Reap the Rewards of a Checklist: Two Easy Steps

Shelley Row

Reap the Rewards of a Checklist: Two Easy Steps

Pilots use it; some doctors use it.  The benefits of its use have been documented.  What is it? A simple checklist. Are you taking advantage of it? 

My sister and her husband are pilots. Each time I fly with them they pull out their pre-flight checklist.  Even with hours of experience, they use a checklist.  Why would experienced pilots who have initiated flights hundreds of times, still use a checklist? They know that for complicated activities, the brain needs support be to accurate.  Look at these research results.

In a study of surgeons in 2009, the use of a checklist, which covered steps before and after the surgery, was shown to cut patient mortality rates nearly in half and complications from surgery fell by a third. A similar study of an intensive-care checklist used in several hospitals in Michigan and reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003, showed a 66% reduction in infections and $175 million saved in the treatment of those infections.[i]

You’re thinking, “That’s great but I’m not doing surgery at work or flying a plane. I don’t need this.” In my work with organizations, the most complex challenge they face is behavior change particularly in a team environment.  Whether it’s not interrupting each other, listening to everyone’s input, collaborating with the out-spoken team member who gets on your nerves or just sending in progress reports on time, these behaviors tank the productivity of a team. And behaviors are hard to change.  A meeting checklist can help.

The checklist helps the brain in three ways.

  • Working memory. Research in neuroscience shows that working memory (the part of memory that stores readily accessible information) only holds about four pieces of information at a time.  That’s not much. Checklists put important information back into working memory.
  • Rewiring. The brain resists new behavior. It’s takes less mental energy to do what it has always done. It will change behavior but only with a lot of practice and intention.  Checklists reminder the brain to practice.
  • Priming. The brain and body respond to what they experience most recently. Where people prime their brain with confident and powerful thoughts before going into a meeting, studies show they are 60% more likely to be viewed as a leader.  Checklists are a brain priming tool.

As an example, here’s how I use a checklist to help companies be more productive in meetings.

Identify ideal behaviors. How do you wish the team would behave to support collaboration and productivity? Here’s an example checklist that I used with a client:

  • Have a written agenda.
  • Start and end on time.
  • Stay focused on the objective of the meeting. Take divergent topics off-line.
  • Let each person complete their thought without interruption.
  • Everyone uses a calm tone of voice throughout the meeting.

(Note that each item is stated in a positive sentence – the way we want it to be not the behavior to avoid.) For this organization, these behaviors represent a desirable state that is a departure from the norm.

Use a checklist. These ideal behaviors were written in the form of a checklist. Team leads committed to briefly reviewing the checklist with the team as the meeting starts. In less than a minute, the team members have desirable behavior goals re-installed in working memory, they are reminded to practice which rewires their brain, and it primes them for a more productive meeting. All in less than a minute.

You can use this same approach for personal goals, New Year’s resolutions, or just setting the stage for a productive and happy day. Use it anywhere your brain needs a boost to remember what you want it to do. It couldn’t be easier.


[i] Study: A Simple Surgery Checklist Saves Lives, Szalavitz, Maia, Time, January 14, 2009.