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With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
“Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” — William Archer
Joan Didion famously remarked that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She was right. Business has become a story too. If you want more resources you need to tell a story. If you want to get promoted you need a story. It seems nothing can get done these days without powerpoint. Nancy Duarte has made an art of telling stories through presentations. Companies want their products to become part of our personal narrative.
Most of us know what goes into a good story. We just have to remember it from childhood.
There are dangers to storytelling as Tyler Cowen has pointed out. We deal with complexity by constructing simple narratives. If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” many of us fail.
Adding to our growing body of knowledge on storytelling, filmmaker Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, WALL-E) shares what he knows about storytelling — starting at the end and working back to the beginning.
Storytelling … (is) knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings. We all love stories. We’re born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future, and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.
The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, which is “Make me care” — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care. We all know what it’s like to not care. You’ve gone through hundreds of TV channels, just switching channel after channel, and then suddenly you actually stop on one. It’s already halfway over, but something’s caught you and you’re drawn in and you care. That’s not by chance, that’s by design.
A well told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot and propels you forward through the story to the end.
Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you’re making them work for their meal. We’re born problem solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in. There’s a reason that we’re all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It’s not just that they’re damn cute; it’s because they can’t completely express what they’re thinking and what their intentions are. And it’s like a magnet. We can’t stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.
And further in the video Stanton explains the spine that drives action and how that fits into the narrative.
I took a seminar in this year with an acting teacher named Judith Weston. And I learned a key insight to character. She believed that all well-drawn characters have a spine. And the idea is that the character has an inner motor, a dominant, unconscious goal that they’re striving for, an itch that they can’t scratch. She gave a wonderful example of Michael Corleone, Al Pacino’s character in “The Godfather,” and that probably his spine was to please his father. And it’s something that always drove all his choices. Even after his father died, he was still trying to scratch that itch. I took to this like a duck to water. Wall-E’s was to find the beauty. Marlin’s, the father in “Finding Nemo,” was to prevent harm. And Woody’s was to do what was best for his child. And these spines don’t always drive you to make the best choices. Sometimes you can make some horrible choices with them.
More than just stories, Stanton highlights some fundamental psychology:
So how do you make a selfish character likable? We realized, you can make him kind, generous, funny, considerate, as long as one condition is met for him, is that he stays the top toy. And that’s what it really is, is that we all live life conditionally. We’re all willing to play by the rules and follow things along, as long as certain conditions are met. After that, all bets are off.
When done right, storytelling comes from a place of good intentions.
Use what you know. Draw from it. It doesn’t always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core.
Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie, author of Americanah, one of The New York Times’s ten best books of the year, tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.
I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. … She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.
What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her, in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.
I must say that before I went to the U.S. I didn’t consciously identify as African. But in the U.S. whenever Africa came up people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia. But I did come to embrace this new identity. And in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country. The most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in “India, Africa and other countries.”
So after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roommate’s response to me. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved, by a kind, white foreigner. I would see Africans in the same way that I, as a child, had seen Fide’s family.
This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature.
Jon Winokur, author of the bestselling The Portable Curmudgeon, gathers the counsel of more than four hundred celebrated authors in a treasury on the world of writing. Here are literary lions on everything from the passive voice to promotion and publicity: James Baldwin on the practiced illusion of effortless prose, Isaac Asimov on the despotic tendencies of editors, John Cheever on the perils of drink, Ivan Turgenev on matrimony and the Muse.
Here are some words of wisdom found inside:
“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” — T. S. Eliot
“A character, to be acceptable as more than a chess piece, has to be ignorant of the future, unsure about the past, and not at all sure of what he’s supposed to be doing.” — Anthony Burgess
“When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” — Kurt Vonnegut
“People read fiction for emotion—not information” — Sinclair Lewis
“The bad novelist constructs his characters; he directs them and makes them speak. The true novelist listens to them and watches them act; he hears their voices even before he knows them.” — André Gide
“The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.” — Raymond Chandler
Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Keep away from books and from men who get their ideas from books, and your own books will always be fresh.” — George Bernard Shaw
“Listen carefully to the first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the critics don’t like — then cultivate it. That’s the part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.” — Jean Cocteau
“The artists who want to be writers, read the reviews; the artists who want to write, don’t.” — William Faulkner
“Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” — Stephen King
“Listen, then make up your own mind.” — Gay Talese
“Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” — Mark Twain
Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights is full of interesting and thought-provoking advice. Of course the best advice, is often knowing what to ignore. Before writing Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë wrote the British poet Robert Southey asking if he thought she could be a successful writer. He replied in the negative, Brontë ignored his advice, and the rest is history.
