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Solving Operational Challenges with Four Helpful Lists

I remember leaving the hospital with my daughter Ryan just a few days after she was born. She was my first child and Jon and I had absolutely no idea what we were doing. But still I was released from the hospital with a tiny, helpless infant. No quick-start guide. No instructions. No nurse in tow.

mack holding ryan hospital

Fast forward 6 years. Ryan is growing and so is Mack Web. As with my lack of innate skills as a mom, I’m no natural born entrepreneur. I’m just a rookie with no formal business training who’s learned everything about building this company from the kindness of mentors, books, blog posts, and trial by fire.

Sometimes I’ve managed to stockpile the right info to help me handle a rising situation like a champ. But more often than not, just like with raising the kids, I have to stumble through it. Somehow, I manage to make it to the other side, failing faster every time, emerging with more hard-won character.

As I pocket this wisdom along my business-rearing journey, I am slowly gaining contrast and clarity. Agility. Experience even. I’m still pretty much writing the Mack Web manual as I go. But sometimes I am gifted with tools along the way.

Most recently, there’s a simple exercise that has been helping us solve some common operational challenges:

  • How do we do stuff better?
  • How do we resolve gaps in communication and collaboration with the team and our clients?
  • Who do we hire next?

For the last year, Mack Web has been working with a Strat Ops facilitator to help us set goals, initiatives, and move the company forward. She introduced us to an exercise called Four Helpful Lists and lately it’s been working like a charm.

We’ve applied the Four Helpful Lists exercise to every one of the challenges above (which I will provide in detail below). The great thing about it is that the outcome isn’t just a list of problems. It’s a conversation of solutions. So instead of spending thirty minutes talking about all the things in a situation that are broken, we’re focusing on how we’re going to fix it. It provides us with a place from which we can take action.

How it Works

Below I’ve provided some specific examples of how we’ve used this tool at Mack Web, but first, here’s how you would run Four Helpful Lists:

1. Assemble Your Team for 30 minutes
Depending on the challenge you’re looking to address, you’ll want to invite a few key people on your team who are directly involved or affected by the issue. We’ve had success with just 3 of us, or even 10  in the room at once. We try to keep these meetings really focused at 30 minutes.

2. Get a Whiteboard
On a whiteboard, or one of those big wall post-its, make 4 columns; one with each of these questions:

  • What’s right?
  • What’s wrong?
  • What’s missing?
  • What’s confused?

3. Pose a Question
This is the prompt that gets the conversation of solutions going and the way you frame the question is one of the most critical steps of this exercise. You’ll need to pose the question so that your team can get to the underlying issue. So for example, if we’re using this tool to determine who we’re going to hire next, I wouldn’t ask, “Who are we going to hire next?” Instead, I would ask, “How is the team functioning?” You’ve got to frame your question in such a way that the four lists (what’s right, wrong, missing, and confused) make sense as a reply.

4. Fill out the Stuff
Then, under each column, ask your team to contribute the answers related to the question you’ve posed; the situation or challenge you’re working to resolve.

It’s great if you can start with what’s right? as that will help you to avoid a gripe session. And then, as you move along to the rest of the columns, avoid putting everything into the what’s wrong? column. Really think through what belongs in the what’s missing? column (like things related to systems, processes, tools, resources, communication, trust) that could be the root cause of the issue. And many times, what’s confused? will be things related to communication and expectations (that haven’t been properly addressed).

5. Identify and Prioritize Places of Action
After you’ve exhausted your lists, now go back and look for patterns and places of action under each column.

I’ll go into more detail on this in the examples below, but you’ll notice that there are things in each column that will relate to each other or the same root cause. So circle those (and perhaps draw lines or arrows to connect them). Then prioritize those items. Will you need to address and resolve something on your list before you can address another? If so, number them accordingly.

6. Assign Tasks
Now that you know what needs to be addressed and in what order, determine the next steps and assign tasks (and due dates) to the members of your team. Designate a follow-up date for getting the stuff done, and have one person in the group be the facilitator (to keep everyone accountable for their deliverables).

