’ll just know that you need to do something with laundry, but what? Wash it? Dry it? Fold it? Put it away? And which laundry?

Another other kind of list people seem to use is a more detailed list that contains tasks broken out into sub-tasks:

  • Do laundry
    • Towels
    • Bike Clothes
    • Perma-press
  • Reserve Zipcar
  • Go to Safeway
    • Lettuce
    • Carrots
    • Broccoli
    • Tomatoes

This type of list works a bit better when the reader doesn’t have the context, since it lays out more details of each task as well as giving the overarching task.

Both of these styles of lists assume a competency in doing laundry, reserving a Zipcar, or choosing and buying produce. The checklist I’m creating for the volunteer program has to assume zero competency to start with, and I have to try to envision and explicitly describe each task and sub-task. This is, frankly, impossible: I have an idea of what needs to happen overall, but the nitty-gritty remains nebulous. Because this program hasn’t yet become real and people haven’t started doing the steps, I’m not sure what each individual task will actually entail when it’s acted out in reality.

I do believe that a checklist can ease the transition as we move into a new way of interacting with volunteers. Atul Gawande’s interesting article “The Checklist” and this related NPR spot reinforce the value of using checklists. I’ve put a hold on his book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, but 108 other people have put holds on it ahead of me. In the meantime, I get the privilege of trying to write one checklist that makes sense to seven different brains.

Here goes. Good thing I have an inspirational Indiana Jones soundtrack to keep me going!

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