When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Use a Checklist

checklist_reordered-smallest.jpgI know a pilot who has flown 7000 hours. The other day I asked him, “Chuck, the next time you fly are you going to use your pre-flight checklist?” “You bet!”, he replied. Now why would a jet pilot with that much experience use a checklist? . . . because that’s what professionals do. Professionals know that, in the heat of battle, much of our blood rushes to our arms and legs, where it is useful for hitting, kicking and running, leaving little to nourish the one major advantage that we have over monkeys: our frontal lobes. That’s why these common-sense principles are those that are most frequently overlooked or short-changed on projects, even by those who should know better.

Professional project leaders do what needs to be done, regardless of whether they have time to do it (there’s never enough!), and regardless of whether they think other people will like it (One sure-fire way to get a busy team member to roll their eyes is to ask them if they have time to set clear goals, make a schedule and discuss roles and responsibilities.) People rarely think that they have time to pause and plan. Don’t ask your team if they have time to plan – insist! Don’t take a vote about whether your team should meet regularly to assure that everyone is on the same page. Schedule the meetings! It’s the project leader’s job to assure the team avoids predictable failure, and lack of planning is a biggee.

A checklist, or a set of operating guidelines, is one way to instill this kind of discipline. It’s a rock in a sea of flotsam and jetsam. It’s the next best thing to being lucky. Keep it with you at all times. Make a copy to nail up to the wall of your office. Tape another copy to the dashboard of your car, and put yet another on the lower surface of your favorite toilet seat so you’ll be sure to see it at least a couple of times a day.

Knowing “how,” all by itself, has never been enough to change anything. Smarter and more experienced people than us have tumbled down the stairs of failure due to overlooking exactly these basics.

I’ve been using this list of operating principles for years to guide me through treacherous waters. It has helped me remember what’s important when I’m not thinking straight. I don’t follow it precisely, of course, but at least when I depart from it I do so thoughtfully, not by accidentally forgetting some important part of the project management process. Don’t use mine, for Pete’s sake! Make one that’s your very own that suits you.”Scrappy Project Management Operating Principles”

  • Be completely & unrepentantly obsessed with the “Customer”.
  • Prioritize ruthlessly, choosing between heart, lungs & kidneys if necessary.
  • Provide shared, measurable, challenging, & achievable Goals as clear as sunlight.
  • Create viable Plans & Schedules that enjoy the team’s hearty commitment.
  • Explicitly identify and plan to mitigate detestable Risks & delectable Accelerators.
  • Assure that Roles & Responsibilities are unmistakably understood and agreed by all.
  • Challenge Assumptions & Beliefs, especially insidious self-imposed limitations.
  • Manage the Expectations of all stakeholders: under-promise & over-deliver.
  • Anticipate and accommodate necessary and inevitable Change.
  • Engage in effective, vociferous & unrelenting Communication with all stakeholders.
  • Practice an “Attitude of Gratitude.” Celebrate success, and some failures, too.
  • Learn from experience. Make new and more exciting mistakes next time!

The next time you’re looking down the barrel of another killer project, pause and reflect before diving into the fray. In the middle of the madness, surface for a look around before diving into the pile of work that awaits you. And cling to what you know works. A set of operating principles like those above can be a useful reminder of key areas that are important to the success of the mammals on your team. Follow the principles or depart from them thoughtfully, no matter how you feel at the moment. Professional project leaders do what needs to be done whether or not they feel like it. Not everyone will like this kind of disciplined approach.

Scrappily yours, Kimberly

P.S. I think you should make your own Scrappy Checkilist, but if you’d like a copy of mine you can pre-order my Scrappy Project Management book at my publisher’s website. It should be out by August, unless the schedule slips.


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