The Quest for the Ultimate Project Management Checklist

I went diving in the Esterelles (Cote d’Azur, France) this morning and was quite impressed with the thoroughness of the boat boarding and de-boarding process. Having dived all over the world, this process can range from absolute chaos to some sort of order. First of all, it is important to note that the French dive system is regulated by the law (as are most outdoor sports there), this includes the requirements for the different levels, who can dive with whom and to what depth, and a medical notice that you are fit to dive. So it is understandable to see a certain strict process, however, this one was more detailed than others I have seen in France. While still on shore, the director of the diving club, with checklist in hand, assigned divers to the right supervisors and then to the right spot on the boat. Only after that assignment, those people were allowed to carry their gear on board and start a dive briefing with their supervisor. After the dive, the director went to every person and noted their depth and duration on that same checklist.

This whole process got me thinking about the usefulness of checklists and how we tend to not use them enough. Wikipedia states “a checklist is an informational job aid used to reduce failure by compensating for potential limits of human memory and attention. It helps to ensure consistency and completeness in carrying out a task”. Examples that jump to mind are airplane pilots who use extensive checklists before departure (luckily!), airplane engineers who follow step by step checklists for every procedure they do including such basics step as “unscrew latch”, the medical profession which has checklists to e.g. make sure no surgical equipment stays in the patient and numerous other industries which have quality assurance checklists for their specific processes.

What do we, as project managers, use? In general, we have extensive schedules we live by, however, those tend to be so extensive that simple items still surprise us. As a profession we have a terrible success track record. Across industries, projects are late, over budget or never make it to completion. If pilots or surgeons would have the same track record, they would be in jail.

A simple Google search on project management and checklists brings up pages of checklists, templates and other useful tools. So the question is, do we have too many tools to help us? The reason checklists help reduce failure for pilots and doctors etc. is because the lists are straightforward and cover all critical items. In addition, there is a clear agreement that if any item on the checklist fails, it is a no-go. Now of course, project management is a people’s business and people are unpredictable. But so are weather conditions or complications during a surgery. So what makes us special? Could we, as a profession, create the ultimate checklist that is simple, complete, and increases our rate of success but does not strangle us in red tape?

I wish I had the answers to my own questions. Clearly there is not a silver bullet, however, I would love to get your thoughts on this topic. Maybe together we can create the Ultimate Project Management Checklist!




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