We Need Checklists

And Therefore We Need PMs

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande, is a great book that will teach you the importance of checklists. Checklists can literally save lives. When I read it I was filled with longing for a checklist driven job.

Imagine: Did you check off all the boxes? Yes! Did anyone die? No! Awesome. you’re amazing! Unfortunately, my life has never been like that.

After stewing on this for a while and wondering why this book was recommended, it dawned on me. Project Managers and the teams they work with DO NOT follow the same checklist day after day. We make them! We even have a fancy names for them; Work Breakdown Structures, Product Backlogs, Risk and Issue Reports.

  • Project Managers bring teams together to define what needs to get done in order to successfully meet a goal. We force people into a billion meetings to determine business needs and project objectives.
    • We make the initial checklist.
  • We constantly assess if the goal has changed through a billion more meetings and then communicate modifications to the project team. We find new paths forward when obstacles are hit.
    • We edit the checklist.
    • We edit the checklist again (weekly on a good project, daily on bad ones).
    • We create an alternate checklist or two in case of a disaster.
  • We communicate status to all stakeholders throughout project delivery with beautiful presentations and crazy excel formulas. We attempt to measure progress made by people who only answer our questions with vague noncommittal answers.
    • We communicate checklist progress.
  • We ensure the project is completed on time and within the final budget (or at least as close as humanely possible).
    • We validate checklist completion.

Basically, we make teams successful by defining and refining our checklists. We also take all the responsibility if an item is missing and things go wrong. Let’s be clear, our checklists are not cute little lists with boxes to be ticked off. We have to master tools like MS Project, Jira, Redmine, Bugzilla, TFS, or whatever home-grown tool was created where we currently work. It takes complex software to even begin tracking the items we identify in the billions of meetings we attend.

Maybe our checklists don’t save lives, but good ones will make teams less stressed, more efficient, and more successful. The best checklists can also highlight the value of the team and make people feel proud of their accomplishments. They can even allow the people who hate meetings to just wait for your updates. This is the best gift a Project Manager can give an engineer.

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