Tame Project Chaos with a Super-Powered Checklist

You’ve created a strategy map and balanced scorecard, and developed process maps for major objectives like strategic communications and events. Process maps show the flow of major activities, but now you want to standardize the detailed tasks involved so you have a tool to teach and improve your work. Enter the checklist.

Checklists may seem simple, but there is good reason they are mandatory in mission-critical applications like operating roomsaircraft preflight checks, and military operations: they just work. Read The Checklist Manifesto if you need further convincing, otherwise just start your own using old-school paper and pencil or a free online tool like the excellent Microsoft OneNote.

Let’s start with an example checklist, one I developed as an interim executive director to manage a series of large live concert performances involving over 200 performers in a 2,000 seat venue. I’ll note the obvious up front: this checklist isn’t just for checking progress, it’s a great planning tool in its own right.

This Google Sheets checklist goes beyond just the segmented tasks on the left side. I also found it useful to add task owners, budget amounts, and even start and end dates. The dates allowed me to build the checklist into a simple project management tool. To enable the Gantt chart bars I used conditional formatting (under the Format menu) to show the weeks that a task is active from start to end. It does this by using the formula: 


This formula extracts the week number from the start and end dates and compares them to the week numbers contained in row 3, in light gray below their respective dates and formatted in light gray text. The result is a clean, one-page view of your checklist.

To extend its utility even further, incorporate notes into individual cells. In the example above you’ll notice bracketed numbers after some tasks. This means that specific task has a note associated with it, essentially a nested checklist or generic information about the task. These notes pop up when you hover your mouse pointer over the cell, and print out on follow-on pages like endnotes. These are very useful for tracking contact info, subtasks, budget breakdowns, and anything else associated with a specific task. When printed the checklist and notes are a comprehensive project status report.

Another option is to integrate checklists into your policies and procedures manual. At another interim executive assignment two years ago I had to construct a detailed ISO 9001:2015 compliant policy and procedure manual for a large regional healthcare organization that was preparing for its three-year reaccreditation process. The manual ran well over two hundred pages with a dozen process maps. For each map I interviewed stakeholders and created a checklist in standardized format, very similar to this employee journey checklist and its parent process map.

When combined with a project portfolio dashboard you have a couple of simple yet powerful tools for taming project chaos. Enjoy!