Categories: Book ReviewsInvestorsPowerNetworkingProducing

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande [Book Review]

I’ve just finished reading Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. I am struck by how useful a simple checklist can be to professionals as divergent as surgeons in the emergency room to commercial airline pilots in eliminating potentially fatal mistakes in incredibly stressful situations.

While not usually life threatening, our decisions and actions in the entertainment industry are likewise plagued by constantly changing circumstances and fluctuating stakes presenting a thousand ways a deal could get squirrely, a project derailed, an opportunity ruined, a dream, crushed.

Each of the stressful hats I wear, from being a director helming an 80-person cast and crew through the pressure cooker of the infinite uncontrollable variables of principal photography, to the landmines an independent filmmaker must avoid while seeking production funds and distribution, to a screenwriter, pitching my heart out to unpredictable executives, could perhaps be lessened with a simple analysis of past successes and failures to create a checklist before embarking on future endeavors.

It’s hard to imagine that the emotional rollercoaster of these uncertainties could somehow be distilled to critical path decisions and actions to stay on point, but imagine the strides that could make towards health in Hollywood – not to mention, perhaps, even better films and television.

In his book, Gawande makes the distinction between mistakes we make because we don’t know enough versus the mistakes we make because we don’t make proper use of what we do already know. Failure in our modern world is less due to errors of ignorance than it is to errors of ineptitude. Perhaps, this is partly due to our vastly accelerated pace of life. Perhaps, it’s because so much of our professional activities rely on cutting edge technologies that require increasingly segmented expertise that inevitably exceeds any one person’s sphere of knowledge. Thus, the true cornerstone of success in our new millennium will likely be teamwork – and effective leadership.

The Checklist Manifesto examined case study after case study across a wide gamut of fields but this particular point was best driven home (literally) by his analysis of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the Miracle on the Hudson pilot, who expertly ditched US Airways Flight 1549 onto the frozen river after inadvertently plowing through a flock of geese. Much as the media tried to lionize him as an individual hero, his humility persistently clarified that it was an ensemble success, largely thanks to adherence to protocol: the famous tried and true checklist.

Training and experience, of course, are key, but when the going gets really tough, sometimes it’s good to have a checklist of the most important things to pay attention to as you’re going through the worst of it and don’t have time to think or react. Just read and do. Or do and confirm.

Gawande writes: “It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us – those we aspire to be – handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists. Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.”

It’s interesting.  I’ve spent over five years helping two brilliant entrepreneurs raise money for, focus group and beta test and develop their patented software, LitCentral, that could literally revolutionize literary development the way nonlinear editing forever changed the landscape of post-production (along with virtually every other collaborative workflow process with lots of cooks in the kitchen from governmental legislation to medical diagnosis and treatment to name just a few). Everyone’s initial knee jerk reaction has often been the same: “How can you distill such a creative and subjective process to quantifiable analysis?” But the truth is, as Gawande proves, is:

“…what is needed…is discipline…

…discipline is hard – harder than trustworthiness and skill and perhaps even than selflessness.

We are by nature flawed and inconstant creatures…Discipline is something we have to work at.”

And LitCentral, uniquely, offers discipline to a wildly erratic and undisciplined part of the development process.

The author continues elsewhere:

“We don’t study routine failures…when we look closely, we recognize the same balls being dropped over and over, even by those of great ability and determination. We know the patterns. We see the costs. It’s time to try something else. Try a checklist.”

Gawande references Geoffrey H. Smart’s fascinating 1998 report The Art and Science of Human Capital Valuation.

Our industry is almost completely reliant upon human capital.

Straddling the worlds of art and commerce, I found the correlations fascinating between how Venture Capitalists identify that rare entrepreneur who can actually execute their idea and studio or network willing to greenlight one artists’ project over another.

Hollywood decision makers and power brokers, almost identical to their Venture Capitalist brethren, must delineate between all the charismatic dreamers with intriguing ideas to discern the extremely rare visionaries who can actually execute their proposals to reality. In film and television, at least, the risks are mitigated by pairing the entrepreneur or artist with a Show Runner or Producing partner who has proven their ability to manage teams and cope with setbacks, people and technical problems to manifest the shared vision of the project – until that individual is allowed the reigns solo.

Let’s see if you recognize any of the venture capitalist human capital valuation practices Smart identified as your own approaches (or those of professionals you’ve worked with – or not been given the opportunity to):

Venture Capitalists’ Human Capital Assessment Methods

  • The Art Critic – Assesses at a glance, intuitively, based on extensive experience
  • The Sponge – Does extensive due diligence researching and soaking up information, then goes with gut
  • The Prosecutor – Interrogates aggressively, tests with challenging questions, drills with random hypothetical situations
  • The Suitor – Woos versus analyzes
  • The Terminator – Convinced from the start it’s a doomed venture, skips the evaluation altogether, buys up the best ideas, fires the originators as incompetent and hires replacements
  • The Infiltrator – Gets in on the inside to spy for him or herself
  • The Airline Captain – Uses a formal checklist to diligently study past mistakes

Smart’s study showed, not surprisingly, givenThe Checklist Manifesto’s more recent research, that the Airline Captain methodology had the best Internal Rate of Return: 80% median return compared to 35% or less for all of the other types.

Sure: experience counts. But adding a checklist to the gut instincts of the Art Critic and the systematic analysis of the Sponge was perhaps the trifecta.

I started out my career in Hollywood as a Sponge (and I’ll always be one, a voracious reader, an education, research, networking and interviewing junkie). As my confidence in my own skills and taste grew over the past decade and a half, I became some variation of the Art Critic. I am now just realizing, like the expert surgeons and commercial airline pilots and architects interviewed in Gawande’s book, that I need to add the discipline of a checklist to be more of an Airline Captain to better pilot my career and projects.

The three most common regrets voiced by venture capitalists I’d say is also largely true of those of us in Hollywood juggling projects:

  1. rushing to close a deal
  2. being misled by the “halo effect” or
  3. allowing responsibility to be diffused by too many cooks in the kitchen.

I, for one, am putting on my Airline Captain’s cap and will check my list twice in the future. But I’ll still honor my inner Art critic and water my Sponge – all the while, feeding my passion.

How ‘bout you?

Heather :