Is there a problem with checklists?


People can be quite snooty about checklists. Perhaps they see them as for beginners. Perhaps they see the items on the checklist as being obvious and therefore that the list is unnecessary. Or perhaps their concern is that by having the support of the checklist, people don’t think beyond what’s on the list.

Checklists are not only for beginners

Checklists can be for beginners, and can be used as a learning tool. Do this, check it off the list, then do that, check it off the list…

However, they are also used by experts, and are invaluable in keeping us alive; think of pilots and of surgeons, for example. In these cases, the checklists are used to confirm that the right preparatory actions have been carried out. Have we done this? Yes, check it off the list. Have we done that? Yes…

The items on the list might themselves be obvious—is this the right patient for this surgical operation? —but by explicitly running through the list, whether you are an expert or not, some obvious errors can be avoided.

Checklists can serve as guiderails when under stress

In stressful circumstances (such as a problem arising on a flight deck), the checklist is a guide to the appropriate steps to take.

It is quite easy, when under stress, to miss a step out—even if you are very familiar with the process—without noticing that you’ve forgotten something. In fact, you might be more likely to miss a step if you are very familiar with the process, because you’ll have done that step so many times you might get confused about whether you’ve done it this time or not.

Do checklists stop people thinking for themselves?

Not necessarily. They provide guidance for all, and how heavily you lean on a checklist will probably depend on your skill level. It is usually highly desirable that a checklist is followed.

However, if you are sufficiently expert in a skill and are trying to resolve a problem, the checklist may help you eliminate options and clarify your thinking enough to identify potential solutions: the checklist is a tool, not a prop.

Checklists for cyber security

You won’t be surprised that checklists can be used in cyber security for all three purposes:

  • To help people learn what to do in what order
  • To avoid errors in routine circumstances due to inattention
  • To prompt the next right action when under stress

There are many checklists for cyber security available for download (be careful what you download, of course), and some are more useful than others. The more complex your environment, and the more specific the task, the more you’ll need to tailor your checklists for your own business.

To get you started, though, the North West Cyber Resilience Centre provides a number of useful checklists and other guidance.

And if you’d like any help with cyber security checklists, do contact us on 0113 733 6230.