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Author: Franc Godri

Checklists – A Powerful Tool for Change and Execution

       “Boost – Check – Change – Check – Rich – Hot – Both – Try Start – No Start – Mayday – Mayday – Mayday – Land The Plane”. 


      For those of you that have taken flying lessons, you will fondly recognize this or some form of it. It is what we, in the Canadian Military, called a Red-Page Emergency…Engine Failure After Take-off.  This was taken directly from our airplane checklist.


     I first learned this emergency checklist when I was going through basic flight school in 1986 and I still remember it to this day. This emergency checklist (and the ability to execute it) along with landings were the two most common reasons students would fail flight training (over 50% failure rate in my class). As a pilot, we live and sometimes die by our ability to properly use and execute a checklist.


      Since the 1930s, the aviation industry has adopted an almost zealous approach to checklists because it acknowledged the complexity of aircraft and the ability to fly them safely. This discipline has made a very complex industry one of the safest in the world because, according to US Census data, the risk of dying as a plane passenger is 1 in 205,152 versus dying in a car at 1 in 102.


What is it about checklists that make them such a powerful tool?


      First, it’s how our brain works. In 2003, MIT Neuroscientists reported that the brain’s “checklist’ is in the prefrontal cortex, known for its ability to keep memories ready to use.


      “The neurons whose activity they recorded responded faithfully with each movement but also had an “extra” response when the monkeys finished the entire sequence of movements. The experiments described in the report point to the extra response as being the checkmark — the brain’s way of noting that the behavior has been done.”


      We also know that individuals who have impairments in that region of the brain will have   difficulty in doing tasks (no checklist items) or repeating tasks over and over (no ability to mark it complete).


     Another reason checklists are so powerful is when we are trying to change or simply performing complex tasks.  They basically provide a cognitive safety net. As humans, we are flawed and we make mistakes! Sometimes these mistakes have very real consequences. 


     In his book “The Checklist Manifesto”, Dr. Atul Gawande had noted that over half of surgery deaths at the time were due to human error. After implementing checklists in surgery protocols at his hospital, complications dropped by 36% and deaths dropped 47% after the first three months! 


Remember, when we want to change or “do” anything, the order in our brains is as follows – 

  1. A memory or thought is recalled 
  2. An emotion (meaning) is attached to that memory or thought 
  3. We move to action. 


     However, we still need to have an emotional anchor to drive any behavior we have. I practiced those red page emergencies during my flight training because it would mean I could survive the emergency AND I could pass my course to become an airforce pilot.  I practiced and ran through my checklists because becoming a pilot was important to me. What checklists are you reviewing each and every day because it’s important to you? 


     Finally, the following is another powerful story from Dr. Gawande’s book:  When the band Van Halen toured, they had a checklist for the venues they were playing that needed to be followed to the letter. David Lee Roth would include one weird “step” within this checklist where he’d ask for a bowl of M&M’s in his dressing room; however, he wanted all the brown M&M’s removed. He explains his reasoning below:


      “So just as a little test, buried somewhere in the middle of the “checklist”, would be article 126, the no-brown-M&M’s clause. ‘When I would walk backstage if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl,’ he wrote, ‘well, we’d line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error…guaranteed you’d run into a problem.’ These weren’t trifles, the radio story pointed out. The mistakes could be life-threatening. In Colorado, the band found the local promoters had failed to read the weight requirements and the staging would have fallen through the arena floor.”


Simply put – checklist drives consistent performance which leads to excellence.


Coaches Corner


     Like a good coach, you need to build checklists for yourself and for those you coach so that everyone executes consistently.  Remember, a good checklist has the following components: 


  • Clear pause point – natural breakpoints
  • Speedy – takes less than 60 seconds – has 5-7 critical items
  • It a supplement to existing knowledge – the key critical highlights for execution
  • Field tested and improves, through change, over time


     Keep the ego in check and rigorously use checklists as a part of your coaching arsenal for yourself and your teams.

Why Repetition Improves Performance


      As a college athlete, I played football (for my European friends, the American version of football) at the position of cornerback. My job was to defend against some of the fastest players on the opposing team – the wide receivers. 


     Back in the day, a cornerback was one of the positions called a “Hero or Zero” position. If you execute by preventing the late game, long pass for a touchdown to win the game…Hero… OR… if you don’t execute, they make the touchdown and they win the game…Zero.


    I still clearly remember my very first game as a starter because I had the opportunity to experience both the Hero and the Zero outcomes:


  • Hero – Early in the game, I covered my opponent perfectly and was able to not only intercept the pass but run it back for a pick-6 touchdown. 
  • Zero – Then in the second half, that fast wide receiver was able to run a half step ahead of me, where I made a critical mistake, and he scored his 60-yard touchdown.  


We still won the game though…


So what was the critical mistake during my Zero moment? 


     In football, when you defend against a wide receiver, if you look back to see the ball you must turn towards him, not the main field so that you can see both him AND the ball.  Rookies tend to make this mistake quite often and so did I.  I turned away and could not see him when he changed angles to catch the ball, hence the touchdown!


