In the ten years since Dr. Atul Gawande published The Checklist Manifesto, the use of checklists has proliferated in fields from medicine to investing. Gawande, a surgeon, made a particular focus on the benefits of checklists in hospitals, where they have been credited with saving lives. Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s right-hand man, advocates using checklists to avoid costly investing mistakes.
However, in recent years, some observers have worried about “checklist fatigue” and wondered whether overuse of this tool might be micro-management in disguise. How can business leaders capture the benefits of checklists while avoiding the pitfalls?
The key is mindfulness. Checklists are designed to help us recognize and overcome blind spots. They are a kind of cognitive speed bump—slowing down our thinking at critical moments so we can fully consider the consequences of our decisions. Like any tool, checklists can easily become a crutch, a process we sleep-walk through on auto-pilot. That is the opposite of mindfulness.
A checklist is not a recipe
Checklists are designed to help us perform better and avoid mistakes in two kinds of situations. In the first, a task is so complex that it is easy to overlook something. In the second, the undertaking is so habitual that we inadvertently leave out a critical step. In both cases, we have the necessary knowledge—the challenge is to apply that knowledge consistently and correctly.
Even at the time of his book’s release, Gawande stressed we should not treat a checklist as a recipe. The value of a checklist is to create “pause points” in a process where we step back and ask ourselves tough questions. Are we forgetting something? Are we ignoring the obvious? Are we failing to anticipate how things might go wrong?
The danger of using a checklist as a recipe is that we slip into auto-pilot and stop paying attention. Professional chefs warn aspiring home cooks not to get lost in following a recipe that you stop paying attention to the food. How the food looks, smells, and tastes provide critical information.
The same holds in a business setting. In my practice as an executive coach, mindfulness is at the heart of my approach to leadership development. The most successful leaders deliberately make time to pause and step back. They understand that remaining mindful requires effort and commitment.
Use checklists to overcome bias and blind spots
Another potential downside to checklists is when we view them as a tool to create greater efficiency. Efficiency is about speed. Checklists, when properly and mindfully used, are about slowing down. It is only when we slow down that we become aware of the cognitive biases and blind spots we are all vulnerable to.
The reason some companies are reporting checklist fatigue is that checklists are overused in an effort to make every process and procedure standard and automatic. Checklists become a micromanaging that robs employees of autonomy and initiative. Moreover, the more automatic any process is, the more likely that unconscious bias will creep in.
Don’t neglect conversation and creativity
When a checklist becomes a crutch, we stop paying attention to the here and now, and to one another. Think of an interviewer questioning a potential new hire. An interviewer who runs down a pre-determined list of questions without even looking up at the candidate misses a crucial opportunity to ask relevant follow-up questions or pick up on other cues such as body language.
Checklists should be conversation starters, not conversation stoppers. The best way to overcome blind spots is to see a problem from multiple points of view. Make checklists fresh by turning them into questions and what-if scenarios.
Mindful business leaders also have to take care that checklists do not inadvertently impede creativity. If you and your employees are too busy checking boxes, you will not be able to think outside of the box. Checklists are probably not a useful tool during the brainstorming stage.
Similarly, do not fence in your employees with too many checklists that automate daily operations. Whether they are in customer service or sales, employees are at their best when they think of themselves as creative problem-solvers. We have to give them the freedom to think on their feet and exercise initiative.
Checklists are like any tool in our toolbox—they are helpful in some situations, but not a one-size-fits-all solution. Most important, checklists should increase both our self-awareness and our situational awareness. If they are shutting down conversation and creativity, it might be time to put a check on your use of checklists.