The Hero in the Age of Checklists

A new step in our synchronized reading.  According to our reading calendar, today is time for chapter 8.

Why aren’t checklists more common in our world nowadays? If Gwande is right, anyone could improve by adding a checklist to their working routines. But then, besides aviation, restaurants, and more recently, surgery, checklists are mostly missing.

This is the main subject for this chapter, and Gawande argues that the main reason for that is how checklists are at odds with our myths about creative work. We still believe that human achievements are mostly the result of lonely geniuses, inspired by the muses, which are able to go beyond the view of the majority and perform astounding actions. Can you imagine Picasso, Neil Armstrong or Michael Jordan ticking boxes of a checklist? No, we expect them to have “the right stuff” to deal with the unexpected, guided by the superhuman abilities, and their grit.

The chapter describes how easily investing would benefit from using a checklist and then, how atypical they are.  Even when the amazing Warren Buffet, which is almost a cult figure in the finance world, has argued that he uses mental checklists to decide whether to invest in a company or not, checklists in investing are the exception, not the norm.

But this chapter also focuses in another key aspect of checklists: how they can be used to avoid biases. Interviewing a professional investor that uses checklists, Gawande states:

Yet no matter how objective he tried to be about a potentially exciting investment, he said, he found his brain working against him, latching onto evidence that confirmed his initial hunch and dismissing the signs of a downside. It’s what the drain does.

“You get seduced,” he said. “You start cutting corners” (p. 164)


So this person made a list of all the mistakes he has done and devised a matching series of checklists to be sure that he’ll never commit those mistakes again.

He then describes the modus operandi of another professional investor, which is also based on checklists. An even more methodical one. For example, he had a “Day Three Checklist” which he and his team reviewed at the end of the third day of considering an investment. (p. 166)

But still, the professional investors that use this checklist approach are very few; even considering a relevant study that Gawande describes in which Geoff Smart analyses the styles of different venture capitalists. He clearly showed how venture capitalists that use checklists are much better investors and managers. For example, he showed that those using a checklist:

had a 10 percent likelihood of later having to fire senior management for incompetence or concluding that their original evaluation was inaccurate. The others had at least a 50 percent likelihood. (p. 172)

And still…

The most interesting discovery was that, despite the disadvantages, most investors were Art Critics or Sponges -intuitive decision makers instead of systematic analysis. (p. 172)

 Then he goes in some detail to analyze how in 2009 the plane crew was able to make a crash-landing in the Hudson river and were able to save the passengers. The press rapidly hailed the pilot as a hero, but as details unfold, one sees that real hero of the story is the checklist, that helped both pilot, co-pilot and the crew to become a team and be able together to make a successful crash landing. 

But the press didn’t like the story of a successful team using a checklist, and continued with the fantasy of a single hero. They probably imagined that following checklists makes you rigid and unimaginative but the fact is that the opposite happens: checklists help us not to worry about the boring -but essential details- and “focus on the hard stuff (Where should we land?)”

Gawande then explains how  so much money is spent  in medicine on technology, and how little in getting all these components working together in a feasible way. He argues for creating something akin to the studies that National Transportation Safety Board undertake when there is a plane accident, no tracking of how well a hospital is doing, no checklists to assure that all these technologies and equipment are used in the most meaningful way.

We have a very useful tool that is only used in a few disciplines, despite its potential to be applied to hundreds of others. The main reason is how checklists can be embarrassing when one tries to show up as an expert, a genius, able to improvise and not following plans, and specially, not boring checklists.

But, as Gawande says, maybe we have to update our idea of what a hero is.




One thought on “The Hero in the Age of Checklists

  1. I think this is really the chapter well all fit together. Until now the author has talked as checklists as a tool that can be useful in certain situations and domains. Now it goes one step further and presents a whole philosophy of using checklists as a necessary step in a broad range of human activities when coping with complexity.

    It’s a declaration of principles. The human pride goes completely against procedure and checklists. It takes a heroic effort to understand that they are really effective, that we are limited and imperfect creatures and that we need the guide of a piece of paper to improve the efficiency of our work. These are the new heroes of our time.

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