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Stop Making Stupid Mistakes


October 30, 1935 -- Dayton Ohio. Military members gathered for what the Defense Department called a live demonstration of the capabilities of the next generation bomber. In short, they were shopping and had invited manufacturers to come pitch them. Boeing Corporation was among those seeking the contract.

For many, inviting others was a mere formality -- Boeings new Model 299 would be the hands-down winner. A reporter from Seattle called the plane a flying fortress. It could carry five times the number of bombs that army specifications called for. It flew faster than previous bombers, and nearly twice as far. The plane taxied onto the runway, an impressive 103-foot wingspan with four engines -- it was a magnificent beast in motion.

Major Ployer P. Hill pushed the throttle levers forward. Speed increased, the plane lifted off the runway climbing to just past 300 feet. It stalled, slouched to the right, and came crashing down in a fiery mess. Two of the five crew members died, including Major Hill.

The investigation revealed nothing mechanical had gone wrong. Pilot error was cited as the reason for the crash. Major Hill forgot to release the locking mechanism on the rudder and elevator controls during takeoff. This error caused the army to go with a much simpler design by Douglas, and considered the Boeing plane too difficult for any pilot to fly.

Boeing nearly went bankrupt. A group of test pilots were brought in to solve the problem. Given the complexity of the aircraft, they decided on a simple approach: the pilots checklist. Atul Gawande, in his book The Checklist Manifesto, credits this story as the origin of the checklist.

The test pilots made their list simple, brief, and to the point -- short enough to fit on an index card. Step-by-step lists for taxi, takeoff, in-flight, and landing. The checklists contained the stuff all pilots knew how to do: check that brakes are released, set instruments, altimeter, make sure doors and windows are closed and locked, elevator trim, and rudder controls unlocked. It was silly, easy stuff. With these checklists in hand, pilots went on to fly the Boeing Model 299 a total of 1.8 million miles without a single accident. The army ultimately ordered nearly 13,000 of the aircraft. Today, the Model 299 is known as the infamous B-17. Because flying the behemoth was now possible, complexity made simple by a checklist, the B-17 now has a prominent place in our history books.

What does flying a B-17 have to do with selling? Selling today is far more complex. Channels of communication are exploding; information access is beyond our ability to contain. Just as flying a plane is both as fundamental and yet much more complex and complicated than when Wilbur and Orville -- or Boeing, for that matter -- first took flight, selling today requires the same attention to minute details. Salespeople need a system to remind them of the basics and simplify the complexity of the sales process.

My lifelong friend Geoff Oswalt is a senior international jet pilot for Johnson Controls. Geoff flies executives around the world in a Challenger 300 made by Bombardier. In preparing to write this article, I asked Geoff if he still uses checklists. He was somewhat shocked by my question. Of course we do. Technology has changed; instead of reading them off a knee board, we push a button and the voice command walks us through each step of the checklist. 

Youve been doing this for over 30 years, I said. Why are you still using checklists?  Geoff responded with crystal clear simplicity. So we dont make a mistake.

If youre like me, youve walked away from more than a few meetings with clients and said, Darn it, why didnt I remember to... A checklist helps prevent that. Because checklists are so important in a variety of professions -- from flying planes to performing brain surgery -- you can easily find or create checklists for your sales process.

Chris Lytle and I created the Pre-Contact Checklist. Critical things you should do, prior to having ANY contact with a client or prospect. We also have a Pre-Meeting Checklist, Proposal Writing Checklist, Top 10 Prospect Hit List, and more. Download a free copy of the Pre-Contact Checklist from our website: Pre-Contact Checklist

Most people start in sales because something else didnt work out -- you end up in sales, accidentally. Successful sales people know that staying and succeeding in sales is no accident. Professional sellers use a consistent repeatable process. Without a consistent repeatable process you leave the outcome to chance or to the effectiveness of your memory on any given day. Consistent sales success demands a consistent sales process; and consistency for complex, as well as simple, tasks requires a checklist.

To this day (despite thousands of hours flying) my friend Geoff uses a checklist to avoid mistakes. Chris Lytle and I use checklists for writing articles, for doing seminars, and for training creation. We leave nothing to chance. Checklists simplify the complex, remind you of the basics, and help you avoid mistakes. And, inevitably, help you make more sales.

Think Big, Make Big Things Happen!

Jeff Schmidt is EVP and Partner with Chris Lytle at Sparque, Inc. You can reach him at,, follow him on Twitter @JeffreyASchmidt, or connect via LinkedIn