In 1935, in the time leading up to the Second World War, Boeing developed a next-generation long-range bomber that could fly faster, almost twice as far, and carry five times the payload of previous planes. It was an engineering marvel in its time with the chance to give the United States a clear advantage in future conflicts.
The only problem was that it crashed.
The plane was much more complex than previous aircraft, requiring pilots to balance multiple controls and adjustments to keep the plane steady. On a test flight to demonstrate it’s capability to the Army Air Corps, the pilot forgot “to release a new locking mechanism on the elevator and rudder controls,” resulting in a fiery crash that killed the pilot and another crew member.
The Army considered putting their pilots through more intensive training, but quickly realized that wouldn’t provide a sustainable solution. Instead, they developed a checklist, with systematic guidance to help pilots takeoff, fly, land, and taxi the planes. As Atul Gawande wrote about it,
“With the checklist in hand, the pilots went on to fly the Model 299 a total of 1.8 million miles without one accident. The Army ultimately ordered almost thirteen thousand of the aircraft, which it dubbed the B-17. And, because flying the behemoth was now possible, the Army gained a decisive air advantage in the Second World War which enabled its devastating bombing campaign across Nazi Germany.”
Gawande and others later implemented safety checklists throughout hospitals and ICUs, showing significant decreases in both rate of complications and rate of death.
Checklists work. We’re all human. We tend to forget things, especially when under pressure or distracted. Having a checklist helps focus us on the mundane steps of a process that are easy to overlook when we’re caught up in the hectic actions of each day.
We just need to make sure that they’re working for us.
Make Checklists Work for You.
“Capability and willingness to instantly make a checklist, accessible and used when needed, is a core component of high-performance self-management.” — David Allen, Getting Things Done
If you suggest that someone use a checklist to better perform their job, you’ll likely get pushback. People don’t like the idea of defining their work by a checklist. They like to see their contribution as unique, something that can’t simply be captured with a bunch of bullet points.
Contrary to some beliefs, checklists aren’t a trigger to turn off your brain. They don’t replace initiative with routine. There’s no reason to believe that we need to choose between using these tools and maintaining our freedom to deliver unique value. In reality, the two actions complement each other.
Checklists don’t restrict freedom. They create it. Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Checklists provide reminders. They free up our minds to stop worrying about remembering the right action and let us focus on executing it.
If part of your mind is struggling to remember the correct behavior, especially during times of stress, you have less focus on performing it. By pulling these actions out of our heads, we don’t have to worry about remembering to do the right thing. We can put all of our focus towards simply doing it well.
Checklists don’t replace talent. They accentuate it. They act as a force multiplier.
Give a pilot checklist to your average person and they won’t be able to fly a plane. It doesn’t replace the talent necessary to perform the work. And there’s no checklist in the world that would help me successfully operate on someone.
Checklists won’t do the difficult tasks for us — they simply focus our attention so that we can perform them better. To that end, the best checklists act as reminders and have three main traits: they’re brief, timely, and easy to act on.
You want them to be brief, since no one wants to scan eight pages of bullets each morning. You want them to be timely, since the whole point is to act as a reminder within the limit of our working memory. And most importantly, you want them to be easy to act on, so that one or two sentences can propel you into the right behavior.
My Management Checklist
“If done well, management is among the most noble of professions.” — Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
The purpose of a checklist is to pull us out of the confusion of the moment and re-orient us within the right frame of mind. Within the turmoil of an operating room or the complexity of an airplane cockpit, they become invaluable tools to focus people on the right actions at the right time.
While it doesn’t carry the life or death outcomes of flying a plane or performing open-heart surgery, management offers much of the same complexity. Each day brings a multitude of different scenarios, many of which involve high levels of stress. In these moments, it’s easy to forget our training and resort to default behavior.
Management and leadership are both complex subjects and I don’t presume to have all of the answers. But if I tried to break the job down into 10 key points, I’d choose the areas below. Whether this helps you or not, I can only say that it keeps me focused on the right things, regardless of the craziness that each day brings.
