The Checklist Manifesto probably isn’t a good book to read on a plane. The main source of examples is flight safety – or more specifically plane crashes and what was learned from them. When I read it on an easyJet flight to and from Milan, I couldn’t help notice that the crew of the plane seemed to be younger than me. They say policemen only get younger, but it feels slightly scarier when it’s pilots.
The manifesto is also written by a surgeon (Atul Gawande) and so most of the other examples are about cutting people open in emergency situations. Also not good for me – I’m very, very squeamish.
It is however a very good book and I’m beginning to think there’s something in it. The basic thesis is that work and life are getting ever more complex and while we are getting better and better at mastering the world around us, we’re also more susceptible to making stupid mistakes. Gawande contends that the answer to this conundrum is remarkably simple – checklists.
The first checklist to reduce stupid mistakes in complex situations was created by Boeing after they realised that even one of the most distinguished pilots in the world could make a simple mistake in trying to take off in their (at the time) cutting edge technology – the B-17 four engine bomber. Ever since, every plane they’ve ever built has had a series of checklists created for it and they are designed to be incredibly easy to use. Check out this flight manual for the SR-71 Lockheed Martin ‘Blackbird’ which is now declassified to see how specific the checklists are.
At a more mundane level, if you’re cabin crew on easyJet, there’s even a simple checklist for giving the captain a cup of tea. That might sound ridiculous but get it wrong and you could let somebody gain access to the cockpit. It’s a one in a million type situation but that’s what checklists can prevent – they reduce risk. They enable six people under 35 to safely launch a metal tube filled with explosive to 30,000 feet and land it again with 153 other people on board.
Beyond flight and surgery, the book touches on a couple of investment firms or partners at firms who use this approach and say that while it’s early days, they’re seeing good results. I can imagine that’s true. Investing is all about finding the startups that reach escape velocity but there are a lot of things that can go wrong along the way. As an investor, using checklists could reduce the risk of those things happening both in decisions about investments and when working with investees.
It’s also a pretty useful approach for startups themselves and one we’re going to be using for Bethnal Green Ventures. We’re developing a checklist for pretty much any situation you could find yourself in during your first year as a startup. They’re not meant to tell you what to do, just to stop you from making silly mistakes that other founders wish they hadn’t made. Once we’ve tried it out, we’re also hoping to publish it so that others can use it too. In the meantime, this list of 40 steps every startup should take by Andrew Scott is a very useful place to start.