CategoryThinking/Analysis

Checklists Improve Results, Reduce Errors and Save Lives

Four years ago, in September 2017, spacesuit technician Joseph Schmitt passed away at 101. The Economist magazine reported how, at NASA, Schmitt helped design and fit spacesuits during the years when Alan Shepard made America’s first manned space flight (1961), John Glenn circled the Earth (1962) and Apollo 11 landed a module on the moon (1969). Before retiring in 1983, Schmitt also supported Space Shuttle launches and the first Skylab flight.

Astronauts trusted their lives to the work of people like Mr. Schmitt, and he relied heavily on the use of checklists to focus resources, manage quality and minimize risk. As with any pilot working a pre-flight list and surgeons such as Atul Gawande (who wrote the bestseller The Checklist Manifesto), checklists saved lives. In the case of Schmitt, his list included items such as air-leaks, communication lines and the security of over-gloves, helmets and boots. 

Checklists also support high performance for less life-dependent activities. Consider real estate closings, malt loaf recipes, investing decisions, and the analysis of timber markets. In the end, simple tools such as checklists help us avoid “boiling the ocean” and fuzzy thinking in order to prioritize effort on the task at hand.

How to Improve the Communication of Research: Lessons from Forestry and Wood Bioenergy

In 2012, the Forest History Society published Wood for Bioenergy: Forests as a Resource for Biomass and Biofuels,” a book I co-authored with Amanda Lang. It serves as a primer on the markets, policies and technologies associated with wood pellets, liquid fuels and wood-based electricity and power. In 2021, the Lynn W. Day Endowment sponsored my lecture that revisited our assumptions on wood bioenergy ten years ago – and other forestry-related topics – and how they played out over time (click here to view a replay of the lecture).

Over time, we learned lessons from (1) our own research and (2) the way reporters and the media covered research. We observed how researchers and reporters, while typically operating in good faith to do the best job they can, end up failing to communicate core finding or insights accessibly or accurately. For example, when the Forest History Society commissioned us to author Wood for Bioenergy, the copyeditors recommended, on multiple occasions, that we simplify concepts for the target audience. Generally speaking, we tended to be too “technical” and needed to boil down key findings with context.

Common Errors

Articles in newspapers, on the other hand, tended to suffer from different issues. In 2014, I published an article on this topic in BioResources (“Learning from mistakes in the media to improve the communication of wood bioenergy research”). The article focused on three common errors in reporting on wood bioenergy and forestry that offer guidance for the coverage of research and technical analysis:

  1. Failure to provide context, which rarely requires exhaustive research or supplementary analysis. Help readers and policymakers get a relative sense for the magnitude of a problem. 
  2. Improperly assigning “causal” relationships. For example, does it only rain when the Red Sox win, or are other factors involved?
  3. Errors of fact. Double check the basic facts. One faulty assertion casts doubt on the broader work and body of research, which can undermine the careers and efforts of entire research teams.

Conclusion

Being effective in our fields requires skills beyond the technical. Technical skills divorced from the ability to communicate that we have these skills, and the insights we generate from applying these skills, limit our influence. Success and relevance to decisionmakers depends on our ability to communicate what we know to others.

How to Read the News and Articles

When reading anything, we want to prepare our mind. Mindless reading is like mindless eating. Be intentional and discerning in reading and application. Consider this simple approach for assessing the quality, credibility and relevance of what we read: ScanRead and Relate.

  • Before reading, scan the article or white paper to check its title, source, date, author name and bio (if there), figures and picture. This gives a sense of the rigor and shape of the article. It also answers, “is this current?”
    • I scan books, journals and magazines, too, and check the table of contents. This gives me a better feel for the material and its potential relevance.
  • While reading, focus on the theme and main ideas. Where does the supporting evidence come from (e.g. data, research, interviews, opinion)? 
  • After reading, relate the “value” in the article to your interests or objectives. Ask, “how is this relevant to me or my firm?” 

We don’t need perfection in our reading. However, we do benefit from intention and discernment. If we’re chilling on the porch with Beaverball or Family Circle, that’s one thing. If we’re reading a national newspaper, a proposal or a white paper, we gain time and advantage with a systematic approach.

Multitasking is a Myth

This post introduces a recent essay on the dangers of multitasking and the importance of deliberately choosing priorities and focusing attention

The world seems determined to manipulate our attention and encourage us to click, buy, like, forward or watch. These actions do more to spark emotions than to create value, meaning or a sense of accomplishment. How can we better flex our mental muscles?

Attempts to multitask degrade our mental performance and reduce personal productivity. Previous research describes the impacts as equal to a 10-point decline in IQ or about the same as pulling an all-nighter. In short, multitasking reduces our intelligence, energy and ability to get things done well.

Click here to read the essay.

Average is the Enemy

This post introduces a recent essay on the danger of using averages for making decisions or evaluating performance

Mathematically, the average tells us the arithmetic mean; it gives a sense for where the middle lies within a group or between extremes. But averages, like stereotypes, are incomplete and dangerous as a basis for decision making. Rather, when making decisions or evaluating performance, embrace your natural curiosity and dig in. 

Move past the false shortcuts offered by averages.  Embrace variability. 

Forest management expert Dr. Barry Shiver once told me that the motto of intensive forestry is, “identify variability…then exploit it!” We add value by investing in the best soils and highest performing trees on one end, and through dealing quickly with mortality and disease at the other end. When it comes to managing or buying an asset, we want to understand both the forest and the trees.  

Click here to read the essay.