I read a lot of business books. They will normally see me through a Tube trip, and careful filleting will yield a quote, a fact or half an idea for a pitch.
Only one has gripped me, though, and stuck with me years later - The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.
Despite its title, The Checklist Manifesto is not the usual Get Things Done, Write Everything Down In A List productivity porn. First, the author is a qualified surgeon and writes like a dream, so he knows what he’s talking about and he can explain it well. Second, he wrote the book in response to real-world problems – people dying after surgery and planes flying into the ground.
He was trying to address a difficult problem – highly trained people making dumb mistakes. Why, for instance, do surgical instruments get left in patients during surgery? Surely people know that’s a bad thing to do, surely they’re not so forgetful about that stuff?
Puzzling about this problem led him to the airline industry – also highly trained people doing complex things with high stakes – and the discovery that they have solved these problems with checklists. In fact, checklists are hugely responsible for increases in airline safety over the past 50 years.
In a difficult, complex environment, highly trained people make basic mistakes, they forget things. They know so much that they skip past the basics. Checklists make sure they don’t. They also enforce proper behaviour in a team. Airline-safety researchers found that sometimes planes get flown into the ground because the co-pilot is too intimidated by the pilot to ask whether something basic has been done.
In a difficult, complex environment, highly trained people make basic mistakes, they forget things
Checklists get you around these status issues – if the next thing on the list is "nurse asks surgeon if all the instruments have been counted", then that’s just the next thing on the list and it gets done.
This is also a practical way of capturing institutional learning. Not every pilot encounters every situation, but every time one of them goes through something new, that experience can create or refine a checklist – which can easily be shared with others. The pool of experience gets shared in a really useable way.
Have you got a checklist for pitches? For meetings? For campaigns?
It sounds so demeaningly obvious but it’s really, honestly, deeply useful. To attempt to prove it, next week I will share my own favourite, patented custom checklist: "How to not lose advertising and media awards."
Russell Davies is a creative director at Government Digital Service
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