We run this exercise quite often. And now that we know the power of it, we are starting to recognize when exactly we need it. Mostly it’s when we  find ourselves stuck . Either we’re frustrated with a problem that keeps resurfacing in different forms, or we’ve done the same thing the same way for several times and realize that we’re still not getting a different result.

For us, Four Helpful Lists resolves so many challenges that anytime we’re feeling angst about anything: a process, a common client deliverable, a team member, or even a client, we use this tool.

The great thing about the Four Helpful Lists in action is that, regardless of the problem you’re trying to solve, you never come away empty handed.

Here’s what I mean.

Four Helpful Lists for Doing Stuff Better

There’s a whole lot of stuff we’re handling every day at Mack Web. And because we’re working with a small (but mighty) team, we are continuously looking for ways to be more efficient and, certainly, more effective.

Lately (and by lately I mean for almost a year), we’ve been working on improving our reporting. Not only do we spend a great deal of time on them, but they’re too long and they don’t communicate our value to our clients as clearly as we’d like. After the reports had gone through their most recent evolution, we decided to determine how to make them even better using Four Helpful Lists.

So when the team got together, the question posed was:

How do we make our reports better?


What’s right?
The team had a few positive things to say about how we had been currently communicating value in our reports. We were getting better at identifying the metrics that really mattered for each client,  the way we were presenting the information was easier to digest, and the collaboration among the team was helping us to take action on the data that we were collecting. Lots of good progress had been made in the recent months and certainly over the last year.

What was wrong?
The biggest problem is that we were pretty sure our clients weren’t reading them. To make matters worse, we were spending a significant amount of the team’s time each month preparing these reports (even though we were learning a great deal from them). We were also finding some hangups with data collection and the automation of that process. Especially for social media.

What was missing?
What we realized was that we needed to have a conversation with our clients about what was most useful to them in the reports we provided. We were making all kinds of assumptions about what we thought they cared about, but we had not taken the time to verify their expectations. We wanted to make sure we guide them with the most important data (vs. just showing them metrics like follower count), but what do they really want to see?

We also had not asked our respected colleagues what their challenges were with reporting and how they had resolved them. Do they provide a one-page report or is it 20?  Do they hold a meeting to discuss the data, or just send it via email with key takeaways? Maybe they would have some great ways of presenting important data to their clients that we could learn from. They also might have some automation tool suggestions that would help save some time collecting and aggregating all of the data.

We realized that we had a ton of information that was missing which meant we had a place to start filling in the holes.

What was confused?
We definitely knew that our reporting process could use some work. And as we had defined in the missing column, we really needed to get to the heart of what our clients were expecting. Ultimately, could we really say, without a doubt, that what we were providing in our reports was valuable to our clients? Having all of this confused meant we definitely had some work to do, which means we knew where to take action.

Prioritizing and Taking Action
So once we worked through each list, there was a lot that we needed to focus on. We identified the most important of the items that were wrong, missing, and confused. Some of those were related to other items so we matched those up.  If we prioritized the core of those issues, we would essentially be solving the others, so we assigned action items from those.

We knew that our first and most important priority was to talk to our clients, so we circled that and identified it as #1. There were a few items in other columns that were related, so we matched those up, circled them, and drew connecting arrows.

Simultaneously we knew we could ask our colleagues about their reporting processes and also what tools they were using to automate the data (so we prioritized that as #2). Ideally, we would have feedback both from our clients and our colleagues around the same time and then we’d have our next action steps.


Over the next several weeks, the team will work individually on their assigned tasks and report to the person we designated to keep everyone accountable. When we meet as a team at Strat Ops in the late fall, the team will communicate how they’ve decided to move forward in our reporting based on what they found and the action they took after we ran Four Helpful Lists.

