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Building Teams in Complex Environments

To error is human, but there are ways we can cut down on our mistakes with the help of others.

Written By: James D. Murphy

Humans excel at solving complex problems. Unfortunately,
humans are also prone to making simple errors without a reliable 'road map,'
or operations checklist.  In the digital age, we are amazed at the abilities
of computers to solve problems. But the computer's capacity to solve
problems is limited. Computers are fast and accurate. But they are still
incapable of solving the tough problems that face us every day in our
working lives. We humans need help. We need other humans to help us solve
complex problems more effectively. But we also need a means of helping
prevent "stupid" errors from occurring as we become pre-occupied with
solving complex problems. Checklists can help us do this.

Do you work in a complex environment? Before you answer, do you know what
"complex" really means? Chances are, "complex" is more complicated than you
think. Unless you are familiar with the theoretical realm of complexity
science you may think that "complicated" and "complex" have similar
meanings. You may even find some dictionaries that will tell you they are
synonyms. But, cutting edge science and organizational research will tell
you that there is a great distinction between these terms. Complicated is
the opposite of simple. But "complex" indicates a level of difficulty that
is bewilderingly greater. 

Navigating Complex Situations with an Operations Checklist

Anything that is simple, and even things that are complicated, can, if some
great effort is required, be written down or mapped out. Computers excel at
these sorts of problems. The organization in which you work, if it is a
large one, is very complicated. It may have a complicated organizational
structure, voluminous process maps and documents, reams of standards and
manuals and so forth. But, these complicated things do not necessarily make
your business complex. One of the elements that makes organizational systems
complex is the human relationships within it. These relationships depend
upon each other and are in a constant state of change. Day-to-day human
interaction is vastly complex and exceeds the bounds of computer processing
abilities. Furthermore, your organization is connected to a vast external
system, the market or global economy, that is vastly more complex. Only
humans can assess these complex interactions and solve the problems, however
imperfectly, that arise.

For things that are complex, only general statements of relationships can be
made. They surpass the bounds of predictability. Complex systems, probably
like the business you work in, and certainly the society you live in,
possess qualities of diversity, interconnectedness, and interdependence
while demonstrating adaptability to changing circumstances. Change,
particularly rapid change, is one of the fundamentally identifying
attributes of complex systems.  Complexity is what makes decision making in
today's turbulent markets so difficult and requires a collaborative team
building strategy to solve problems.

The world of modern business is one assaulted by complex problems that
bombard us with increasing frequency. In such an environment, few, if any,
individuals possess the necessary knowledge, expertise, or even genius to
handle them alone. Furthermore, even the most competent individuals are only
human and prone to errors without an operations checklist in hand. And, as
research and mountains of anecdotal evidence have shown, it's often the
simplest, most obvious things upon which we err. The human mind is powerful
indeed. It excels at analyzing complicated and even complex issues. As we
focus on such perplexing problems, often under stress-inducing time
constraints, we become overwhelmed and Task Saturated. When this happens, we
miss the simpler, more routine steps or tasks. These are the steps and tasks
that are easily addressed through checklists.

Lately, no profession has brought so much self-criticism upon these types of
simple errors as in medicine. As the renowned surgeon and author Atul
Gawande has made clear in his most recent book, The Checklist Manifesto,
these failures are often due to failed teambuilding, the foundation of
effective communication, and coordination among teams in the operating room.
Gawande's research and experimentation through the World Health Organization
has resulted in a 36% reduction in post-surgery major complications and a
47% reduction in post-surgery deaths through the introduction of something
as simple as an operations checklist.

Using an Operations Checklist to Reduce Errors and Improve Performance

Checklists have become a powerful yet simple tool in combating failure when
tackling both complicated and complex problems. Their worth is proven, yet
their use in most industries is either inconsistent or non-existent. The
aviation industry has been utilizing checklists for over 70 years, while
countless other industries have come to recognize their importance and
expand their use. The failure to recognize the benefits of checklists comes
from the misperception that checklists only address complicated process
steps or emergency situations. To see checklists in such a limited light is
to miss a larger and perhaps more significant opportunity.

The true power of an operations checklist is that it can empower teams and
build greater discipline.  Checklists, when properly developed and tested,
provide every member of a team the authority to prevent errors. In the
medical field, one in which physicians have historically wielded
authoritarian and autonomous power over other medical professionals, Atul
Gawande demonstrated how an operations checklist provided nurses the power
to question physicians and improve the overall functioning of the medical
team. This has long been the experience in both military and civilian
aviation fields in which checklists have empowered crew members to
appropriately question their pilots and prevent injury or disaster. They are
able to do this because the operations checklist becomes a procedural tool
that connects complex problem solving and team interaction with the
fundamental and simple aspects of the activity at hand. Checklists provide a
rallying point to the fundamental and simple tasks when our higher-order
problem solving abilities distract or overwhelm us.         

Checklists do not, and cannot, replace skill and experience. That is not
their function. Although simple, an operations checklist aids teams in
addressing fundamental team and individual processing errors. It provides
us, not only a crutch for our poor memories or absent knowledge, but also a
rallying point for collaborative and high-performing teams.

James D. Murphy, the founder and CEO of Afterburner, Inc., has a unique, powerful mix of leadership skills in both the military and business worlds.  Murphy has been regularly featured in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, and Newsweek.

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