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Checklists for Creative Work

If you have worked in a creative discipline long enough, you have no doubt had to deal with a project that didn’t turn out the way you hoped. There are many reasons why expectations and outcomes can become misaligned: poor client/agency communication, unable to reach consensus on key decisions, blown timelines, losing sight of the objective, spending too much time focusing on the wrong things, etc.

Like us, you have surely learned some valuable lessons from difficult projects. Perhaps you’ve gathered the team together and discussed what went right, what went wrong, and how you should fix those things for the next project. These are usually difficult but necessary conversations and, ideally, participants leave feeling like there is a game plan to avoid these mistakes in the future.

And yet, you may have found yourself making these same avoidable mistakes in the future. Why?

Human memory is fallible. Under pressure, we make decisions based on the information available in front of us and a hazy recollection of past lessons learned.

Furthermore, as your organization, clients, technology, systems, tools, and the scope of projects you undertake become more complex, failures in process will have more dramatic consequences. Two people building a simple product for a client can get away without a clear process. Twenty people working on a larger, more complex product with more moving parts will end up tripping over each other and pulling in different directions if they follow the same haphazard process.

A solution

There are proven tools from other disciplines that we can look to for guidance. A few years ago, Atul Gawande wrote The Checklist Manifesto (or, if you prefer, there’s a tl;dr version). The book was quite popular when it came out, but I’m surprised so few people in our field are familiar with it.

The premise is quite simple: without the right tools, we cannot escape avoidable failures – no matter how much we train, specialize, and practice.

In his book, Gawande primarily uses examples from aviation and medicine to demonstrate how checklists are used even by the most talented, respected and successful practitioners in those fields to avoid critical failures.

Checklists have been used in aviation for over 70 years. The first one was created in response to a pilot error that brought down a Boeing Model 299. After the incident, the aircraft was criticized as being too complex for any pilot to fly. Instead, the use of checklists proved it was simply too complex for one person’s memory.

A checklist won’t teach someone or remind an experienced pilot how to fly a plane. Rather, it is used as a prompt to quickly confirm that all critical procedures are completed at the right time and in the right order. And they are used by every pilot on every flight – no matter whether it’s their first flight or 10,000th.

In medicine, too, checklists save lives. Surgeons around the world are now using the WHO’s Surgical Safety Checklist to mitigate against preventable deaths in emergency rooms. This checklist won’t tell a person how to perform open heart surgery. But they are used in hospitals around the world for every surgery to ensure proper safety procedures are followed (e.g. the wrong arm doesn’t get amputated, or they don’t run out of your blood type halfway through surgery).

For creative work

Avoidable failures in our line of work aren’t nearly as severe as in aviation, medicine, or other fields. But we have our own versions: delivering work that doesn’t live up to our standards, unprofitable projects, employees becoming unhappy because they blame each other for systemic failures, change orders, and dissatisfied clients that will look to your competitors for services in the future.

We should look at our own industry for opportunities to use checklists. I don’t mean “open Photoshop” and “create a new layer.” I mean we should examine the points of failure from past projects and areas that, based on our experience, are critical to a project’s success.

Some creative fields already make use of checklists. In theatre, for example, stage managers routinely use checklists to ensure critical steps are followed to ensure the show is executed flawlessly and no detail is forgotten. And professional photographers use shot lists and gear checklists.

It might feel strange initially to use something so regimented in creative endeavours. But I’d argue our creative processes are already informally regimented in many ways and that collective knowledge simply needs to be codified. As Gawande puts it:

“It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us – those we aspire to be – handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists. Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.”

An example for brainstorming

A few years ago, after attending far too many awful brainstorms, I began developing a checklist in response to some of the issues I was seeing. It’s far from perfect, but I’d like to share it with you here to kickstart the conversation about checklists for creative processes.

Download Brainstorming Checklist (PDF)

Eric Portelance More posts by Eric Portelance