That tweet from Kathryn Schulz set off my quest to find Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. If you’ve ever wondered how I find things, this is a perfect example.
And what a find this turned out to be. Lamott’s advice is down to earth, real, and void of any pretentiousness. In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever come across on writing.
Getting started is often the hardest part of writing.
The very first thing I tell my new students … is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason they write so very little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out. Year after year my students are bursting with stories to tell, and they start writing projects with excitement and maybe even joy— finally their voices will be heard, and they are going to get to devote themselves to this one thing they’ve longed to do since childhood. But after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.
Everyone wants to know how to write. Routines are common. Maya Angelou likes to work in dirty hotel rooms. Hemingway wrote standing up. But more to the point perhaps is the advice of Philip Roth, who said every writer needs “the ability to sit still in the deeply uneventful business,” a comment that Lamott echoes.
You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on your computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind— a scene, a locale, a character, whatever— and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind. The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgment, doom, guilt. Also, severe hypochondria. There may be a Nurse Ratched– like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk.
Yet somehow in the face of all this, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive.
To be a good writer you need reverence and awe.
In order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here?
Let’s think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of — please forgive me — wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.
There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness.
Drama is how the writer holds the attention of the reader through an arc.
The basic formula for drama is setup, buildup, payoff—just like a joke. The setup tells us what the game is. The buildup is where you put in all the moves, the forward motion, where you get all the meat off the turkey. The payoff answers the question, Why are we here anyway? What is it that you’ve been trying to give? Drama must move forward and upward, or the seats on which the audience is sitting will become very hard and uncomfortable. So, in fact, will the audience. And eventually the audience will become impatient, disappointed, and unhappy. There must be movement.
You need to be moving your characters forward, even if they only go slowly. Imagine moving them across a lily pond. If each lily pad is beautifully, carefully written, the reader will stay with you as you move toward the other side of the pond, needing only the barest of connections— such as rhythm, tone, or mood.
Commenting on Alice Adams’ short story formula of ABDCE, for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending, Lammott writes:
You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot— the drama, the actions, the tension— will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?
A formula can be a great way to get started. And it feels so great finally to dive into the water; maybe you splash around and flail for a while, but at least you’re in. Then you start doing whatever stroke you can remember how to do, and you get this scared feeling inside you— of how hard it is and how far there is to go— but still you’re in, and you’re afloat, and you’re moving.
The act of writing is its own reward.
But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do— the actual act of writing— turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.
I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.
Lamott uses index cards to not only help her remember things in an otherwise busy world but as an aid to creativity.
I like to think that Henry James said his classic line, “A writer is someone on whom nothing is lost,” while looking for his glasses, and that they were on top of his head. We have so much to remember these days. So we make all these lists, filled with hope that they will remind us of all the important things to do and buy and mail, all the important calls we need to make, all the ideas we have for short stories or articles. And yet by the time you get around to everything on any one list, you’re already behind on another. Still, I believe in lists and I believe in taking notes, and I believe in index cards for doing both.
Now, I have a number of writer friends who do not take notes out there in the world, who say it’s like not taking notes in class but listening instead. I think that if you have the kind of mind that retains important and creative thoughts— that is, if your mind still works— you’re very lucky and you should not be surprised if the rest of us do not want to be around you. I actually have one writer friend— whom I think I will probably be getting rid of soon— who said to me recently that if you don’t remember it when you get home, it probably wasn’t that important. And I felt eight years old again, with something important to say that had suddenly hopped down one of the rabbit holes in my mind, while an adult nearby was saying priggishly, “Well ! It must not have been very important then.”
So you have to decide how you feel about this. You may have a perfectly good memory and be able to remember three hours later what you came up with while walking on the mountain or waiting at the dentist’s. And then again, you may not.
My index-card life is not efficient or well organized. Hostile, aggressive students insist on asking what I do with all my index cards. And all I can say is that I have them, I took notes on them, and the act of having written something down gives me a fifty-fifty shot at having it filed away now in my memory. If I’m working on a book or an article, and I’ve taken some notes on index cards, I keep them with that material, paperclip them to a page of rough draft where that idea or image might bring things to life. Or I stack them on my desk along with the pages for the particular chapter or article I’m working on, so I can look at them. When I get stuck or lost or the jungle drums start beating in my head, proclaiming that the jig is about to be up and I don’t know what I’m doing and the well has run dry, I’ll look through my index cards. I try to see if there’s a short assignment on any of them that will get me writing again, give me a small sense of confidence, help me put down one damn word after another, which is, let’s face it, what writing finally boils down to.
