Project Management Simplified: The Power of Checklists and Templates

Project Management Simplified: The Power of Checklists and Templates

Project Management is a complex professional discipline. So, we’d all like to see Project Management simplified as much as possible – but not more so.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.

Albert Einstein

Two of the most powerful ways to do this are with checklists and templates. Both have the ability to not just simplify project management, but also to make your practice ore:

  • efficient
  • effective
  • accurate
  • consistent

So, in this article, we’ll look at templates and checklists as two tools to simplify Project Management and make your job easier and more productive, and allow you to deliver better results

Templates and Checklists: Two Ways to Simplify Project Management

Project Management Simplified: The Power of Checklists and Templates

In some ways, this is two articles in one. We’ll follow the same basic structure for each of templates and checklists:

  • Why they are useful
  • What they are
  • How to create and use them

Because they are more familiar to many of our readers, we’ll start with Templates, then move on to Checklists.

Project Management Simplified with Templates

Templates are a familiar approach to simplifying Project Management. I suspect there is hardly a Project Manager who hasn’t either used someone else’s template or created their own at some point. Most of us have done both.

Why Do We Need Templates to Simplify Project Management?

As project managers, we need to record a lot of information – about:

  • Our plans for what we will do
  • Aspects of the state of our project
  • What has happened

Every time we do this, we need to be sure that we:

  • Capture all of the relevant knowledge
  • Lay that information out in a suitable way

So, we use templates to help us to do this quickly and consistently; avoiding the unnecessary work of reinventing a format each time.

What is a Project Template?

A template is nothing more nor less than a container for information. It divides the content up into chunks and lays them out in a consistent manner.

Project Management templates are documents that simplify Project Management day-to-day by allowing you to capture all the information you need for a task, in a format that you or someone else has already approved.

Therefore, your life is easier because you can be confident that your document contains:

  • the right information
  • in a logical structure
  • formatted consistently with other documents

So, you’ve simplified your Project Management by taking away every task but focusing on the information itself: the important part.

How to Create and Use a Project Template

We’ll split our discussion into three sections:

  1. Designing your template
  2. Software to use
  3. Using your template

How To Design a Project Management Template

The steps I’d recommend are:

  1. Research
    1. What information your template needs to hold
    2. Look for samples to learn from and other best practice
    3. What formating and style constraints your organization has
  2. Design
    1. Set out the information blocks you need
    2. Arrange them in a logical sequence
    3. Craft the text to describe the content blocks
    4. Document the template itself
    5. Allow enough space for each block
    6. Think about layout
  3. Prototype and Test
    1. Build a prototype using your chosen software
    2. Apply formatting to your template
    3. Select a small sample of projects, workstreams, or team members to test your prototype project template
    4. Brief your testers before use
    5. Collect samples after use and talk with testers about, for example:
      1. Ease of use: does it simplify project management?
      2. Confusing or contradictory content
      3. Missing fields
      4. Information box sizes
  4. Launch your Project Management template

Extra Tips: Things to think about

  • Sign-off and authorization
    Always have fields that document key control information like:
    • creator (name, role, date)
    • reviewer (name, role, date)
    • sign-off/authorization (name, role, date)
  • Document and version control
    You’ll need version control for the master template, and also for any completed template that may change through a project’s duration
  • Use of color
    Color can be a great way to distinguish parts of a template – but only for people who can differentiate the colors you use. 10 percent of men and 90 percent of photocopiers are color-blind.

Project Management Simplified with the Right Software Solutions for Project Templates

Most project managers create their project templates using Word or Excel, or their equivalents:

Text-based templatesNumber-based Templates
MicrosoftWordExcel
ApplePagesNumbers
GoogleDocsSheets
Multi-platformAdobe PDF format
OtherZoho Writer
OpenOffice Writer
LibreOffice Writer
Zoho Sheet
OpenOffice Calc
LibreOffice Calc

However, there is dedicated software for creating templates and forms. None of these links are affiliated:

  • Templafy is the biggest name, but it caters mostly for enterrise-level users.
  • FastField is ideal for mobile application and priced in a way that projects and PMOs could access the tool
  • ProntoForms seems to offer much the same
  • Form.com is also an enterprise application.
  • KizeoForms seems very much mobile-first, with a low cost to start.

Please note that I am not a software reviewer and you should do your own investigation of the options available and their respective strengths and weaknesses.

How to Use Your Project Management Templates

You know what I have found? Two things:

  1. People tend to resent the amount of templates and form-filling in projects. Mostly this is the managers and professionals who take on project management, but it’s also true of some PM professionals.
  2. They also like to moan that the forms aren’t quite right for their needs, with either:
    1. missing fields,
    2. unnecessary fields, or
    3. wrongly specified fields

Let’s take these one at a time…

Too many Project Management Templates

Oh dear. A project monkey has a simple attitude:

Monkey see: Monkey do

A Project Manager, on the other hand, will decide which templates to use, based on three considerations:

  1. Does each template make it easier for them to deliver their project on time, to budget, and within specification?
  2. Will it help them to do so in a properly transparent and accountable way?
  3. Is there a compelling organizational mandate to take into account?

Often, you won’t need to use all the templates you could use… And neither should you.

Don’t be a Project Monkey

The Project Templates aren’t Quite Right

But, those templates you do use, may not be exactly right for your circumstances. In this case, your job is to weigh the relative csts and benefits of:

  1. Adapting yourself to the templates you have, or
  2. Modifying your templates to adapt to the circumstances

This is about comparing time and consistency against precision. In general, I would recommend that you only modify a PMO or Enterprise template:

  1. for a large project, and
  2. with the consent of your governance tier

The OnlinePMCourses Project Mangement Template Kit

Our core courses come with different numbers of templates, depending on how comprehensive the course is. But none comes with the full set, because it is large.

