From skyscrapers to supermarkets, try one tick at a time

[Image courtesy of Animated Heaven at Flickr Creative Commons]

I finally relaunched my new website last week, after a routine overhaul that turned into a marathon. 

“Why don’t you practice what you preach?” said a friend rather pointedly a month or so ago, as I recounted how I’d been wrangling back-end glitches and tinkering with possible layouts. “Good enough is good enough, isn’t it, Kevin? If it’s 80% there, it’s there – right?”


It was good enough, and my friend’s timely intervention was one of two things that pushed me to the tipping point and let me click the Publish button. 

The other thing was a checklist. It’s hard to believe that something so simple could have had such dramatic effect, but it did.

Plane and simple

Way back when I was a budding private pilot, checklists were very much top of mind. After take-off checks, downwind checks, crosswind checks, final-approach checks.

Not to mention my personal favorite, known in aviation circles as EFATO: engine failure after take-off.

The idea of a checklist is that it’s so firmly embedded in your mind that when really you need it, you can trot it out effortlessly. It’s helpful when everything is going according to plan, but it’s absolutely vital when you’re in an adrenaline-pumping situation such as a stall or spin.

Even the most experienced pilot can feel the instinct to raise the nose in a stall, but believe me, you really don’t want to do that. And when you’re spinning , it helps if you can follow the PARE (power, ailerons, rudder, elevator) routine, which will help stop the rotation and put you on the straight and level again. 

Though not everything is a life-and-death situation like flying, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a checklist.

I’ve seen seen marketing campaigns derailed because one vital step was missed out: getting the call centre fully up to speed on a the mechanics of the special offer. Or an ad campaign that was rushed without good reason and forgot that the target audience was younger than usual.

Remembering and forgetting

The thing is, we all overestimate our memories. They have amazing capacity, but need to be trained, and systems are key part of that (as you’ll know if you’ve ever tried the techniques that memory champs like Dominic O’Brien use). So we often make assumptions based on incomplete information, which a checklist would have avoided. 

When my website got caught in a loop (literally – the posts in my blog were looping inside each other) I should have logically worked through the reasons why it was stuck. And disabling the WordPress plugins one by one would have quickly solved the problem.

Instead, it took me a week to figure out what a checklist would have done in minutes. At which point I took a step back and actually made a list of tasks to complete and obstacles to overcome.

So what might your checklist look like – for a website content review, for example? Here’s one I recently put together for a client: 

  • Assign all content a keep or discard tag.
  • Further divide the keep content into rewrite, repurpose and retain.
  • Check classification with relevant departments to ensure they’re on board. Rework list if necessary.
  • Create a list of new content that’s needed, based on customer segmentation. 
  • Prioritise so you know what to handle first (and what to put on the back burner, if necessary). 
  • Run by the departments again.
  • Allocate internal and/or external resource to copy.

And you’re right – there are no surprises on the checklist. But following simple steps like these helps avoid those nasty surprises that always happen when you rely on your memory.

What makes us tick

Practising surgeon and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande wrote a highly acclaimed book called The Checklist Manifesto a few years ago. Among others, he talked to pilots and doctors, and the people who design skyscrapers, and discovered how heavily they rely on checklists when every detail counts.

I think I might recommend it to a friend of mine.

He recently told me he doesn’t make a shopping list, preferring instead to head off to the supermarket and freewheel his way up and down the aisles, buying things if they catch his eye and he remembers he needs them. While it’s a novel way to shop, it takes much longer and he’s constantly popping out during the week to the local convenience store to top up on things he forgot.

Until I finally get my head around memory palaces, I think I’ll stick to the humble list to make sure I don’t forget any steps.

Whether it’s stalling planes or misbehaving plugins.