Checklists and Complexity: should they live together, or just be friends?

Core message ::  Even if you’re working in an inherently complex environment, checklists and templates can help.

Bikes and Traffic in Teipei fighting to 'make progress'

In the UK, Police motorcyclists, amongst the most highly trained and experienced road users, are taught to survive in the complex environment of busy roads, high speeds and often unpredictable behaviour by applying a defined process whenever a hazard is being approached.  A checklist if you like. You can read about it in ‘The Blue Book’ and ‘The System’ it describes is so widely used by trained motorcyclists that I guarantee you that either of those phrases will be immediately recognised in their company.

But if we’re working in the complex domain, how can checklists be applicable?  Consider the attributes of the complex – non-causal, many richly interacting parts, difficult to define system boundaries.  Surely checklists seem more sensible to apply to the obvious or complicated domains – where pushing button ‘A’ results in action ‘x’.  By definition you can’t expect a ‘do these things in this order’ response to work all the time in a complex system, can you? So how come highly trained motorcyclists, as well as surgeons, pilots and RNLI casualty carers, to name a few, reach for the checkcards (physically or metaphorically) when navigating the complex space?

There are a number of things going on here:

Firstly, applying a generic, scripted response (like a checklist) to a complex situation is likely to be better than not considering your response at all.  Training ourselves to consider more aspects of any given situation (than we would if we responded reflexively) should result in better outcomes more often as we will be more likely to spot and act upon weaker outlying signals. Widening the net, avoiding premature convergence.  Of course one has to consider how a checklist-style response would looCasCare cards in RNLI Lifejacketk in your environment.  On my motorbike the decision points and hazards flow at me in a continuous stream – the last thing I need is a checklist stuck to my handlebars.  In this environment I practice to the extent that the list becomes part of my subconscious response.  In contrast are those situations that are perhaps less frequent but no less complex – the medical emergency, the in-flight engine fire.  This time having the response embodied in a physical artefact (like the casualty care checkcards I have in my RNLI life jacket) act as insurance against both skill fade and the shock of the unexpected.


But this isn’t truly capturing or dealing with the complex nature of our environment, it is relying on the fact that many times the complex system behaves like a complicated (or even obvious) system and applying a scripted response makes a lot more sense.  This is the second point – that when you dive into a complex system you’re likely to find that parts of it are inherently simpler than the overall and there is value in responding to those parts by following some form of pattern, leaving lots of mental capacity to deal with the really complex bits.  Consider the example of something dramatic and alarming going wrong with an aircraft engine. Would you prefer your pilot to be trying to recall the ‘correct’ response – radio, trim, fuel etc. –  or would you rather those aspects of this situation be ‘scripted’, leaving your pilot’s skill and experience to fly the ‘plane?

This, in essence, is why well-crafted checklists and templates can (or should) live together with complexity and chaos.  Tools like these help to define heuristics and boundaries and keep cognitive capacity free for the eyebrow-raising bits that defy even the most imaginative thinking.  The challenge is to ensure that the checklist helps you to apply best- or good-practice to those aspects of the system to which they are applicable, whilst at the same time allowing a fast feedback experimental approach to the rest.

The most important thing to remember is that the complex system will, at some point, behave in an unpredictable way and what we really need is a process that is resilient enough to cope with all and any variations of the scenario – not just the possible and likely variants, but also the unpredictable yet feasible versions.  Forget this part and rely solely on the good- and best-practices and you’ll get your ass kicked.

Let me finish with a story.

Many years ago a very good friend of mine (Neil, an accomplished motorcyclist and Best Man at my wedding) recounted the tale of a motorcycle instructor who was an avid fan of ‘The System’.  He firmly believed that if you applied the system correctly then you would never have an accident. He stuck with this viewpoint until, one day, he was riding along a country lane when a deer jumped over a hedge and landed on him.  I can’t think of a better example of feasible, but not predictable.

4 thoughts on “Checklists and Complexity: should they live together, or just be friends?

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