A few months ago, we made 2 costly mistakes on client projects in a 2-week window – mistakes we never should have made. In the first case, we were adding advanced tracking to a client’s Contact Us form so we could better see what search keywords were driving sales. Everything worked in testing but after going live we realized we’d broken part of the form and a week of sales leads were lost before we fixed it.
In the second case, we were launching a new Google AdWords campaign for a local DC business. For one of the keyword groups, we neglected to limit the ads to searches in the DC area, and within a day the campaign had racked up a lot of wasted, pricey clicks from across the country.
I lost a lot of sleep that month but we learned some valuable lessons – one of which was the importance of good checklists.
Upon hearing our story, my friend Hatef recommendedThe Checklist Manifesto, by surgeon and medical writer Atul Gawande. I’d heard of the book but figured only a bureaucrat could get excited about a manifesto on checklists. I’m glad Hatef pushed me to read it, because I’m now a fan and better understand how to create a good checklist. We already have 6 new ones in place that I’m confident are helping us avoid the types of mistakes we made earlier this year.
Why Use Checklists
The book tells the story of a checklist to prevent common surgery mistakes, which Gawande created and implemented at the request of the World Health Organization (WHO). Gawande also shares what he learned from leading checklist makers and users in other industries – in particular airlines and construction, but also finance/investing, cooking, disaster recovery, and more.
In the process, Gawande makes a compelling case for checklists. Pick any industry, he says, and you’ll see “the same balls being dropped over and over, even by those with great ability and determination.” It’s a natural outcome of an increasingly complex world. Checklists help us combat these patterns of failures by:
- Making us smarter, more systematic decision-makers
- Creating a culture of discipline and teamwork
- Getting the dumb stuff out of the way
This last point is key, because the popular argument against checklists is that they’re too rigid; they turn us into robots and squash our creativity. But Gawande shows that well-made checklists do exactly the opposite. They liberate our brains to focus on the hard stuff, where improvisation, courage and creativity are needed most.
How to Create Good Checklists
Here are some guidelines from the book that we’ve used when creating our checklists:
- Keep them short and simple. Spelling out every step turns off people’s brains. Focus on critical steps needed to prevent common mistakes.
- Use task checks for dumb but critical stuff (e.g., did you set the AdWords budget on a per-day basis?).
- Use communication checks for complex stuff (e.g. If X happens, talk to Bob and Amy about Y). This is one of Gawande’s most interesting lessons from other industries like construction. In truly complex situations – where no single person has the required knowledge – dictating every step from the top down will fail, but so too will individuals acting in isolation. Communication checks strike the necessary balance between freedom and discipline. They “ensure people talk and coordinate and accept responsibility while nonetheless being left the power to manage the nuances and unpredictabilities the best they know how.”
- Pick the right type of list. Use READ-DO checklists (read each step, then do it) when users have limited experience with the process. Use DO-CONFIRM checklists (do the steps from memory, then pause and check) when users have memorized most of the steps. If you have both types of people using the process, create both types of checklists.
- Test and adapt. Like most things, you won’t get your checklist right the first time. Pay attention to what steps are tedious or confusing, and fix them as you go.
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