Dennis D. McDonald (ddmcd@outlook.com) is an independent consultant located in Alexandria Virginia. His services and capabilities are described here. Application areas include project, program, and data management; market assessment, digital strategy, and program planning; change and content management; social media; and, technology adoption. Follow him on Google+. He also publishes on CTOvision.com and aNewDomain.

Project Management Question: When Do Checklists Make Sense?

Project Management Question: When Do Checklists Make Sense?

By Dennis D. McDonald

"Checklists? Checklists? We don't need no stinkin' checklists!"

One upon a time I was helping to run a big data conversion project involving hundreds of people. Our massive and detailed project plan had become unwieldy. We finally introduced streamlined checklists of key activities when we reached important go/no-go decision points. Assigned to individual task leaders these checklists provided better control and transparency.

We should probably have introduced "checklists" earlier in the project since they made it a lot easier to focus specifically what was important at a particular point in time. People didn't need all the detail provided by the project plan. Focusing on the "what do we need to do now" made more sense.

That was a good lesson to learn. I remember it well since I was responsible for -- painfully -- maintaining the project plan as the basis for reporting and client billing. I introduced the checklist process after reading Gene Kranz's book about the US space program, Failure Is Not An Option. I figured if checklists were good enough for NASA they were good enough for us! (Still, there was some push-back from a few managers whose attitude was, "Checklists? Checklists? We don't need no stinkin' checklists!")

I was reminded of all this while reading Checklists are boring, but death is worse in the Harvard Gazette. Instead of dealing with actions by programmers and database specialists, that article deals with checklists applied to doctors performing surgery. According to the article, many doctors don't like the checklists because they are "too long." At the same time, according to the article, many doctors would prefer their own surgeons use checklists before performing surgery on them!

Notwithstanding the difference between big IT projects and life-and-death medical procedures, impatience with checklists -- lists of things that have to be checked or done before work can proceed -- is real. A simple list of check-off items will not necessarily tell you the risk associated with doing -- or not doing -- work associated with that item. You might have an item on the list that, if it is not done, will most likely lead to death or disaster.  The next item might, if not done, leads to a stubbed toe or a temporary delay. 

At this point the savvy project manager will say, "This is where Risk Management" comes in, i.e., knowing and understanding both the "upside" and the "downside" of each action. That's what we pay professionals for, and that goes for project managers as well as surgeons.

Copyright (c) 2017 by Dennis D. McDonald

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