Checklists: Good enough for surgeons and airline pilots, so why not researchers and marketers?


In his short but hard-hitting book, ‘The Checklist Manifesto’, Atul Gawande makes a compelling case for the adoption of checklists.  As science has increased our knowledge about the world, errors increasingly come, not from ignorance, but from ineptitude:


“The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably.  Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.”

The more we are expert, experienced and highly trained, the more, Gawande claims, we are blind to this fact.  Our model of expertise demands a paradigm of experts who are all-seeing, all-knowing and unthinkingly capable.  This model is broken.

Let’s apply the same thinking to what we increasingly know about marketing and consumer behaviour.  As with medical science, there is a constant evolution of theory and knowledge.  Through time, much of it is adopted by the mainstream as reality.  Take two books of recent years: Byron Sharp’s “How Brands Grow” and Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.  While we may debate around the edges, the central theses of these are accepted within our collective knowledge, both relevant and transformational to our roles as researchers and marketers.


But now let’s consider how effectively we adopt the thinking.  Do we spend time making sure that our definitions of penetration and buyers are coherent and relevant, if they are so central to brand success? Do we systematically take account of Confirmation Bias when processing information?

In our experience, most marketers would honestly answer: probably not.

Why? Our answer is simple but uncomfortable.  We do our jobs, for the most part, without making huge blunders or effecting catastrophic outcomes.  The fact that we are often less than effective at applying what we know to be true rarely comes back to haunt us.  The missed opportunities are usually invisible and our competitors’ tendency to be similarly imperfect mitigates many losses.  No plane crashes, no-one dies.

But shouldn’t we aim higher than this? And, how can we?

Our experience is that checklists really work.  We’ve developed tools, for example around Behaviour Change science, that act as simple guides to ensure we do a better job of applying the science we know efficiently.

As with surgeons and airline pilots, checklists aren’t enough to make us skilled or expert.  The contents don’t tell us how the body works, how to fly an aeroplane or how to build stronger brands. But they do ensure we avoid simple errors of omission and, in marketing as in surgery and aviation, we find this delivers a significantly better outcome more often than we might like to believe.