A few days ago I got my hands on a The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande.
Not knowing the author’s background I was expecting a book from some professional organizer, a guru of “getting things done”. Maybe one of those how-to self-improvement books that I typically pick up on my way to a transcontinental flight to deal with my inability to fall asleep while squeezed in a middle seat. The book was nothing of a kind and if anything it reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s masterpieces. To make text even more interesting a lot of the examples and ideas in the book came from the blood, sweat and tears of the author himself, not various people he interviewed. As I shortly realized even though Atul writes like a professional journalist the writing isn’t his day job, or at least not his only day job… In addition to being a best-selling author he is a MacArthur Fellow, a general surgeon at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health… Wow, how one can manage all that and also deal with three kids!?
Anyway, the main message of Checklist Manifesto is quite simple – in many activities the volume and complexity of knowledge required to perform them have exceeded any single individual’s ability to manage it consistently. The only way to deal with inevitable problems is to deploy tools that improve the outcomes and minimize errors without adding even more complexity to the task itself. That seems almost impossible unless we look at a simple, age old tool, that can help almost any professional – a common checklist. Of course, it’s not “just a checklist”, there is more to a good checklist than a set of nicely formatted boxes. The author illustrates it on multitude of examples with the most interesting being in the fields of aviation (where the work of creating checklist has reached the level of art and at the same time widely accepted as mainstream tool) and in his own domain – surgery and public health.
A good checklist, Atul tells us, must incorporate the best practices of the trade, it should be simple and highlight the areas of highest impact as well as draw attention to the high impact omissions (such as not putting your seatbelt when driving a car). A good checklist should not replace thinking and instead provide a framework for operations that promotes thinking and communications.
In software development checklists can be used virtually everywhere, just consider an obvious example – release to production. It’s in particular important in complex SaaS implementations where a failure to miss common step can have multi-million implications. In a degree checklists are already there – think for example of smoke testing or PM auditing tools.
And what about outsourcing? Oops, that seem to be an area where checklists are not commonly used. The great majority of technology crowd drives outsourcing decisions, processes and operations using “expert approach” which is an extremely dangerous route. It is far too easy for even a savvy outsourcing advisor to miss a step in vendor selection that can result in multi-million losses, lawyers are people too and they can miss something in MSA, the list of “possibilities” goes on and on.
I wholeheartedly believe that we owe it to ourselves to create checklists at least for the most critical elements of outsourcing lifecycle. To some degree I started doing that with my book. The book table of contents itself looks like an outsourcing checklist , and there are some explicit checklists there, for example an Outsourcing Readiness Assessment Checklist.
There is of course a lot more checklists that need to be produced, and those that I have created can really use your feedback and broader real life testing. I am planning on continuing with this honorable mission and would really appreciate your support – in any shape or form. And in that light the first question is “What checklist do we need?”