Checklists may seem rudimentary, when in reality, they are anything but. Beyond the psychological benefits of feeling accomplished when we check off tasks, checklists can have real power to transform our workplaces. As Atul Gawande taught us in his book The Checklist Manifesto, they serve as a tool that help us navigate complex situations and in some cases even save lives.

Enable success in complex situations:

We often think checklists are for basic tasks such as when you’re getting ready to go on a trip. Do you have your toothbrush? Check! Your passport and ID? Check and check! However, they can be even more powerful in hyper-complex situations. We live in a world where many of us work in jobs that are super-specialized and require intricate knowledge to be successful. Yet despite days and years of training, we are still human. And being human means that we have limited ability to hold and process information. Checklists help us by serving as a reminder for the core tasks that we might forget, but are essential to our processes. For example, in The Checklist Manifesto, Gawande highlights how anesthesiologists, one of the most highly specialized professionals, would sometimes forget to administer a life-saving antibiotic before a patient began surgery. But with the introduction of the checklist, infection rates fell by almost half.

Furthermore, while it may seem counter-intuitive, checklists can foster creativity. Again, due to our brain’s limited ability to store information, off-loading the rudimentary items of a process to a checklist frees up mental space. Space that can then be used creatively and on more complex problem-solving tasks.

Harness the power of the group:

Just as we often work in highly-specialized settings, many jobs now require coordination and collaboration amongst teams of people. Checklists admittedly cannot incorporate all the complexities required to coordinate teams and attempting to include all the nuance that goes into every different scenario would be near-impossible. However, what a checklist can (and should) do is incorporate specific points of communication. By building in pause points for communication, checklists can ensure that all the right people are coordinating at all the critical junctures.

Additionally, checklists help tap into the collective power of the group through decentralizing authority. By creating and adhering to a team list, the power of accountability moves from a single person or persons and instead holds everybody responsible. In doing so, it empowers all levels of staff to speak up if something isn’t going as planned, regardless of rank in the hierarchy, because they all have agreed upon common goals and procedures.

In Gawande’s own words, at their core, checklists are “an admission of fallibility. [A checklist] is an admission that individuals aren’t the only thing that matter, that chains of people and processes matter. Further, it’s an admission that we can’t handle the complexity that’s come at us.”

So if you’re human like the rest of us and your processes could benefit from a checklist, read The Checklist Manifesto, check out this resource on how to build a good checklist, and/or reach out to the Peak Team, and we can chat about ways you can incorporate checklists into your work! Happy list-making!

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