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In his book “The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right”, Atul Gawande cites the distinction between three main types of problem – simple, complicated and complex.

This distinction was espoused by two professors who study the science of complexity— Brenda Zimmerman of York University and Sholom Glouberman of the University of Toronto.

Simple problems are ones like baking a cake – you follow a recipe and the outcome should be fairly consistent.

Complicated problems are ones like sending a rocket to the moon. Sometime, they can be broken down into a series of simple problems but there is no simple receipe and significant orchestration of multiple activities across multiple teams with very precise timing is required.

Complex problems are ones like raising a child. Once you learn how to send a rocket to the moon, you can repeat the process with other rockets and perfect it; in essence, one rocket is like another rocket. However, this commonality does not apply when raising a child. Every child is unique and the experience of raising one child does not guarantee success with the next; while expertise is valuable, it is generally not sufficient and the outcome remains uncertain. As Gawande states, “we all know that it is possible to raise a child well. It’s complex, that’s all”.

In a complex business environment, experts generally face two main difficulties.

  1. The fallibility of human memory and attention, particularly as it relates to mundane routine matters that may be overlooked as the pressure of other events takes precedence.
  2. People can lull themselves into skipping steps even when they remember them. Even in complex processes, many steps are so routine that they don’t always appear to matter. The danger is that the routine step may be omitted and, without realising it, a potential conflict may be created (and sometimes these may not materialise until much later, when it may already be too late). A simple example of this is the timely co-ordination of meetings or conference calls with key project team members, influencers or decision makers so that the project impetus is maintained.

Large software deals, for example, generally require to be signed off by a higher authority so that they get the required authorisation for the release of budget which, in turn, allows the contract to be signed and a purchase order to be raised. These will be essential “final stage” activities that will likely have been on the table for some time (and flagged by, and of critical importance for, the software company in order to meet the contract timing requirements which are an essential component of big ticket deals). If the inputs to the steering or executive board meetings are not ready in time (which may, for example, be up to two weeks before the meeting date), then the item may not be tabled on the meeting agenda and the sanction/approval opportunity may be lost.

If part of well-defined processes, checklists can provide protection against such omissions or failures by making key steps and activities explicit and, amongst other benefits, instill a discipline of consistently high performance. Checklists can be further supported by tasklists, from which project plans can be generated to create the roadmap to sourcing project completion and, ideally, success.

Atul Gawande; “The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right”; Profile Books.

Sholom Glouberman, Ph.D.and Brenda Zimmerman, Ph.D.; “Complicated and Complex Systems: What Would Successful Reform of Medicare Look Like?”; Commission on the Future of Healthcare in Canada, Discussion Paper Number 8, July 2002.