Mistakes of Ignorance and Ineptitude

The Checklist Manifesto is a new book by Atul Gawande. Dr. Gawande is a general surgeon at the Bringham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and writes for the New Yorker. This book is a continuation of an article he wrote a couple years ago in the same magazine. Gawande has spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about how the medical profession can get better.

One observation that he writes about in the introduction struck me as applying to those of us in sales. In the past, the medical community made mistakes because they were ignorant. They simply lacked the knowledge to do better. But as the medical community’s knowledge has grown, the mistakes are increasingly made due to ineptitude (a harsh word for making a mistake when you know how not to make the mistake).

Lessons for Sales

Sales has changed radically over the past decades too. We are less ignorant about what it takes to succeed and how to create value for our clients. Many of the mistakes we now make are mistakes of ineptitude. We don’t take actions we know are necessary.

A few examples come to mind. Have you ever made the needs-analysis call and left without information you knew you needed? Have you ever left, say, without identifying all of the stakeholders? Have you ever made the sales call with doing the sales prep work that you needed to do to set up a successful call? Have you ever tried to make the sale before you knew enough to create the right solution for the customer?

These mistakes, and there are countless more we could add to the list, are mistakes of ineptitude. We know better, and yet we make the mistake anyway. Salespeople may not be faced with the critical life or death decisions that a general surgeon faces every day, but there is no reason not to take the same thoughtful approach that benefits any profession.

Start with a simple checklist.


1. What mistakes have you made lately? Were the mistakes caused by ignorance (lack of knowledge) or by ineptitude (your failure to do something you knew you should have done)?

2. If they were mistakes of ignorance, do you now have the knowledge you need to prevent from making the same mistake again? If not, what do you need to do to get that knowledge?

3. If it was a mistake of ineptitude, what can you do to not make the same mistake again in the future? If you haven’t read The Checklist from the New Yorker, I highly recommend it.

4. Do you have a simple checklist to ensure that you take all of the necessary actions to ensure you have the best chance of winning the deals for which you are competing?

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