Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto – Its Primary Value

After this Friday, I will have presented synopses of well over 200 books over the last twelve years.  This includes books presented at the First Friday Book Synopsis, the Urban Engagement Book Club, and quite a few “special commission” presentations.  For a number of years, I said that The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharpe was the best book/my favorite book.  Then, I shifted that assessment to Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

My reasons for such a personal ranking are obviously quite subjective.  One reason is this – after reading those books, I kept thinking about them, a lot.  I remembered their stories, and I pondered their implications.  Both of them became part of my thinking, and I “built” on such thinking with other books – notably, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin as the logical follow-up to Outliers (the 10,000 hours requires very serious practice discipline/”deliberate practice” to maximize those hours), and a number of books on innovation that seemed to make more sense when preceded by the thoughts in The Creative Habit.

Well, I may move The Checklist Manifesto to the top spot in my own little ranking system.


I think the more deeply I delved into The Checklist Manifesto, the more aware I became of just how big a challenge modern day complexity really presents.  The title of the book may be misleading:  “The Checklist Manifesto” makes it sound like a simple book – just create and use a checklist to get things done.  But it is born of a deeper issue – complexity.  For example, in the book Atul Gawande describes how for most of human history, a “Master Builder” would oversee all of the big building projects.  Today, with our 80 + story high-rises, there is no “Master Builder” who could possibly know enough to get such a building built as the Lone-Ranger type expert.

Here’s a revealing excerpt:

Every day there is more and more to manage and get right and learn.  And defeat under conditions of complexity occurs far more often despite great effort rather than from a lack of it.
It is not clear how we could produce substantially more expertise than we already have.  Yet our failures remain frequent.  They persist despite remarkable individual ability.
(our) know-how is often unmanageable.  Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating, across many fields – from medicine to finance, business to government.  And the reason is increasingly evident:  the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably.  Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.
That means we need a different strategy for overcoming failure…

In other words, it is not the solution of the checklist that has most intrigued me about this book, although I think I am a true convert to his solution.  His case is absolutely compelling.  But it is his diagnosis that makes it so valuable.  And, this is no surprise – Gawande is a surgeon, and proper diagnosis is sort of critical in the process of successful surgery.

Recently, I mentioned a book entitled How to Read Slowly.  Let me recommend that you put The Checklist Manifesto on your reading list – and carve out a time to read it slowly.  I think it is that valuable.

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