Checklists: Godin vs Gerber

Giveaway: for me, now, Godin wins.

Michael Gerber made the case of working on your business instead of in your business, in the popular book Emyth Revisited. His point of getting stuck in the daily routines of running a business was absolutely valid, and hit home with many readers, including myself.

He offered an alternative future: one of stepping out of the day to day, and instead using your time to define, orchestrate, and refine the systems involed in running a business (that is, a collection of people trying to provide something and improve something).

In practical terms, he argued for a business run by specific standard operating procedures, so that people of minimal skills could execute the process, so that a business could consistently delight their clients (repeatedly). You would do this by looking at the business as a whole, defining roles (even if the same person is filling multiple roles), creating a “contract” of responsibilities for that role, and finally (importantly here) describing the role with a precise set of operating procedures. This type of systems thinking is valid in itself, I think.

Seth Godin retorted in Linchpin that this is a race to the bottom. That if you make your business replicatable by relying on such process, that the people who will replicate the business will be your competitors.

Gerber and Godin agree, I think on one thing: what a company, as an organisation of people, is trying to do is satisfy their customers’ needs as best as possible. They agree on dreaming big: “what could we create?”, what Peter Drucker termed as “What should the business be?”.

Gerber’s view of checklists is that they should be as detailed as necessary, so that every step is executed the same way every time. That means quite a substantial set of documents, the strategy we’ve been following with Bitesize Irish.

Sam Carpenter made a similarly convincing argument in Work the System, that if you document your business processes, you can improve them over time, and have big systems (like accounting) run on a complicated set of documented steps. Without those steps, he would argue that such a regular task would be out of control regularly.

On the lighter view of checklists, Rob Walling, founder of Drip, has said on his podcast that in building Drip, they were a substantial enough team before needing to start to document things. (As far as I know they were all located in the same building, and the probably is a factor on how much documentation you need.)

The Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) described in Traction takes the “just enough process” approach, lighter than Gerber’s.

In the Checklist Manifesto, two types of checklists are described: prescriptive procedures that you follow step by step (which I’ve written about), and referential checklists that you check just to make sure you’ve done everything that’s needs. (Those terms are mine, I don’t remember precisely what terms were used in that book).

In practice, the practical trouble with prescriptive procedures is that they are not followed! I don’t blame people working in Bitesize Irish for that. I do that myself: if it’s a regular task such as publishing a podcast blog post, I don’t feel even the patience of sitting down through two pages of descriptive checklists in order to get that blog post public in front of people.

So who wins for me, Gerber or Godin? They are more similar than you might think, in that they are both motivated by dreaming big. Godin makes a strong case for making your business remarkable, and for the case that a remarkable company is human and simply not the output of detailed procedures. Godin would test your business model on whether it’s repeatable or not, and would conclude from that whether it’s a remarkable business that’s creating something human and unique.

I think Godin wins on that case, and the solution is to run a business on principles, not centred around SOPs. I think a business needs some set of checklists, but I don’t believe any more on the focus of documenting every single tiny step to make reproducable outcomes.