She cautions that perfectionism is not only counter-productive but blocks playfulness and thus creativity.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping -stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground— you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.
Writing is about “learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on”
Now, if you ask me, what’s going on is that we’re all up to here in it, and probably the most important thing is that we not yell at one another. Otherwise we’d all just be barking away like Pekingese: “Ah! Stuck in the shit! And it’s your fault, you did this …” Writing involves seeing people suffer and, as Robert Stone once put it, finding some meaning therein. But you can’t do that if you’re not respectful. If you look at people and just see sloppy clothes or rich clothes, you’re going to get them wrong.
And, in the end, writing makes you a better reader.
One reads with a deeper appreciation and concentration, knowing now how hard writing is, especially how hard it is to make it look effortless. You begin to read with a writer’s eyes. You focus in a new way. You study how someone portrays his or her version of things in a way that is new and bold and original. You notice how a writer paints in a mesmerizing character or era for you, without your having the sense of being given a whole lot of information, and when you realize how artfully this has happened, you may actually put the book down for a moment and savor it, just taste it.
She concludes that “writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation.”
They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life : they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is a must read.
When psychologist T. A. Harley researched the academic literature on the structure of stories, he concluded, “There is no agreement on story structure: virtually every story grammatician has proposed a different grammar.”
OK, but that doesn’t really help me craft better stories. And there is no shortage of advice on telling stories.
Kurt Vonnegut chimes in with 8 tips on how to write a good short story and talks about the shapes of stories. Tyler Cowen warns of the dangers of telling stories. Nancy Duarte, offers how to tell stories through presentations.
I wanted to step back a bit from this advice.
I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m not writing Hollywood screenplays in my spare time. I’m not trying to keep people’s attention for hours.
What I need is a simple structure that conveys a message. I need to remember the basics.
But we already know what makes a good story. We just need to remember our childhood.
In To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink explains the “Pixar Pitch.” Pixar is one of the most successful animation studios of all time. Six of their films—Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3—have won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. While it’s hard to point to one thing in particular they do that makes them successful, a good place to start is the story itself. Emma Coates, a former story artist at Pixar who brought us 22 Rules Pixar Uses To Create Appealing Stories, argues that every film shares the same common narrative, which is constructed with six sequential sentences:
Once upon a time ____________________. Every day, ___________________. One day, ___________________. Because of that, __________________. Until finally ___________________________________.
There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. In Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, Paul Smith gives them a different name. He calls them context, action, result.
Smith argues that context is the part most of us miss, which is why a lot of our stories are confusing and boring.
The context provides all the necessary background for the story to make sense. If done right, it also grabs the audience’s attention, convinces the audience that your story is relevant, and generates interest and excitement to listen to the rest of the story. How well your context accomplishes all this is determined by how well it addresses four questions. Where and when does the story take place? Who is the main character? What does he or she want? And who or what is getting in the way?
Exploring the four elements of context—where and when, who is the main character, what the character wants, who or what is getting in the way—Smith writes:
1. Where and when? The fundamental meaning of context is the setting— the where and when of a story. Clearly stating where and when the story takes place tells the audience if the story is fact or fiction. … It’s okay to tell a fictional story as long as your audience knows that’s what it’s getting. The danger of not properly starting your stories this way is that the audience might think the story is factual, only to be disappointed to find out it was fiction. Then the audience feels betrayed. As the storyteller, you’ve now lost all credibility.
2. Who is the main character? This is the subject of your story, the hero, or at least the person from whose perspective the story is told— the protagonist. Even the most inexperienced storytellers generally include a main character in their story. So the point here is not to remind you to include a main character, but to tell you what kind of main character to choose. The most important criterion is this: The hero of your story needs to be someone your audience can identify with. They need to be able to see themselves in the hero’s situation and achieve the same result: “Hey, that could be me!” If the main character of your story is Superman, that might make for an entertaining story, but it won’t make for a good leadership story. … your subject doesn’t have to be a real person.
3. What does the character want? What is the hero trying to achieve? What is the character’s passion or objective? Is he trying to save the world? Is she trying to beat the competition? Win the sale? Or just not get fired.
