The World is More Inundated with Uncertainties and Errors Than Ever Before
Checklists can help you learn about prospective oversights and mistakes, recognize them in context, and sharpen your decisions.
I am a big fan of Harvard surgeon and columnist Atul Gawande‘s The Checklist Manifesto (2009.) His bestseller is an engaging reminder of how the world has become so complex.
The use of the humble checklist can help you manage the myriad of complexities that underlie most contemporary professional (and personal) undertakings—where what you must do is too complex to carry out reliably from memory alone. Checklists “provide a kind of a cognitive net. They catch mental flaws inherent in all of us—flaws of memory and attention and thoroughness.”
Gawande begins The Checklist Manifesto with an examination of the characteristics of errors from ignorance (mistakes you make because you don’t know enough—“much of the world and universe is—and will remain—outside our understanding and control”), and errors of ineptitude (mistakes you make because you don’t apply correctly what you know.) Most human and organizational failures involve the latter.
The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works.
The surgery room, Gawande’s own profession, is the principal setting for many of the book’s illustrative examples of how the introduction of checklists dramatically reduced the rate of complications from surgery. He also provides handy stories from other realms of human endeavor—aviation, structural engineering, and Wall Street-investing.
Getting Things Right, Every Time
Checklists are particularly valuable in situations where the stakes are high enough, but your impulsive thought process could lead to suboptimal decisions.
The benefits of checklists also feature prominently in the thought-provoking Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition (2012.) The author, Credit Suisse Investment analyst and polymath Michael J. Mauboussin, argues that checklists are more effective in certain domains than in others:
A checklist’s applicability is largely a function of a domain’s stability. In stable environments, where cause and effect is pretty clear and things don’t change much, checklists are great. But in rapidly changing environments that are heavily circumstantial, creating a checklist is a lot more difficult. In those environments, checklists can help with certain aspects of the decision. For instance, an investor evaluating a stock may use a checklist to make sure that she builds her financial model properly.
A good checklist balances two opposing objectives. It should be general enough to allow for varying conditions, yet specific enough to guide action. Finding this balance means a checklist should not be too long; ideally, you should be able to fit it on one or two pages.
If you have yet to create a checklist, try it and see which issues surface. Concentrate on steps or procedures, and ask where decisions have gone off track before. And recognize that errors are often the result of neglecting a step, not from executing the other steps poorly.
In addition to creating checklists that are specific enough to guide action but general enough to handle changing circumstances, Mauboussin recommends keeping a journal to gather feedback from past decisions and performing “premortems” by envisioning that a imminent decision has already been proven wrong, and then identifying probable reasons for the failure.
No Matter How Proficient You May Be, Well-designed Checklists Can Immeasurably Improve the Outcomes
The notion of making and using checklists is so plainly obvious that it seems impracticable that they could have so vast an effect.
Investor Charlie Munger, the well-respected beacon of wisdom and multi-disciplinary thinking, has said, “No wise pilot, no matter how great his talent and experience, fails to use his checklist.” And, “I’m a great believer in solving hard problems by using a checklist. You need to get all the likely and unlikely answers before you; otherwise it’s easy to miss something important.”
Idea for Impact: Checklists can prevent many things that could go wrong in the hands of human beings, given our many well-documented biases and foibles. Well-designed checklists not only make sure that all the can-be-relied upon elements are in place in complex decision-making, but also provide for flexibility and room for ad hoc judgment.