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Book Review: The Checklist Manifesto

The Checklist Manifesto and the results of using a very simple tool to achieve some amazing results, kept popping up in articles and books I read.  Intrigued, I read it, thinking it could make my work and the work of startups and small organizations more effective.

While very interesting and convincing, this is not for startup leaders.

Author Atul Gawande, a doctor, is searching for ways to reduce basic mistakes in complex, team-based work — which is why I was drawn to the book.  His main examples are surgery, commercial construction, and flying as well as interesting stories in public health and investing.  After reading the book, there’s no question the checklist works — and is saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

But in the examples, the work has a great deal of repetition and predictability for which to prepare.  That’s not to say the work is easy — what could be more complex than emergency surgery with a group of people you barely know.  Nonetheless, where the work needs to go (save the patient, land the plane, construct a building) is clear.  That’s why a checklist is such a great idea to ensure basics things don’t get overlooked that could kill a patient.  But for startups, the path, destination, tools, and strategies are much more ambiguous and evolving in real time.

One point I found particularly interesting was a bit counter intuitive: the idea of a checklist sounds initially very bureaucratic.  Instead of empowering those on the front lines who have the knowledge to make the right choices, it’s centralizing the decision-making process.  On the contrary.

Dr Gawande explains them like this:

It is common to misconceive how checklists function in complex lines of work,  They are not comprehensive how-to guides, whether for building a skyscraper or getting a plane out of trouble. They are quick and simple tools aimed to buttress the skills of expert professionals.

While I don’t recommend this book be a priority read for startup founders, there are a few cases where checklists could be really helpful.

  • Hiring — especially if you have multiple team members conducting interviews.  You could have a list of must-have qualities/experiences, nice-to-have, can’t-have, etc.
  • Fundraising — what questions are essential to ask during a meeting?  What questions are essential to research before it?
  • Sending blast emails or writing website copy — don’t want mistakes when emailing thousands of people or making something public.

If you’re ever preparing to lead a major effort with a ton of people or leading a much larger organization, you should read the The Checklist Manifesto.  While a bit redundant, it’s interesting, thought-provoking, and convincing. 

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