“We don’t like checklists. They can be painstaking. They’re not much fun. 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. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us – those we aspire to be – handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists.

Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.”

This quote is from ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ by Atul Gawande, first published in 2009, which I have just reread, and this blog includes my key takeaways with my aim to inspire you to read or listen to the book and to inspire you to use more checklists as part of your own GTD® practice.

The use of checklists, for most of us, is an open-ended improvement opportunity. They are something I discuss with most coaching clients and they are also a part of our Level 2 seminars. They are also the last step of ‘Get Current’ in the Weekly Review®: “Review any relevant checklists”.

“Use your mind to think about things, rather than think of them.” David Allen encourages us to follow this maxim throughout our GTD practice and it is certainly one of the key benefits of a checklist: you can focus on each step of the process instead of needing to remember what the steps you must take are.

Atul Gawande is an American surgeon, writer, and public health researcher. His own interest in checklists started and developed with a view on how it could help doctors and surgeons around the world although his research for this, and the examples he gives in the book, come from aviation, medicine, building skyscrapers and even investment banking.

Improved teamwork is one of the surprising benefits of using a checklist across these varying industries. Pilots who have never flown together as well as surgeons and operating teams introduce themselves to each other as part of their initial checklists and discuss how they will deal with issues should they arise. This seemingly simple step has been shown to make the group work better together.

Checklists within teams need certain pre-agreed ‘pause points’, where certain items will be checked. This could be ‘before incision’ in an operation, ‘before take-off’ on a plane or ‘before investment’ in the financial world. Would your team benefit from agreeing on some of these ‘pause points’?

A lot of effort goes into making pilots’ checklists functional and a key part of this is keeping them short; not having every step that the pilot would know how to do written down: “Get the plane below 8,000 feet” is all that is needed, not how to actually do that. Our own checklists might not need all the detail we’ve put on them.

Atul points out that in so many industries we face ever-increasing complexity, that we “…depend on systems – on assemblages of people or technologies or both – and among our most profound difficulties is making them work.”

This complexity is often more than one person can handle and then balls are dropped. Recognising fallibility and the need to analyse faults in processes that occur and the benefit of implementing checklists to help prevent future failures has been achieved to varying degrees in different industries.

At one end of the spectrum is aviation where, as planes became more complicated to fly, checklists were adopted fairly early on and, to this day, any accident or near accident is investigated thoroughly and remedies put in place, often in the form of a revised checklist which pilots use as a natural part of their jobs.

In other areas, Atul points out, we don’t have the equivalent of flight investigations when errors occur. “We don’t look for patterns of our recurrent mistakes or devise and refine potential solutions for them. But we could and that is the ultimate point.”

Refining checklists is important. Airline checklists always show the creation date because they are expected to be improved and updated with use. You need to create them in the first place of course to try them out and have them ready to refine. Which checklists could help you?

My own checklists are often refined from ‘negative feedback’: I only added a reminder that I should pack spare batteries for my presentation clicker after it once stopped working in front of 200 people!

“Be steady and well-ordered in your life so you can be fierce and original in your work.” – Gustave Flaubert

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