Project Management Template Kit

For anyone who wants their Project Management simplified by a comprehensive set of over 50 templates, do take a look at our Project Management Template Kit.

You can see a full list of the templates in this kit, here.

Project Management Simplified with Checklists

Before we start, we’ve done a short video that you may find helpful…

Why Do Project Managers Need the Power of Checklists?

The world is getting more complex, confused, and changeable. So, we need a strategy to cope with this. Checklists provide that strategy.

So, if you want the complexity of Project Management simplified, use checklists. They will help you to avoid:

  • mistakes, oversights, and errors
  • missed steps
  • duplication of work
  • delays while considering ‘what next?’
  • failing to conform to standards

Indeed, in his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande cites many contexts (including his own, surgery) where checklists save lives, like:

  • aviation
  • emergency rooms (A&E)
  • civil engineering
  • scuba and deep-sea diving

Two Types of Errors

In The Checklist Manifesto, Gawande refers to two types of errors that we make:

  1. Errors of Ignorance
    We don’t know what we need to know, to do things properly
  2. Errors of Ineptitude
    We don’t apply the knowledge we have correctly

Gawande asserts that experts use checklists t counter the second of these errors. I’d argue that, with the right checklist, intelligent non-experts can often get acceptable and even excellent results.

For More about The Checklist Manifesto…

Check out this excellent article on the Farnham Street Blog, or this article by Gawande on the New Yorker website. Or buy a copy from Amazon.

What is a Project Checklist?

A Project Checklist is a guide to the essential steps that take you through a complex process. These steps are in sequence and miss nothing important out.

Project Managers Should be Comfortable with Checklists

After all, we use Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) as a standard part of our planning process. You can think of a WBS as a checklist of all the:

  • Products and components you need to deliver (if you are in a US-influenced project environment)
  • tasks (or activities) you need to undertake (if you are in a UK-influenced project environment)

How to Create and Use a Project Checklist

As with Project Management templates, we’ll split our discussion into three sections:

  1. Designing your checklist
  2. Software to use
  3. Using your checklist

How To Create a Project Management Checklist

Here is the process I follow

  1. Research
    1. What are the objectives for the task you want to document?
    2. What is a sensible scope? You need to consider the merits if one large checklist against many, smaller, checklists.
    3. Look for experience and good practice to learn from.
  2. Design
    1. List everything that the user will need to do.
    2. Arrange them in a logical sequence.
    3. Craft the text to describe the step clearly. Use simple language and style.
    4. Consider adding sub-tasks for users who are less familiar with a step.
    5. Also consider labeling each step with the role title of the person who should normally be responsible.
    6. Document your checklist.
  3. Prototype and Test
    1. Build a prototype checklist using your chosen software
    2. Apply formatting
    3. Select a small sample of projects, workstreams, or team members to test your prototype project checklist
    4. Brief your testers before use
    5. Collect feedback from your testers about, for example:
      1. Ease of use: does it simplify project management?
      2. Confusing or contradictory text
      3. Missing fields steps
      4. Incorrect sequencing
      5. Amount of detail
  4. Launch your Project Management Checklist

Project Management Simplified with the Right Software Solutions for Project Checklists

As with templates, most project managers will use a text or spreadsheet document to set out their checklist. I shan’t repeat the table I gave above.

But there are some fantastic dedicated process documentation software tools. As before, I am not a software reviewer and you should do your own investigation of the options available and their respective strengths and weaknesses. And also, none of these links is affiliated.

  • Process Street – my personal favorite. This is a fabulous tool, so I would recommend you compare others against it. It also goes beyond simple checklists.
  • Checkli.com – very simple, free web-based tool. Better suited to personal and community projects than work-based projects
  • Checklist.com – simple, effective, and very well adapted to mobile.

How to Use Your Project Management Checklists

There are two ways to use a checklist:

  1. Read-Do if you are not 100% familiar with the steps and want to get it ‘right first time’.
  2. Do-Confirm for checking what you did and creating a record to demonstrate that you did everything correctly.

Project Management Simplified with Read-Do Checklists

How much simpler could it be?

Simply print-off your checklist, or display it on your device. Ten do the first thing on the list. When you’ve completed it properly, tick it off and do the next thing.

A well-constructed checklist can allow a low-experience project manager to tackle a project with confidence.

Will they encounter things they are ill-prepared for? Probably. So, a checklist isn’t the whole solution, but it allows you to learn and, supplemented by other sources of learning like trial and error, mentoring, training, etc, it allows rapid progress and high rates of success.

Project Assurance with Do-Confirm Checklists

Do-Confirm checklists are a part of Project Governance. In an earlier article, we answered the question ‘What has Project Governance Ever Done for Us?‘ in some detail. Here’s a short video…

In particular, confirming proper completion of critical activities is a part of both:

  1. Quality Assurance
  2. Project Review, Audit, and Assurance

The OnlinePMCourses Project Mangement Checklists

Project Management Checklists

For anyone who wants their Project Management simplified by a comprehensive set of over 65 Checklists, do take a look at our Project Management Checklists.

You can see a full list of the checklists in this kit, here.

The OnlinePMCourses Productivity Bundle: all our Templates and Checklists

PM Productivity Bundle - Template Kit & Checklists

You can get both our Templates Kit and all of our Checklists and get your Project Management simplified to the greatest extent, with our Project Management Productivity Bundle. And you’ll get a great discount!

What is Your experience of Simplifying Project Management?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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