In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande argues that the complexity of human undertakings can be managed more effectively through the use of (you guessed it) checklists. No, really. And he makes an excellent case.
First, he points out that “[T]he 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.” (Checklist Manifesto, p. 13) Gawande says that checklists enable us to take advantage of our complex knowledge, rather than get buried under it. Checklists ensure that we follow essential procedures and communicate effectively with colleagues (forging teams).
Gawande presents compelling examples. Most of these come from medicine, his field of practice, where simple procedural checklists (like making sure that physicians have put on their masks before cutting into patients) have literally saved lives. But the stories from outside medicine are especially interesting. For instance, Gawande describes how employees of Wal-Mart responded more effectively to Hurricane Katrina than FEMA did (pp. 73-78). Top level Wal-Mart executives authorized New Orleans employees to “Make the best that you can with the information that’s available to you at the time, and, above all, do the right thing.” According to a case study from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the response by the locals was swift, imaginative, and effective. Gawande concludes from such examples (not all of them dealing with crises) that
"under conditions of true complexity — where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns — efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals either — that is anarchy. Instead, they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation — expectation to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals." (Checklist Manifesto, p. 79)
Complex environments and challenges require us to “balance freedom and discipline, craft and protocol, specialized ability and group collaboration.” Checklists support this dance of virtues by making sure that things don’t get overlooked, of course, but also (and, methinks, more importantly) by making sure that “people talk and coordinate and accept responsibility while nonetheless being left the power to manage the nuances and unpredictablities the best they know how.” (p. 79)
The first aspect everyone knows. The grocery list. The ToDo list. But the second aspect — talking, coordinating, sharing responsibility, individualizing response,…? That needs some thought. How do we have that kind of talk?
My colleague Dixie Good and I are the evaluators for the Digital Learning Collaborative in St. Vrain School District, Colorado. Excellently facilitated by Instructional Technology Coordinators Michelle Bourgeois and Bud Hunt, building-based teams of teachers (4 to a team, 35 teams in all) are learning how to use edtech to promote powerful learning for their students. (Bud and Michelle provide valuable ongoing commentary about the DLC in the district Instructional Technology blog.) The best part (IMHO) of the DLC? The teachers are learning, or re-learning, how to learn. How to be teammates. How to communicate within their own team and across the DLC network. How to think about learning. What Will Richardson, among others, refers to as “network literacy”.