Book reviews - Clear thinking - Sales

Checklists? Who Needs Stinkin’ Checklists?

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Alfred North Whitehead

Dr. Atul Gawande wrote The Checklist Manifesto to make a case for increased use of checklists by surgeons, and I’ve written this article and book recommendation to endorse his idea and recommend it for sales professionals as well. When I first heard of his book, I avoided buying it because his premise seemed too simple for a full-length treatment and I didn’t think there was too much to learn. I was wrong.

How are airline pilots and surgeons similar? They both lead teams engaged in highly complex tasks that involve many different steps; they generally are highly individualistic with large egos; the processes they engage in are usually routine with the occasional chance of fatal mistakes. One major difference? Pilots routinely use checklists and surgeons don’t. (Well, there’s one more: pilots usually suffer the full consequences of their mistakes.)

Dr. Gawande has led the effort to make checklists standard practice among surgical teams in order to get a grip on the increasing complexity of the profession and avoid simple errors that can cause complications resulting in pain and inconvenience for patients, increased costs, and sometimes unnecessary deaths. Anyone who has been in or had a loved one in the hospital recently knows that omissions and errors are far too common.

Overall, though, this book is not about medicine. It’s about dealing with complexity and freeing the mind from “no-brainer” concerns so that our attention can focus on those areas requiring full attention and careful thought. An excellent example is what Capt. Sullenberger and his crew did when their plane hit a flock of geese. Immediately after both engines went dead, under enormous time pressure, Sully and his copilot, (who had never worked together before that flight), pulled out their checklists and started going through the steps for engine flameout. They were able to quickly go through a large number of steps to get the plane ready for ditching, allowing Sullenberger the time he needed to decide to ditch rather than to try to return, and to choose an open spot on the Hudson.

Who else do most of us know who are highly individualistic with large egos? With the exception of fatal mistakes, the description above can just as easily apply to salespeople involved in complex enterprise sales. How many times have you seen a seasoned professional salesperson forget to bring an important document to a sales call, or overlook a small detail that causes them to lose face—or worse, a deal?

Yet salespeople still resist processes and tools that can ensure that they don’t miss any important steps in the sales process or that they are properly prepared for important sales calls. Even those rare superhumans who are unlikely to make a mistake don’t work alone anymore. Complex sales are team sales, and the more people involved in the effort the greater the chances of confusion and omission. Today’s business world is growing in complexity at the same time that our minds are stressed with more and more inputs.

When I attended the Air Force Academy, one of the most consistent mantras that was drilled into our heads was “attention to detail.” (I had to put it in bold and italics because it was always said with a stern and reverent tone of voice). Despite the constant repetition, I have to admit that it did not stick with me, because the discipline of dealing with complexity and paying attention to minute—but critical—details is hard. If the devil is always in the details, a solid checklist can exorcise a lot of your sales problems.

I realize the concern that salespeople have when it comes to checklists, that it will reduce sales to a formula and strip away your individuality and skill. A well-designed checklist does the opposite, it “gets the dumb stuff out of the way” as Gawande says, so that you can focus your mind on the hard stuff. The less you think you need this book, the more strongly I recommend it for you.

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2 Comments
  • Jack Malcolm

    Bob,

    Funny you should mention the travel checklist–it was the first checklist I created after reading the book, and it’s made a tremendous difference already. It’s funny how you can do the same thing hundreds of times and still benefit from a checklist.
    On a related note, I floated the idea by Dennis with regard to PQ, but he’s still adamantly against it.

  • Jack,

    I had the same reaction to the book. I was hesitant to buy it, but heard enough about it to give it a try, and then found it very valuable. I would guess you have a checklist for travel, since you’re on the road even more than I am. I have two, one for domestic and the other for international travel. These lists let me “get the dumb stuff out of the way,” so I can think about the important stuff like preparing for the audience I’m training. Checklists even echo Getting Things Done, allowing our minds to stop trying to hold all the details in our heads and thus focus on the high-value work.

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