4. Who or what is getting in the way? This is the obstacle, the villain, or the enemy in the story. It could be a person, like your high school nemesis, or the boss who passed you over for a promotion. Or the villain could be an organization, like one of your competitors or the other department you’re playing in the company softball tournament. It could be a thing, like the mountain your hero is trying to climb, or the copy machine that he finally gets his revenge on. … The villain is a commonly excluded component in business stories. The result is a boring, useless story. It’s typified by the tales of the office braggart or the self-reported results in your subordinate’s performance review. You’ve heard them. Stories where everything that happens is great! (“ After I came to this department five years ago, our sales started to skyrocket! All of our new brand launches exceeded the objective. And our profits have doubled!”) Similar to Superman stories, stories without a villain won’t help anyone. Their heroes didn’t overcome any adversity. They didn’t confront any challenge. They didn’t learn anything valuable. In short, they got lucky. Telling a story about how you got lucky is no way to provide guidance and leadership, since it can’t be replicated. If there’s no villain in your story, you don’t have a story.
In addition, your audience simply won’t like your story if it doesn’t have a villain. As corporate training and development expert Richard Pascoe observes, “An audience hates insincerity. And few things are more insincere than continued and unchallenged success; life is not like that.”
So there you have the key components of the context. In addition to telling where and when, you have the subject, the treasure, and the obstacle— STO.
This is where you tell what happened to your main character. Most importantly, it’s where the hero does battle with the villain. Conflicts arise. Problems surface. The hero mounts an attempt at a solution, but fails at first. There are always temporary setbacks on the hero’s journey. These ups and downs along the way provide the excitement in the story. But more importantly for a leadership story, they’re also where the lessons are learned. Unlike the Hollywood scriptwriter’s story structure, the action doesn’t need to be so prescriptive for a good business story. It’s great if you have a catalyst, first turning point, climax, and final confrontation, but not necessary.
The result is the final stage of the story where you accomplish three main things. In addition to telling how the story ends, this is where you explain the right lesson the audience should have learned, and link back to why you told the story in the first place. Result, of course, means how the story ends. It explains the fate of the main characters. Does the hero live or die? Did the villain get what he deserved?
That’s the basic structure of a compelling story.
It all hangs on the central Context, Action, Result (CAR) structure. It starts with the Subject, Treasure, and Obstacle, and concludes with the Right lesson and link back to whY it’s being told.
A common mistake of inexperienced story tellers is to start with the action. Why? Because this is the part of the story we remember most easily. It’s the exciting part. We’re so eager to get to the point that we don’t properly set the context.
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Atul Gawande. A reader recently pointed out that I hadn’t covered his most recent book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. I had only covered an interesting subset of the book—why we fail.
To put us in the proper context, we’re smart. Not scary smart but smart enough. We have skills and we generally put them in the most highly trained and hardworking people we can find. We have the most educated society in history. And we’ve accomplished a lot. Nevertheless, sometimes success escapes us for avoidable reasons. Not only are these failures common—across everything from medicine to finance—but they are also frustrating. We should know better but we don’t. The reason we don’t learn, Gawande argues, is evident:
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.
To overcome this we need a strategy. Something that “builds on experience and takes advantage of the knowledge people have but somehow also makes up for our inevitable human inadequacies.” We need a checklist.
In response to increasing complexity we’ve become more specialized. We divide the problem up. It’s not just the growing breadth and quantity of knowledge that makes things more complicated, although they certainly are significant contributors. It is also execution. In every field from medicine to construction there are a slew of practical procedures, policies and best practices. Gawande breaks this down for the modern medical case:
[Y]ou have a desperately sick patient and in order to have a chance of saving him you have to get the knowledge right and then you have to make sure that the 178 daily tasks that follow are done correctly—despite some monitor’s alarm going off for God knows what reason, despite the patient in the next bed crashing, despite a nurse poking his head around the curtain to ask whether someone could help “get this lady’s chest open.” There is complexity upon complexity. And even specialization has begun to seem inadequate. So what do you do?
The response of the medical profession, like most others, is to move from specialization to super-specialization. Gawande argues that these super-specialists have two advantages over ordinary specialists: greater knowledge of the things that matter and “a learned ability to handle the complexities of that particular job.” But even for these superspecialisits, avoiding mistakes is proving impossible.
Modern professions, like medicine, with their dazzling successes and spectacular failures, pose a significant: challenge: “What do you do when expertise is not enough? What do you do when even the super-specialists fail?”
The origins of the checklist.
