Although I remain convinced that Atul Gwande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right is the single best source for information and counsel on how to formulate and then use a list most effectively, there are other worthy sources. For example, here is an article written by Martin Douglass for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To check out an abundance of valuable resources and obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.
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Everybody loves a good list, right?
In our time-starved world, numbered lists help readers (and writers) get to the main point while still allowing a little room for flavor. But to paraphrase Aristotle, too much of a good thing is not necessarily better.
In my last post, I compiled the “worst” of the “worst lists.”
Here’s my compendium of five of the best “5 Best” lists of recent years – and what they tell us about how to do this thing right:
1. “5 Best Career Tips for Young People” (US News)
Too many “Top 5 or “10 Most …” lists consist of things you or I could have thought of ourselves, given two minutes and an iPad. Not so these five tips, which were culled from the book, Generation Earn, by Kimberly Palmer. The advice is refreshingly counterintuitive (”Raise your rates”) and pragmatic (”Free up your time and energy by outsourcing chores”).
Lesson: Say something new
2. “The 5 Best Toys of All Time” (Wired)
This list of “best toys” include such time-tested classics as “Stick,” “Cardboard Tube” and “Dirt.” Yes, dirt. Not what you expected, right? Especially in the tech-geek environment of Wired. That’s what so fresh about it: it’s actually fresh. While seemingly tongue-in-cheek, the list actually says something profound about how technology can distort kids’ lives.
Lesson: Be counter-intuitive
3. “Top 5 Best Complaint Letters” (The Telegraph)
Disgruntled customers are always a good source of dark online humor. (As United Airlines, among many others, can tell you.) This compendium includes a Chrysler Neon owner who wrote: “I don’t want the car to explode while I’m in it. Frankly, I do want it to explode when no one is ….”
Lesson: When you can’t be funny yourself, quote funny people
4. “The 5 Best Unintended Uses for the Apple iPad” (PC Magazine)
At the height of iPad mania last April, PC Magazine released a collection of five user-generated videos showing people employing their iPad as a cat toy and a golf tee, among others. In a subtle way, it helped put the hype in perspective.
Lesson: Where possible, include video
5. “MyFiveBest.com” (MyFiveBest.com)
This website describes itself as “User Submitted Trivia and Opinion.” Users post their own lists of “five” things, which range from the serious (”Five Countries That Censor Your Internet”) to the strange (”Five Animals That Have Been Used as Weapons”).
Lesson: When you can’t create … curate Do you have any favorite “best lists” to recommend?
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Martin Douglass is the pseudonym of an Emmy-nominated former TV and magazine writer who threw it all away to get an MBA. He currently toils anonymously in middle-management at a large Midwestern corporation.
In their recently published book, Reengineering Health Care, Jim Champy and Harry Greenspun, M.D. provide “a manifesto for radically thinking health care delivery.” They offer four implementation checklists that have profound significance to improving the quality of health care delivery. Here’s the first, one that suggests how to implement new technologies. They explain the significance of each question within the book’s narrative.
Have you developed the capabilities and acquired the capacity to implement the new technology?
Have you established a set of principles to guide you through the change journey?
Have you engaged the right people in the work redesign effort?
Have you identified the leaders who will shepherd the change?
Have you established a governance process to answer questions of policy and oversee effort?
Have you established a project management structure and methodology?
Are your project plans sufficiently detailed to allow you to manage all of the parts effectively?
Have you established training programs and practice facilities to enable people to become familiar with both the new technology and the new work processes?
“Technology isn’t the universal solution for reengineering health care, but it’s safe to say that technology will be a critical enabler of many reengineering initiatives. That, however, is just the beginning of reengineering, since a technological innovation will inevitably lead to changes in most or all of the processes in place at hospitals, medical groups, and individual physicians’ offices.”
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Champy and Greenspun offer excellent advice to those who need assistance with formulating and then implementaing an action plan. I also highly recommend Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, published by Metropolitan Books (2009). Other worthy sources include James Kilts’s Doing What Matters: How to Get Results That Make a Difference – The Revolutionary Old-School Approach co-authored with John F. Manfredi and Robert Lorber, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done co-authored by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, and Guy Kawasaki’s Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition.
So, here’s the request that came in an e-mail:
We are going on a cruise in September and I want to load my Kindle with three books. What are the three best books you would recommend for my reading? The request came from a very sharp, keen-minded, successful, independent business consultant. He attends one of our book synopsis events. This is my attempt to answer his question.
I am tempted to simply list some of my all time favorite reads (not necessarily the best books I’ve ever read, although they are close – but definitely books that I am very glad I have read), like: The Doorbell Rang, one of my favorite Nero Wolfe mysteries, by Rex Stout; and The Powers That Be and The Reckoning by the truly great David Halberstam; and Defining a Nation, edited by the same Halberstam.
