Sexy…no, not really. There is no way a checklist on its own is a sexy concept or activity, but what about success? Now we’re talking and that is exactly what surgeon, professor, and author Atul Gawande wrote about in his 2009 book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (affiliate link).

In essence, systematic use of checklists in a full spectrum of activities both professional and personal, translates into greatly increased chances of success.

Declaring this knowledge to be a manifesto makes it that much more seductive and seduction is in order to entice people to use a tool that many find dull and even demeaning.

Dr. Gawande presents compelling evidence and advice in the form of a surprisingly good read, but even the author seems skeptical that his audience will put the advice into action.

Lessons in Venture Capitalism

The bulk of the book focuses on surgery and construction checklists, yet one of the most persuasive examples stems from the work of psychologist, Dr. Geoff Smart. Dr. Smart (no kidding!) studied 51 venture capitalists, individuals who make decisions involving enormous sums of cash in the face of scrappy start-up ideas.

How do they make these decisions? Dr. Smart identified six decision-making styles in the group:

  • The “Art Critic”: makes a quick call based on intuition;
  • The “Sponge”: soaks up as much information as possible about the candidate and then make a decision based on a gut check;
  • The “Prosecutor”: grills the hopeful about how they would handle random situations;
  • The “Suitor”: woos the candidate;
  • The “Terminator”: makes quick calls and then fires people just as quickly;
  • Finally, the “Airline Captain”: studies past failures, develops a checklist and does not skip steps, despite what immediate intuition might tell him or her.

As you may guess, the Captains were the most successful, but just how successful when compared with their counterparts is astonishing.

How likely was it for a Captain to have to fire a pick down the line? 10%. The others? 50%.

What was the median percent return on investments for Captains? 80%. The others? 35%.

Even more incredible, however, is the fact that the venture capitalists ignored this evidence, at least in this study. After publishing and sharing his findings, the number of Captains remained the same: 1-in-8. Note that there is not a great deal of detail about this study, for example there is no indication of research duration. This is among the items that Dr. Gawande passes over quickly in the book, which somewhat compromises credibility for the sake of brevity.

Too Omnipotent for Checklists?

Nevertheless, following reference to the venture capitalist study, Dr. Gawande delivers his most keen insight: “We don’t like checklists…But I don’t think the issue here is mere laziness. There’s something deeper, more visceral going on when people walk away not only from saving lives but from making money. It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment.” Dr. Gawande suggests that it is a serious foible for many professionals, this tendency to be too special for something as basic as a checklist.

Thankfully, for all of us who fly, airline pilots do not consider themselves “above” checklists. Nor do construction teams working on massive buildings. Most crucially, if you or a loved one ever has to go under the surgeon’s knife, you can hope that the team has adopted a checklist process, because the number of small but deadly mistakes that can happen during a surgery is truly shocking. Dr. Gawande shares the powerful story of a near fatal mistake that he made, which adds a genuine dose of humility and humanity to his impressive accomplishments.

Checklists as a Key Business Tool

Many situations are out of our control and we can only hope others have adopted checklist procedures, but what if we have an important business decisions to make? That is entirely in our hands. Developing a checklist with the right content, however, is a challenging task.

Here are some key tips gleaned from Dr. Gawande’s work:

  • Think of the list as a “cognitive net” that highlights things that may be easy to overlook.
  • It may be useful to have two lists: one that is task-based and another that is communication-based. “…a set of checks to ensure that stupid but critical stuff is not overlooked…another set of checks to ensure that people talk and coordinate…”
  • Bad checklists are vague and impractical; good ones are easy and precise.

Looking at past mistakes in any endeavor, personal or professional, chances are a pattern will emerge. A checklist helps bring this pattern to light to help improve our chances of success. With a bit of discipline, this tool helps safeguard decision-making and it takes the pressure off our intuition. Although, intuition is essentially past experience and knowledge, so perhaps it is helpful to think of a checklist as a very practical and concrete extension of our intuition; still not sexy, but maybe a bit more attractive.

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