On October 30, 1935, at Wright Air Field in Dayton, Ohio, the U.S. Army Air Corps held a competition for airplane manufacturers vying to build the next-generation of the long-range bomber. Only it wasn’t supposed to be much of a competition at all. The Boeing Corporation’s gleaming aluminum-alloy Model 299 was expected to steal the show, its design far superior to those of the competition. In other words, it was just a formality.
As the Model 299 test plane taxied onto the runway, a small group of army brass and manufacturing executives watched. The plane took off without a hitch. Then suddenly, at about 300 feet, it stalled, turned on one wing, and crashed killing two of the five crew members, including the pilot Major Hill.
Of course everyone wanted to know what had happened. An investigation revealed that there was nothing to indicate any problems mechanically with the plane. It was “pilot error.” The problem with the new plane, if there was one, was that it was substantially more complex than the previous aircraft. Among other things, there were 4 engines, each with its own fuel-mix, wing flaps, trim that needed constant adjustment, and propellers requiring pitch adjustment. While trying to keep up with the increased complexity, Hill had forgotten to release a new locking mechanism on the rudder controls. The new plane was too much for anyone to fly. The unexpected winner was the smaller designed Douglas.
Here is where it really gets interesting. The army, convinced of the technical superiority of the plane, ordered a few anyway. If you’re thinking they’d just put the pilots through more training to fly the plane, you’d be wrong. Major Hill, the chief of flight testing, was an experienced pilot, so longer training was unlikely to result in improvement. Instead, they created a pilot’s checklist.
The pilots made the list simple and short. It fit on an index card with step-by-step instructions for takeoff, flying, landing, and taxiing. It was as if someone all of a sudden gave an experienced automobile driver a checklist of things that would be obvious to them. There was nothing on the checklist they didn’t know. Stuff like, check that the instruments are set, the door closed. Basics. That checklist changed the course of history and quite possibly the war. The pilots went on to fly the Model 299 a “total of 1.8 million miles” without a single accident and as a result the army ordered over 13,000 of them.
In The Checklist Manifesto, Gawande argues that most of today’s work has entered a checklist phase.
Substantial parts of what software designers, financial managers, firefighters, police officers, lawyers, and most certainly clinicians do are now too complex for them to carry out reliably from memory alone.
Yet no one wants to use a checklist. We believe “our jobs are too complicated to reduce to a checklist.” After all, we don’t work at McDonald’s right?
In a complex environment, experts are up against two main difficulties. The first is the fallibility of human memory and attention, especially when it comes to mundane, routine matters that are easily overlooked under the strain of more pressing events. (When you’ve got a patient throwing up and an upset family member asking you what’s going on, it can be easy to forget that you have not checked her pulse.) Faulty memory and distraction are a particular danger in what engineers call all-or-none processes: whether running to the store to buy ingredients for a cake, preparing an airplane for takeoff, or evaluating a sick person in the hospital, if you miss just one key thing, you might as well not have made the effort at all.
A further difficulty, just as insidious, is that people can lull themselves into skipping steps even when they remember them. In complex processes, after all, certain steps don’t always matter. … “This has never been a problem before,” people say. Until one day it is.
Checklists seem to provide protection against such failures. They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.
In news that would shock bureaucracies and governments alike, the strategy a lot of industries use to get things right in complex environments is to give employees power. Most authorities, in response to risk, tend to centralize power and decision making.
Sometimes that’s even the point of a checklist—to make sure the people below you are doing things in the manner in which you want. These checklists, the McDonald’s type checklists, spell out the tiniest detail of every critical step. These serve their purpose but they also create a group of employees no longer able to adapt. When things change, as they always do, you’re now faced with a non-routine problem. “The philosophy,” writes Gawande, “is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works.”
…the real lesson is that under conditions of true complexity—where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns—efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals, either—that is anarchy. Instead, they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation—expectation to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals.
This was the understanding people in the skyscraper-building industry had grasped. More remarkably, they had learned to codify that understanding into simple checklists. They had made the reliable management of complexity a routine.
That routine requires balancing a number of virtues: freedom and discipline, craft and protocol, specialized ability and group collaboration. And for checklists to help achieve that balance, they have to take two almost opposing forms. They supply a set of checks to ensure the stupid but critical stuff is not overlooked, and they supply another set of checks to ensure people talk and coordinate and accept responsibility while nonetheless being left the power to manage the nuances and unpredictabilities the best they know how.
I came away from Katrina and the builders with a kind of theory: under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success. There must always be room for judgment, but judgment aided—and even enhanced—by procedure.
The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right is a fascinating read about an interesting subject by an amazing writer. Nuff said.