Friday, February 4, 2011

The Checklist Is Not the Purpose

Checklists dominate project management. They take many forms: the classic Gantt chart, a checklist, a backlog, a task list, a to do list, a work board, and more. Now, don't get me wrong, I love my lists and couldn't survive without them!


The checklist is not a purpose. It's a communication tool; it's a side effect or recording of the real work.

This is a really common thing to see on an agenda:
"Go through the checklist for project foo"

And it's wrong. No one cares about the checklist; they care about the work being done. Getting through the checklist for the sake of walking through the checklist is a sign you have a meeting that isn't actually helping anyone. It's just rearranging deck chairs.

So if you write an agenda that says, "go through the checklist", stop and ask yourself what you really want to accomplish. Then keep the checklist handy as a reference and a data repository, and really listen to the overall status. Don't wander through your checklist with your head down; you'll miss all the other important information.

Similarly, if you're invited to a meeting with an agenda item that says, "go through the checklist", you're in danger of wasting your time. Go ahead and ask the meeting organizer to make sure there's time allotted to discuss things not on the checklist (this is the polite way of saying, "hey, buddy, the checklist isn't everything!").

No matter how accomplished and informed lists feel, they aren't the point. We'd all do well to remember that.

The checklist is not your focus. The checklist is a side effect of the focus.


  1. Well said!

    I've always told my testers that their Test Plans are a communication vehicle - not an end point.

    I'll remember to have the same talk with them about Checklists, now.


  2. Joe - put it on your checklist ;)

  3. time to read The checklist manifesto ;-)

  4. Going through checklists can spell the death of a meeting. Hopefully you can utilize checklists to eek conversation out of them.

  5. ha! Phil, that's awesome.

    Yves, I've actually read that book. I can't say it changed my life, but it's a good reminder about the power and the limitations of a checklist.