Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto concludes with the same anecdote that opens Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect: the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” that safely brought down US Airways Flight 1549 after it was struck by two flocks of migrating Canadian Geese.
Gawande and Johnson both insist that the alleged “miracle” had little to do with “extraordinary stories of courage, faith, and determination,” as one book’s subtitle proclaims, and everything to do with years of incremental improvement in the safety of air travel. But thereafter their explanations diverge; Johnson focuses on incremental improvements to the design and engineering of the aircrafts themselves while Gawande pays no attention to aircraft design and, rather, attributes the safe landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River to the use of a checklist before taking off. (You can see a sample checklist for a Cessna 172 and Boeing 777 on Gawande’s website.) Surely pilot Chesley Sullenberger’s calm confidence was an instrumental factor in the safe landing, as was the design improvements that have been made to the Airbus A320 since it made its debut in 1988. And, yes, I suppose that reading through a checklist before they took off was also helpful, but throughout the book it becomes increasingly difficult to endure Gawande’s incessant cheerleading of checklists as he mostly ignores other important factors.
Gawande suggests that there are three types of problems: the simple, the complicated, and the complex. A simple problem is making a cup of coffee or frying an egg. You follow the steps, you memorize the steps, and for the rest of your life you deal with these problems mostly on autopilot. A complicated problem is much more involved, but can usually be broken down into a number of simple problems. Cooking dinner for eight people is complex, but it’s not that difficult once you break it down into 15 to 20 simple problems. Then there are complex problems like parenting, which never present the same situation twice and involve hundreds if not thousands of factors that a single mind can’t track. Gawande observes that, as the world becomes more complex, so do the problems that we face every day both at work and at home.
Practice and intuition help us resolve simple problems, but we need help when we address complicated and complex problems. More than half of the anecdotes from the book invoke medicine and surgery, Gawande’s area of expertise. He notes that shortly after the invention of penicillin in 1928 it was assumed by many that similar, future discoveries would improve healthcare throughout the 20th century. But, in fact, there have been very few groundbreaking discoveries in medicine. Most of the substantial improvements in healthcare — as well as the difference in health standards between poor and rich countries — can be explained by differences in how medicine is carried out, not what drugs or technology is available.
Gawande also uses examples from skyscraper construction, aviation, and a field that is much more closely related to my own, venture capital. He draws on the Ph.D. thesis of psychologist Geoffrey Smart who argues that there are seven distinct approaches to venture capital analysis, each with its own entertaining name: airline captain, art critic, sponge, infiltrator, prosecutor, suitor, and terminator. The so-called “airline captain” is the most methodical of all venture capitalists. She focuses on specific indicators across all potential investments, evaluates them objectively, and uses a checklist to go through her evaluation process. This approach differs from the “art critics” who focus on intuition built with experience or the “suitors” who focus more on wooing entrepreneurs than evaluating them. Smart, who went on to write the popular business book Who, found that the “airline captain” had a median 80 percent return on the investments studied, compared to returns of 35 percent or less for the other venture capitalist types.
Philanthropy is similar to venture capital, though we are focused on social impact rather than financial returns. Still, when evaluating the potential of a civil society organization to bring about a significant social change, we must take into consideration hundreds of factors; from how the board of directors is structured to relationships with media outlets to election cycles, financial management, constituent communication, and relationships with other donors. It has taken me years to develop a mental checklist of factors to consider when reviewing a funding proposal (which I do on a weekly basis). Thanks to Gawande’s book, I’m starting to finally document that mental checklist so that I can operationalize it and share it with others.
So, why only two out of five stars? The Checklist Manifesto is like a modern rock album from the 1990s: it’s got two or three solid tracks, but the rest is filler to sell CDs. There’s no reason to read the book in order to be convinced of the importance of using checklists. Rather I’d recommend the 8-page summary from Summaries.com or, even better, the notes from Derek Sivers. It’ll also save you from Gawande’s annoying habit of portraying himself as the hero, globe-trotting surgeon with sprinkles of self-deprecating humor. His real calling in life was clearly meant to be a script writer for ER.
There is one ethical implication of Gawande’s checklist evangelization that I am still struggling with. Since I’ve implemented various checklists over the past few weeks (including the two below), I’ve found that they are very useful for creating new habits … habits that I want to acquire, like stretching after I run. But I do worry that I might end up becoming a check-listing automaton, as I pay less attention to the spontaneity of my surroundings and ever more to a list of idealized instructions to incrementally perfect each hour of every day. Already I find myself using Google Maps’ step-by-step voice instructions to arrive to a familiar destination just because it means I have to pay less attention. My concern with checklists is that I will lose sensitivity to what is around me as I break down my life into a number of steps to be checked off.
For those of you wanting to implement checklists in your own life, I’ll copy two sample checklists below, one for preparing to travel and the other to process my to-do list every Monday morning. I find that Evernote is the best app for checklists since those checklists sync across all your devices. (Though you can also use OmniOutliner, which is also free.)
Weekly to-do list checklist:
For Trips to US: