The sky’s the limit: Why the humble checklist beats masterful intuition

 
Marc Sidwell
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THOSE of us glued to the live feed of Felix Baumgartner’s jump from the edge of space last week were also incidentally witness to one of the most powerful – and underappreciated – performance enhancement techniques known. If you were watching, the chances are you didn’t even give it a second thought. But there’s as much to admire in the moments before the jump as in Baumgartner’s record, sound-barrier-breaking feat itself.

What the world heard before the daredevil began his headlong plummet was the slow, steady voice of Joe Kittinger, former US Air Force colonel and the man whose 50-year-old records Baumgartner was trying to beat. He walked the challenger through a 40 item checklist from Mission Control in Roswell.

Kittinger’s list didn’t sound very sophisticated. It consisted of such straightforward steps as “Item 20, adjust helmet tie down.” Between two men of such expertise it could have seemed absurd or patronising. But in aerospace, more than any other field, the humble checklist has proved its worth, even for highly-trained pilots.

That’s been true since the 1930s, when pilots used the tool to fly Boeing’s B-17. The Flying Fortress became a critical asset in World War II. But it was nearly abandoned after a disastrous test flight when it crashed due to the complexity of its controls. Only after test pilots devised checklists to cope was it possible to fly the machine safely.

The story of the B-17 is outlined, with many others, in The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande. It is a fascinating call to arms for the power of the checklist, and has gained a cult following. Jack Dorsey, one of the co-founders of Twitter, gives a copy to every new employee at the revolutionary mobile payment firm Square, where he is now chief executive. The author himself is no armchair theorist, but has used checklists in his own specialism, medicine, showing they can cut major complications after surgery by more than a third.

Gawande also shows the checklist’s underappreciated value for other fields, including finance. He describes three investors who find formal checklists improve their performance, helping them make better decisions faster. He cites psychologist Geoffrey Smart’s finding that venture capitalists with a methodical, checklist-based approach significantly outperform other styles of assessing early stage investment opportunities.

The trouble with checklists, it seems, is not proving that they work, but how easy it is to overlook their effectiveness. The better you are at what you do, the more likely you are to imagine that intuition and mastery will see you through. Yet the evidence suggests that checklists are a valuable support to anyone working at full stretch. No one wants to surrender to a checkbox culture, but a checklist can transform high-level performance. As Baumgartner shows, for those humble enough to accept them, the sky is the limit.

Marc Sidwell is managing editor of City A.M. The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande is published by Profile.