The value of checklists in project management


One of my former bosses once remarked that if project checklists were so great, anyone could be a project manager and no one would ever need any training. He’s right, and wrong.

He’s right in that it certainly takes more than checklists to be a good project manager. He’s wrong in that checklists can help us be better project managers.

In his very popular book The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande discusses how valuable checklists are for a wide range of tasks, from disaster response to investment banking. As a frequent flyer, which I bet you are too, I always hope the pilot and the co-pilot are going down through their checklists before taking off just so they won’t forget anything rather than sitting there shooting the breeze about the latest sports event. If you have a lot of things to consider before making a decision, checklists can help us to remember everything we need to do.

Gawande, in a recent Harvard Business Review podcast, mentioned a study of venture capitalists by psychologist Geoggrey Smart, who analyzed how folks in that field made decisions. What Smart found was very interesting. “The ones who took a more checklist-driven approach had a far higher success rate” Gawande says. Their return on investment was also higher. But what’s amazing is that Smart found that only 13% of the VCers took a checklist approach. Think of it this way, if you’re an investor in a VC fund wouldn’t you want your firm using checklists? Based on these findings, you definitely would.

The fact that checklists can be helpful is not altogether new. What’s revealing here is if you use the right one at the right time, it can be a major boost to overall performance.

By the way, in his book, Gawande has created a “checklists of checklists” just in case you don’t know how to create the best kind. This might be carrying things a bit far; then again, it might not. Maybe I need a checklist to see if my checklist is o.k.!


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