Four Helpful Lists for Communication and Collaboration

This tool has worked so well for the Mack Web team that we’ve even used it with our clients. We run a pretty collaborative environment around here and require a whole lot of integration with our clients’ teams. Sometimes there are breakdowns in the communication and collaboration between our teams so we need to figure out why we’re having trouble getting on the same page.

After we’ve worked through the execution of the first strategy with a client, we use Four Helpful Lists to get to the root of any roadblocks we may have stumbled across.

Running the Four Helpful Lists exercise works best when everyone is in the same room, but since our clients aren’t in Fort Collins, we improvise with a Google+ Hangout and a Google spreadsheet.


Our team in Fort Collins still works through each list with our client, but because it’s difficult for them to read our whiteboard from the other side of the web cam, we send a Google spreadsheet before we start the exercise. As we run down each list, we take notes in the spreadsheet so that our client can see what’s being written on the whiteboard as it’s being written. Once the exercise is over, we send a photo of the whiteboard to the client.

Using this tool, even just with the Mack Web team, requires a sometimes-uncomfortable level of honesty about what isn’t working. Using it with a client requires a lot of bravery. If we’re not willing to conflict and commit to get to the root of the problem, we’ll never be able to start working together toward a solution.

It should be pretty simple to identify where to take action based on the results of the Four Helpful Lists exercise. Especially when using Four Helpful Lists with clients, we are very diligent about assigning action items. We are specific about what the action items are and which team is taking action so that a solution can actually come to fruition.

Four Helpful Lists for Hiring

One of the  most significant challenges that Four Helpful Lists has solved at Mack Web is hiring.  As our team has grown, it has been difficult to prioritize who we need to hire next. We’re not a funded company, so we hire as we have the revenue to support new team members. Many times we have the resources just to fund one position, so it’s really important that we choose wisely.

Earlier this year we had an unexpected change in the members of our team. So before hiring to replace for that exact role, we took a step back to determine what the company really needed. We got the whole team together to hash out Four Helpful Lists.

But instead of asking the team, “Hey, who do you think we should hire next?” we addressed the question: How is the team functioning?

Once we completed the exercise, we noticed that, despite the departure of a Strategist, it wasn’t a lack of strategy that was missing on our team. It was the time spent on grinder tasks that was slowing down existing key personnel.

What we needed to do was pull weight off of some of our existing team members so that they could have some headspace. Giving them this much needed room would allow them to operate in a more strategic frame of mind. This would help them get out of the weeds a bit, really benefit our clients, and help bridge the gap to our next hire.

After compiling all the items from the wrong, missing, and confused lists, we were able to define a new role: Team Support .  We could see that we needed more than just one person to take on all of the tasks in this new support position, but we determined that some of those efforts could be outsourced as we acquired the revenue for the additional person.


Over the last six months this decision to hire a Team Support person rather than another Strategist has really paid off. Within weeks of the hire, the team was quickly rebounding from hurdles that we had been stuck on for months. Using this role to take away some of the team’s stress has helped us to be more connected and collaborative than ever. It has pushed us forward with great momentum and we’re well on our way to our next hires (which we will determine by running Four Helpful Lists).

Give it a Try, Kids

If I’ve learned anything about being a mom and running Mack Web it’s that I almost  never have the answer. And sometimes, that can feel pretty paralyzing. Four Helpful Lists gives us a place to start and also puts the responsibility on the team (and not just me). It’s a really simple tool for figuring out what’s not serving us well and what we all need to do to make it different.

Give it a try with your team and let me know how it goes.

Author Mack Fogelson

More posts by Mack Fogelson

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • This was great! Much more effective than a “what can we improve on” question. Those tend to trip people up (personal experience). This lets your employees say the good bad and ugly and lays out a framework for making it better. Saved to Evernote!

    • Mackenzie Fogelson says:

      Great Conrad. I hope it helps you as much as it has helped us. The best part about it is that it provides action steps and accountability so that you can actually make progress.

  • Eve says:

    My good friend and I were just talking over this issue, she actually is normally atiteptmng to prove me incorrect! I will show her this write-up and rub it in a little!

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