And then there is this: what are the business books from the last few years (and even a little longer ago) that should be on your “I’ve definitely read that book” list? I would certainly include Good to Great by Jim Collins; something Gladwell (it’s tough to choose — probably Outliers); Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf and The Leadership Engine by Noel Tichy; almost anything, but definitely at least one thing, by Peter Drucker. Add to this The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley, and a major personal favorite, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.
But – I still have not answered the question. If I had but three books to load on my Kindle for a September cruise, what titles would I choose? Here’s a list of five; you will have to narrow it down to the three that most interest you.
Choice #1: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize winner with his earlier book Guns, Germs, and Steel, has written a tour de force in Collapse, sweeping us through the societies that collapsed, and providing warnings regarding the decisions societies make. An important book!
Choice #2: Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia by Carmen Bin Laden, or, The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. Of course, the Wright book is the heftier of the two; it won the Pulitzer, and provides an amazing education about the rise of Al-Queda, what went into their thinking, and especially their animosity toward the West. But there is a personal tone and a very personal take on life in the strict Muslim world of Saudi Arabia in Carmen Bin Laden’s book — the former wife of Yeslam, one of the brothers of Osama Bin Laden. It is a captivating read, and noticeably shorter than The Looming Tower. (You can tell, from this response, that I think we ought to seek to understand this “other” culture that is so foreign to our own).
Choice #3: OK, which two business books to put on the list? Not necessarily which books to read for enjoyment, but which books provide the most important and useful information? I list two choices. I would put The Other 90%: How to Unlock Your Vast Untapped Potential for Leadership and Life by Robert Cooper, because everyone would benefit from reading an occasional “let’s aim high, and take things higher” book. Unfortunately,this book is not available for the Kindle. (Yes, I checked on all the others). So, for this category of business book, I recommend The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. (I haven’t yet read the new Schwartz book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance, which could be a better choice). And, for the other business book, I would have to go with The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande, just because I think it deals with the complexity of this age and provides really valuable suggestions. (And, it gives every patient going in to surgery an important question to ask his or her surgeon: “do you use a checklist?”).
And you will notice that there are no novels on my list. I read about a novel a decade (except for my relatively frequent re-reading of the Nero Wolfe mysteries). But I have actually bought a novel – in the past week. It is: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I might actually read it – one of these days soon.
Two personal footnotes:
#1 – thanks, Tom, for providing a great idea for a blog post. I apologize for answering you in this fashion.
#2 — And, it would be interesting to have Bob Morris give his list of “only three” in response to this request? I’m pretty sure he would have different titles – all absolutely worth the investment of a Kindle purchase and a few hours of reading. So many books… so little time!
update: I definitely should have put The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis into the mix — as the book I would recommend to help you understand the financial meltdown of the last couple of years. So now I am up to six to choose from, to then narrow down to three. Sorry about that.
After a lengthy investigation of the landing of US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River sixteen months ago, the National Transportation Safety Board made 33 recommendations for safety improvements. All are sensible and do-able.
Although the plane’s crew members were praised for their composure while following directions, the Board noted that Flight 1549’s engines were “damaged beyond hope” and thus could not be restarted, as per the checklist in such a situation. The experts who testified called for cockpit instruments that would give more detailed information to pilots on the condition of their engines and also recommended new checklists based on low altitude engine failure; the one the US Airways pilots (i.e. captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III and first officer Jeffrey B. Skiles) had was for high-altitude failure, in which case more time would have been available during the descent.
Here’s my take: Every checklist must be a work-in-progress. Why? Because those with decision-making responsibilities change. Circumstances change such as technology and information change. Also, laws, rules, and regulations change.
Therefore, reviewing, evaluating, and updating checklists should be continuous. The single best source of information and advice on the subject is Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.
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Start making small to-do lists. Long lists collect dust. When’s the last time you finished a long list of things? You might have knocked off the first few, but chances are you eventually abandoned it (or blindly check off items that weren’t done properly.)
Long lists are guilt trips. The longer the list of unfinished items, the worse you feel about it. And at a certain point, you just stop looking at it because it makes you feel bad. Then you stress out and the whole thing turns into a big mess.
There’s a better way. Break that long list down into a bunch of smaller lists. For example, break a single list of a hundred items into ten lists of ten items. That means when you finish an item on the list, you’ve completed 10 percent of that list, instead of 1 percent.
* * *And a quick suggestion about prioritization: Don’t prioritize with numbers or labels. Avoid saying “This is high priority, this is low priority.” Likewise, don’t say, “This is a three, this a two, this a one, this a three,” etc. Do that and you’ll almost always end up with a ton of high-priority things. That’s not really prioritizing.
Instead, prioritize visually. Put the most important thing at the top. When you’re done with that., the next thing on the list becomes the most important thing. That way you’ll only have a single next most important thing to do at a time. And that’s enough.”
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Other than their dependence on using the word “thing” rather than specifics such as “task” or “objective,” Fried and Hansson offer some excellent advice. The best single source on checklists is Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things [there’s that word again!] Right. I also highly recommend Pages 220-224 in Switch: How to Change Things [!] When Change Is Hard, co-authored by Chip and Dan Heath.