Saturday, June 2, 2012

Make a List, Check It Twice

When I began giving presentations at software conferences in the early 1990s most speakers used plastic transparencies on an overhead projector for their visuals. Only a handful of speakers had begun using laptop computers with PowerPoint or other presentation software. I once presented a full-day tutorial at a local conference when I was living in Rochester, New York. I packed up my boxes of transparencies and headed to the conference site. In the middle of my talk, I noticed I was running out of transparencies faster than I was running out of time. Suddenly I realized that I had brought only two of the four boxes of transparencies I needed for this full-day class. Uh-oh. Kind of embarrassing.

Fortunately, the man who was running the conference saved my bacon. I had sent him an electronic version of my presentation in advance, which he had installed on his laptop. After lunch I was able to complete my presentation using his laptop in lieu of my missing transparencies, my first live PowerPoint experience.

That was a close call and I felt pretty foolish. I learned my lesson, though. From then on I have always used a checklist to prepare for my speaking and consulting engagements. I already had created a travel checklist, but since this was a local event with no travel involved, I didn’t bother to think carefully about what I needed to bring with me. I never made that mistake again.

My travel checklist has evolved over the years. I use it both for business and vacation travel. Different sections of the checklist remind me what to take along depending on which class I’m teaching. A separate section lists items I might take with me when I am driving somewhere instead of flying, like my stuffed teddy bear and my favorite pillow.(Just kidding about the teddy bear. Not kidding about the pillow.) I have a supplemental checklist for international travel that reminds me to bring my passport, visa, international driver’s license, power plug adapters, and so forth.

I am religious about using the checklist to plan my trip and pack my bags. It helps me take along the right amount and the right kind of clothing, all of my toiletries, the right frequent-flyer and car-rental cards, and the noise-canceling headphones that make long flights more bearable. It’s also convenient to have a record of everything that is in my suitcase, should it be eaten by the airline’s subterranean baggage-handling creatures. Thanks to these checklists, I have never reached a destination and discovered that I was missing my laser pointer or a pair of socks.

You might laugh at my little checklists, but I tell you, they work. When I described my travel checklist to a fellow software consultant, he chuckled, held up his index finger, and said, “My checklist has one thing on it: slides.” But then he told me about the time he attended a conference to deliver a half-day tutorial presentation, only to discover that he was scheduled to teach—but had not brought along slides for—a full day. Sounds like my colleague needs a better checklist.

You can see my current travel checklist at the supplemental materials page for this blog. That page also has several checklists graciously provided by consultant Mike Cohn. (Thanks for sharing these, Mike!) One is a comprehensive travel packing list, which is nicely organized into clothes, Dopp kit (what I call a toilet kit), gadgets, and others. A second list provides a comprehensive reminder of all the items needed for specific sorts of engagements. When you’re teaching a class that involves a variety of student activities, you surely don’t want to come up short on any of the necessary workbooks, cards, or other props. My classes are simpler than some of Mike’s, so I put all that information right on my main travel checklist.

A third list from Mike is a planning form for a specific client engagement that provides a place to organize all the necessary information. It’s easy to overlook some of these bits, to your peril. For instance, I always get the home and cell phone numbers for my primary contact at the client site in case I encounter travel difficulties on the way there. Mike’s engagement checklist has a place to record that useful information. Mike also shared some checklists that identify the things he needs to do to book a venue for a public class his company is presenting and also the items to take along when he’s giving a presentation at a professional organization. These are all on the supplemental materials page. I suspect that Mike’s events all run more smoothly thanks to these sorts of checklists.

In addition to checklists, I've developed an assortment of other forms that I use for various purposes in my consulting and training business. They are nothing fancy, but if you need similar forms for your work, feel free to download these from the supplemental page and tweak them to suit your purposes. One is a time-tracking form that I use for, well, tracking the time I spend doing off-site consulting at my home for a client. I often provide these kinds of services on an hourly basis. I need to keep track of how much time I spend each month on various activities so I can send the client an appropriate invoice. Perhaps this looks too lawyer-like to you. That's not the intent. I'm not trying to wring every penny I can out of the client, but I do need to have some kind of relatively accurate record. I always round the time in the client's favor, and if I ever have to do any rework because of a mistake I made, of course the client does not pay for that time.

Another form is for tracking events I have scheduled. There are many bits of information to keep track of, and there have been times in my career when I had numerous upcoming events pending or awaiting payment. I really don’t want to overlook anything associated with such activities. I use this form to note when I sent out my speaking agreement and when it was returned with a signature, as well as the dates I made my travel arrangements for airline flights, hotel reservations, and rental car. I can log the date I sent the course handout master to the client for duplication, and also when I ordered copies of one of my books to be sent to the client for the event. The form lets me note whether I have loaded all the necessary files onto my laptop and also onto a backup flash drive. (Sometimes I also put a backup copy of the presentation files on a hidden directory on my website; you can't have too many backups.) Finally, I record when I actually did the event, when I sent the invoice to the client, and when I received payment. Putting all of these items onto one page shows me at a quick glance where each of my business events stands.

You might think my checklists are a waste of time, just another example of unnecessary process overhead. You could be right. Let’s do an experiment. We’ll both pack for the same trip. I’ll use my travel checklist to help me, and you just do whatever you normally do to pack. We’ll see who runs out of underwear first.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)

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