     So after that game, we decided as a team to practice “long bomb drills” (turning our heads towards the player) at every practice for the rest of the season.  We ran this drill so many times throughout our season, it became muscle memory for me to execute this fundamental. I broke the habit that did not work because we chose to practice it over and over and over.


      Fortunately that year, we made it to the championship game.  There were two minutes left in the game and we were leading by 10. Guess what play was called by our opponents? My wide receiver takes off at a full sprint toward his end zone! 


      I follow… I fall behind… I turn … towards him?  I was able to punch the ball out of his hands for an incompletion because I could see him and the ball. We won the game…Hero.


      Neuroscience now understands why repetition improves performance. You are familiar with the saying “practice makes perfect”. With neuroscience, we now know that “practice makes permanent”. Neuroscience also knows why, when we are under stress, we perform to our highest level of knowledge or habit.  Unfortunately, it’s not always the knowledge or habit we want to use. 


      The key to understanding this paradox is to know how our neurons are developed when we learn a new skill. The best analogy for neurons is a power cord and inside the cord, you have a copper wire that transmits the electricity (in the brain this wire is called the axon.) Outside the power cord, you have a rubber wrap that insulates the wire so that outside forces cannot affect the transmission of electricity (in the brain this is called the myelin.)  The better insulated the axon, the faster and more reliably the signal can travel from one neuron to the next.


     We now understand that practice and repetition (muscle memory)  increases the myelin so that the signal can move more rapidly and consistently. The other benefit of strong myelin is when you become stressed, the synapses are “protected” from the stressor hormones, which means the brain will execute the most “protected” habit. 


     As a rookie, I had formed a stronger habit of turning away from the receiver than towards him, so when I was under stress I would go to the stronger habit. I needed to strengthen the myelin on the “turn towards him” habit so that when the stress was on I could execute, especially for the big game.


So the key takeaway…practice to make permanent.


Coaches Corner


     As a coach, you need to coach yourselves (or find someone) to develop new and improved skills to assist your players in improving their playing skills. You need to create context, skills, and execution for both yourself and your players.


     Take the time to learn about brain science, and how it controls all human behavior and change (context). Then translate that science into applicable knowledge and training (skills) that will result in new or better actions as a coach (execution). How you communicate and run your “practices” will be the new behavior you need so that your players can change. Once you have your stuff in order, then you coach your player… that part is a bit easier as it is built into the system (practice/training, monitoring, feedback, adjust).


So practice makes permanent … for your coaching skills.






Reflection that Fuels Direction

     It is March 23rd, 2020 and this morning I was reflecting on the last 10 days and the incredible range of emotions being felt since the Covid-19 virus really started taking hold here in North America. Here are a few of them so let me know if you can relate…


  • The calm resolve of first hearing that cases had arrived in our community and thinking “just go with the flow and keep calm”. 
  • The sadness as one of my son’s friend who owns a small business that will probably not make it due to a lack of sales combined with supplier debt and pain of having to lay off his employees.  This is all the while having a wife and a newborn at home and very little money in the bank. (more on him later…)
  • The fear setting into my psyche as I start running scenarios (all bad) in my head on the prospect of my business and how we can generate more revenue in these conditions. 


     However, I finally experienced a deep sense of peace this morning by appreciating the many blessings I actually have and knowing “this too shall pass”.


     The interesting aspect in all this is that I teach on the neuroscience of how the brain works when it is asked to change. As I attempt to observe these emotions happening to us, it’s somewhat of an “out-of-body” experience. 


     Here’s what we know to be true:  All decisions we make are initiated and executed emotionally first, and only after that “meaning” is decided, that any rational thought comes into the mix.


     In other words, how we feel about a situation will drive what we do.  Our limbic systems (feeling brain) will always be the core decision-maker, and the neocortex (thinking brain) will then justify or shame us in the observed behavior.  What’s interesting is that it has no capacity to stop it…until the feeling brain assigns new meaning to the situation. Dr. Antonio Damasio, a world leader in limbic system research explains it this way: “Yes, rational thought and logical reasoning do exist… but they cannot be recruited appropriately and usefully in the real world without emotion.”


     The meaning we assign to a situation will drive the emotion and subsequently, the behavior. So, how do we change behavior? You need to change the emotion by changing the meaning (thought) behind the emotion which will then lead to a new behavior. Simple…but not easy!


     Now the rest of the story on my son’s friend…after he told us the story of his friend, my wife asked a simple question – How can you help? This question changed everything (as most good questions do). The short version, he decided to get his friend a grocery store gift card (for diapers) and managed to convince 2 others to match his gift…A little hope in dark times.


     “How can you help?” completely changed the meaning of the situation for my son from being sad and mad (previous behavior) to involving others in helping his friend (new behavior) which leads to happiness and joy.  I strongly encourage all of us in these trying times to really change the meaning of the pandemic reality from a crisis to be feared (which it is, but it shouldn’t be the only feeling!) to an opportunity to do well by others in need…even when you yourself may also be in need.