Checklists make sure you ask the right questions

I recently finished reading/listening to Atul Gawande’s “Checklist Manifesto,” the 2009 bestseller about using checklists in medicine, construction, and air travel.  Gawande’s book argues that the incredible complexity of modern endeavors such as building a $100 million skyscraper, flying a jumbo jet, or performing open heart surgery is best managed using simple checklists.

For example, administering antibiotics to a patient prior to surgery has been proven to dramatically reduce the risk of infection.  Despite this fact, modern surgery is so complex that this simple step is often forgotten, even in the world’s greatest hospitals.  Making this critical step part of a checklists helps ensure that it happens.

Startup entrepreneurs might think that there is little they can learn from checklists.  After all, unlike Gawande’s world of clearly defined problems, well-established techniques, and broad consensus on what to do, startups deal with the constant “fog of war.”  Usually a startup is pioneering a new product, technology, or market (and sometimes all three at once) making the concept of an airline style checklist seem irrelevant.

But I think we need to take the broader picture.  While it’s hard to build detailed, step-by-step checklists, I do think it is possible to adopt general checklists that can make sure you ask the right questions.

Recently, one of my startups presented their go-to-market plan.  The two founders had worked really hard on the plan, and delivered a detailed 30-minute presentation, complete with budgets and week-by-week timelines.  I listened to the plan, noted their hard work, and then asked, “Have you set a specific target or success criteria for each marketing program?”

They hadn’t.

They had worked for 20-30 hours and thought of every detail except for the most important one.

These were smart founders.  One was working on his second startup, and the other had just finished her MBA.  But the complexity of building a business and the fog of war can cause any of us, no matter how smart or experienced, to skip over a small but vital step.

What kind of simple checklists might you adopt that could help your startup?

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