I recently read Atul Gawande’s thought-provoking and superb book The Checklist Manifesto: How to get things right. He convincingly explores a basic, common sense approach to defend anyone against failure – the checklist. Multiple examples describe the dramatic, positive impact of the checklist strategy on performance. He explains and applies a checklist strategy to overcome performance failure by distinguishing three different kinds of problems: simple, complicated, and complex.
Three kinds of problems
Simple problems are ones which have known techniques or a ‘recipe’ to get success. In educational leadership, my example is an effective staff duty procedure to ensure the safety and well-being of students during non-teaching times. Complicated problems have no straightforward answer or ‘recipe’, so they require multiple people, specialized expertise and coordination. In educational leadership, my example is planning the school’s annual timetable so it’s responsive to learning and teaching priorities. You can repeat the planning process and perfect it over time.
Complex problems are ones like raising a child. Every child is unique, raising one child may provide experience, but it does not guarantee success with the next child. Experience and expertise is valuable but insufficient, and the outcome uncertain. In educational leadership, my example is responding to a challenging learning and teaching goal, usually in the school’s annual improvement plan, to achieve better student outcomes. We know it’s possible to teach every student well to have a high-impact on their learning, but it’s very complex work.
The checklist to overcome failure
Gawande argues that checklists provide protection against basic errors by making explicit straightforward solutions that require necessary behaviours. For example, a checklist stating the tasks required of staff when they are on duty and which are checked daily to promote consistency. The intended outcome is improved student safety and well-being during non-teaching time (a checklist solution for a simple problem).
A checklist for a team responsible for developing the annual timetable states their tasks and expected behaviours for working collaboratively with staff to identify the year’s learning and teaching priorities, steps for responding to timetable challenges and dilemmas, and steps for timetable decision-making. The intended outcome is a collaboratively developed timetable that is highly responsive to learning and teaching priorities, for which there is collective responsibility (a checklist solution for a complicated problem).
But can a checklist help avert failure when the problem is a complex one? When do you want people to follow protocol to make sure they do the right tasks in the right ways? Where do you leave room for experience, expertise and individual judgment?
The checklist and complex problems
A checklist for a complex problem requires critical tasks in the problem-solving process to be included in the checklist. These include deep knowledge about the problem and how to respond to the problem, certainty that relevant knowledge is applied correctly, maintaining flexibility to adjust for unexpected difficulties, and leaving room for professional craft and judgment.
Developing a checklist is a social process. It’s done in collaboration with the group who will use it, to ensure knowledge is put to use in the right way. The checklist for a complex problem distributes leadership away from the centre by inviting people to take responsibility for and engage in solutions. The checklist is a balance of a set of checks to ensure critical tasks are not overlooked and that people talk, coordinate and accept a collective responsibility for the problem and its solution.
A checklist for working on a complex problem
Gawande says that checklists “….are not comprehensive how-to guides. They are quick and simple tools aimed to buttress the skills of expert professionals….at key points to confirm that critical steps have not been overlooked.”
When coaching a school leadership team I use a research-informed process for complex problem-solving (Robinson, 2011). Let’s now take that process and turn it into a checklist for you to use when tackling the complex work of learning and teaching improvement.
You will see I’ve included four pause, check and confirm points. This is deliberate. A group using the checklist verbally confirms with each other those items have been checked for completion before proceeding to the next items. As well, the checklist items are in a problem-solving sequence, so it’s important the items are followed in the checklist’s order: