It often happens this way. First I hear a book author on NPR talking about an interesting subject, then the issue comes up with friends, and then just before the subject is about to slip from short-term memory, I see the book. So it was recently when I saw The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, by Atul Gawande at my local library. The book got me thinking: Can the secret of marketing strategy be found in a checklist?
Surgeon turned writer Atul Gawande makes a compelling argument for quality control in the delivery of services through use of the common checklist. He explains how checklists have made possible some of the most difficult things people do—from flying airplanes to building skyscrapers of mind-boggling sophistication. And drawing on his own experience, he shows how applying this idea to the immensely complex world of surgery produced a ninety-second checklist that reduced deaths and complications by more than one-third in eight hospitals around the world—at virtually no cost and for almost any kind of operation.
In his stories, Gawande takes us from Austria, where an emergency checklist saved a drowning victim who had spent half an hour underwater, to Michigan, where a cleanliness checklist in intensive care units virtually eliminated a type of deadly infection, and to the flight deck of a crashing plane. Along the way, he reveals what checklists can do, what they can’t, and how they could bring about striking improvements to professions and businesses of all kinds—any complex situation involving a team of two or more people.
Gawande’s stories address resistance to changing behavior, especially when dealing with highly-skilled professionals, as well as concerns about lack of flexibility or limiting room for judgment. He notes checklists “are not comprehensive how-to guides…They are quick and simple tools aimed to buttress the skills of expert professionals.” So what should a marketing strategy checklist look like?
Research distinguishes good checklists from bad:
- You must define a clear pause point at which the checklist is supposed to be used
- You must decide whether you want a DO-CONFIRM checklist or a READ-DO checklist. (With a DO-CONFIRM checklist, team members perform their jobs from memory and experience, often separately. But then they stop and pause to run the checklist and confirm that everything that was supposed to be done was done. With a READ-DO checklist, people carry out the tasks as they check them off—more like a recipe.)
- The checklist must be short. The rule of thumb is between five and nine items, which is the limit of working memory. Much more than ninety seconds or so and people start “shortcutting,” and steps get missed. So, focus on the critical items.
- The wording should be simple and exact and use familiar language in the profession.
- Ideally, it should fit on one page, avoid clutter and unnecessary colors, and use upper and lowercase for ease of reading
- It must be tested in the real world, and refined until it works consistently.
Developing Strategy is Iterative
A READ-DO checklist is impractical for strategy. It’s my experience that developing a new marketing strategy is a fluid, iterative process that evolves as you examine the interdependent relationships between your customers, your competitors, and PESTLE (political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental) factors. That speaks to a DO-CONFIRM checklist where you proceed through the development process, and then pause briefly before moving into implementation. So, what should be on the short list of critical items? Here’s my marketing strategy checklist.
A Marketing Strategy Checklist
- Have you developed a marketing strategy that is customer-focused (rather than product-focused or competitor-focused)?
- Can you explain the advantage of your marketing strategy in 50 words or less to your best friend outside the industry (or your spouse or parents)?
- Does your marketing strategy minimize your greatest weakness in the market?
- Does your marketing strategy leverage your core strength, your so-called
- Is your marketing strategy in accord with major trends from your PESTLE analysis?
- Do you know the specific practices needed to implement this marketing strategy?
- Have you developed a marketing strategy that inspires you and your team?
We have helped clients think through such questions for years, believing it's an especially important process for mission-driven organizations. Could the formal structure of a marketing strategy checklist add to your process?
- Expert Systems Fight Poverty (scienceblog.com)
- Atul Gawande on why heroes use checklists (jonudell.net)
Editor's Note: Originally published July 1, 2010. Updated March 14, 2019.