Actively listen and understand people’s perspectives before offering your own. More than anything, people want to be heard. They’ll be much more willing to listen to your arguments if they know that you listened to theirs. Just as important, most of our first assumptions about people are wrong. It pays to listen and learn first.
Clearly communicate your vision and strategy to the team. The goal of every leader is to help people achieve a better future. If you can’t describe this path, and help people see their role in it, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to lead them there.
Focus your efforts where they’ll have the biggest impact. Every day, there are countless distractions to pursue and new opportunities to chase. By knowing which key inputs drive the business, you’re better able to coordinate your resources in the areas that will truly matter. Without this level of focus, nothing substantial ever gets done.
If you see a potential feedback opportunity, say something. People deserve to hear your candid feedback. Don’t save it for later. For every moment you wait, the chance of not telling them increases.
Focus on measuring results and only results. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is how people perform. Any metrics that doesn’t directly lead to this is a mere distraction.
Never end a meeting without agreeing on who has the next action and a due date to get it done. Find anyone who spends too much of their day in meetings and likely they’re struggling with this item. Without agreeing on a next action, you just set yourself up to have the same useless meeting again in the future.
Maintain relentlessly high standards. With every deficiency that you allow, you lower the standard for tomorrow. The temporary quickly becomes the permanent. In this way, management is simply what you tolerate.
Develop your technical skills so that you can provide credible support to your team. No mystery here. People want a manager that can act as a credible backstop. You don’t need to be the technical expert, but you need to know what you’re talking about.
Do not take ownership from people. The moment you begin to do someone’s work for them, you now own it. Encourage others to handle their own struggles and coach them through it. If you consistently find yourself having to micromanage someone, you likely have a personnel issue.
Take a personal stake in the success of each of your team members and align their work to their long-term career goals. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. The better people understand the role that today’s work plays in that long-term growth, they more motivated they’ll be to do it — and do it well.
Set the example that you want others to emulate. Okay, so I’m cheating by adding an eleventh item. But this last point can act as a summary for all of the others. Never forget that people will look to you as an example. Every behavior and every decision gives someone a go-by that they’ll either choose to replicate or choose to avoid. Make sure it will be one that you’re proud to have them use.
Or, if you prefer the shortened version:
- Actively listen and understand people’s perspectives before offering your own.
- Clearly communicate your vision and strategy to the team.
- Focus your efforts where they’ll have the biggest impact.
- Focus on measuring results and only results.
- If you see a potential feedback opportunity, say something.
- Never end a meeting without agreeing on who has the next action and a due date to get it done.
- Maintain high standards in everything.
- Develop your technical skills so that you can provide credible support to your team.
- Do not take ownership from people.
- Take a personal stake in the success of each of your team members and align their work to their long-term career goals.
- Set the example that you want others to emulate.
Start Leveraging Your Checklist Today
“No wise pilot, no matter how great his talent and experience, fails to use his checklist.” — Charlie Munger
A key similarity across people of success is that they embrace systems within their lives. They leverage systems to keep them performing at a high level, regardless of our daily uncertainty. It’s not a means of routine, but one of freedom. If we can worry less about remembering every action, we’re better able to focus on performing those actions well.
Occasionally a manager or an engineer will tell me that they’ve been doing this for 30 years, they don’t need a checklist. And maybe they have a point. But I don’t care how experienced my pilot is, if I saw her blow off the pre-flight checklist, I‘d have something to say about it. And I wouldn’t want to have a surgeon who neglects the safety checklist, regardless of how many years he’s been operating.
We’re all human. Whether we’ve been doing something for 30 days or 30 years, we all have a tendency to forget things as stress and complexity grows.
Checklists work. They’re one system that we can all use to our advantage. Make them brief. Make them timely. Make them easy to act on. And free yourself up to focus on doing what matters.