We’re more than checklists

The more we reduce jobs to to-do lists, the more accommodating we make them for AI replication

Back in 2009, a well-received book was published, “The Checklist Manifesto,” by Atul Gawande, a surgeon, author and public health researcher. The book promotes the use of developing and utilizing checklists to enhance the quality of outcomes resulting from the execution of complex procedures. Dr. Gawande cites many examples of how the deliberate use of checklists leads to greater efficiencies, more uniform discharge of protocols, and improved protections, particularly regarding procedures in which safety is a concern.

Upon examination, causes of unintended consequences and accidents can often be attributed to missed steps in a process, which had they been followed would have mitigated or prevented the mishap. Sure, we all make mistakes. But if we take the time to analyze why a mistake was made, we often find it was because of things like hurrying too much, lacking focus, being distracted or not having enough experience. These flaws almost always mean measures that should have been taken were not taken.

So, to deploy and use complete checklists consistently makes perfect sense. In fact, the application of step-by-step lists is considered so best-practice these days that many of our careers can be seen as little more than a requirement to effectively execute a series of predetermined sequential actions. Take a look at almost any job description. It is little more than a laundry list of expected deliverables like a set of boxes to be checked. It could be said that much of our work is therefore formulaic.

To the extent that we reduce our careers to predicable, stringent and rote to-do rosters, the more accommodating we make our careers for AI replication.

Author Ian Leslie makes an interesting observation in a recent Substack piece. Responding to the fear many express about the growth of AI, he points out how we assist the machines to adapt to our ways of doing things, because we are adapting our work lives to the ways AI works. When human agency is overly systematized we give our replacement instructions to AI which may be better at checking boxes than we humans are.

When we model our work behavior to a simple inventory we should not be surprised when AI mimics it. AI is algorithmic. It uses models and arrangements of variables in a mechanized and calculated way. As we are finding out, AI can out-perform us over a growing number of jobs, especially the jobs that are like checklists. A pertinent quote by artist Robert Irwin in the Ian Leslie piece is, “Human beings living in and through structures become structures living in and through human beings.”

As we determined above, checklists certainly have their place. However, as people we need to look at our work lives as being beyond just an amalgamation of discreet work tasks and responsibilities. To be human, especially in our careers, must be more than that.

Our evolution requires innovation and novelty. It demands an expression of humanity which is an added value above any pre-arranged framework. It seeks to celebrate intuition and ingenuity and even uncertainty. The careers of tomorrow will thrive because they bring a richness of the human experience not easily cloned by a computation.

Romanticism arose in Europe toward the end of the 18th century in reaction to the heavy emphasis being culturally placed on rationalism, science and industrialization. Instead, Romanticism insisted on honoring art, music, literature, nature and the intellectual capacity of the individual. It exalted human emotion and aesthetic experience.

Above all, the message of Romanticism was that to be fully human required embracing the wide range of human expression and to not be limited to the mechanized worldview of materialists and rationalists.

The time may be ripe for a neo-Romanticism in the age of AI and checklists.

Efficiencies have their place, but let’s not confuse them with being human.

Bill Ryan writes about career, employment and economic topics from his home in North Sutton.

Categories: Business Advice, Workplace Advice