Have you ever walked into a meeting and forgot to bring a key document; or walked out of one thinking, “Oh, I never asked about…”; or signed a contract then realised something had been omitted?
I’m sure you’re all pretty experienced and excellent at your job, and yet it happens to the best of us that, in the moment, with so much on our mind, we forget something; a little detail that could be harmless or it could turn out to be critical. Often we get away with it, but maybe that next time we won’t be so lucky.
Life is complicated these days and some of the deals we work on are extraordinarily complex. But even with the more straightforward negotiations, we can get complacent and make mistakes.
In one study at a top American hospital, they found that doctors forgot a basic procedure in more than a third of cases. We’re talking experts here and we’re talking simple things like washing hands with soap or putting on sterile gloves and mask. Simple but critical.
The answer, according to Atul Gawande in his best-selling book, “The Checklist Manifesto”, is the checklist. When that same hospital introduced a checklist system to cover these basics, patient infection rates immediately reduced from 11% to zero.
Planning to make a miracle
Now you may think you know your stuff and the last thing you need is a checklist. But let me tell you a story, a drama you read about in the papers not so long ago.
In January 2009, US Airlines Flight 1549 took off from La Guardia Airport, New York, and almost immediately hit trouble when it flew into a flock of Canada geese. Both its engines cut out and its pilot, Captain Sullenberger was forced to land his plane in the icy waters of the Hudson River. Remarkably, he did so successfully, saving all 155 passengers on board and 5 crew members, and a new hero was discovered.
But one thing the newspapers didn’t report was that the real hero of “The Miracle on the Hudson” was the checklist.
The crew had an incredible 150 years flying experience between them and none had ever had an accident. And yet still they went through their procedures and it was these that got everyone back on the ground alive.
Airline pilots effectively fly their plane by checklist. A checklist for before starting engines, a checklist for before taxiing, a checklist for before take-off and so on. Then there are the event-driven ones – the checklist for when a particular warning light comes on, the checklist for when one of the engines fail, a checklist for every conceivable situation.
Pilots use checklists all the time, no matter how experienced they are, and, as a result, airlines are actually the safest form of travel in the world.
Reduce your death rate!
Let’s get back to Gawande. He is an Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and a surgeon at the Brigham and Young Hospital in Boston.
He is also an expert in medical excellence and headed a World Health Organisation programme to improve success rates in surgery operations around the world. He introduced the checklist to 8 of the biggest hospitals in the world and got amazing results. This simple introduction (to be used by people who were already to be considered experts) reduced the rates of major complication by 36% and death rates by 47%.
Reducing death rates by 47% is a compelling argument.
However, the most telling fact was in a questionnaire, filled in after three months of the programme by the surgeons involved. The last question read: if you underwent an operation would you want the theatre team to use the checklist?
93% answered yes.
The checklist investor
You might be thinking this is the sort of thing that works for hospitals and airplanes but is out of place in the business world. Well, Gawande answers this too. He reports on research by psychologist Geoff Smart who studied the investment styles of venture capitalists and their relative success. Smart identified six different approaches and gave them all a name.
One approach was more successful by far, achieving a median return of 80%, compared to the others which achieved 35% or less.
Its name? The “Airline Pilot”, the style that was methodical and checklist driven.
The negotiation checklist
Conclusion? Use a checklist. No matter how good you are. It works.
When I run my workshops, I give people checklists for their negotiations. The specifics will vary on the context, but will typically include one for preparation, for pre-meeting, post-meeting, pre-closure and post-closure. And maybe certain event-driven checklists, too: what if they aren’t budging, what if they look like they’re pulling out, what if we don’t feel we can trust them?
They will be simple lists and will be predominantly common sense. But they work.
So if you want to reduce your death rate or you want to produce a miracle or just want to make sure you get your best deal?
Use a checklist.