Of Checklists And Templates

Checklists are typically detested, but they can also create an unhealthy, unhelpful plug & play mindset.

“Use your judgment.” These three words sparked a controversy.

A company updated their capital budgeting process with a streamlined proposal template for smaller projects. What had once been six pages was now only two containing the bare minimum value and risk tools.

The accountants who provided the analytical support on these smaller projects were very pleased with their reduced requirements… until one of them asked me whether or not the other tools (those removed from this streamlined version) were still required.

I responded with “Only if appropriate.” When the questioner rephrased with, “Do we use them or not?” I replied with, “Use your judgment.”

Make Me Bullet-Proof
This was clearly not the answer they wanted. They wanted assurance no one could fault them for missing anything important if they properly completed the checklist. I pointed out that a foolproof template would take us right back to the original form. To my surprise, some of the folks preferred that solution.

It was clear that some of the accountants lacked confidence in project analysis. They could dutifully follow the old template but without clearly understanding the purpose of some tools. They hated the heavy workload of the full version but it provided peace of mind: No one could fault them for missing something if they just followed the template.

Life Isn’t So Simple
Our world doesn’t fit into neat checklists. Even the smallest replacement projects sometimes carry surprises. A skilled analyst recognizes when a tool may bring important insights to avoid errors, save money, spark better ideas or even when the tool doesn’t apply to the situation.

The under-skilled analyst applies every tool every time to avoid criticism. What a phenomenal waste of people’s time!

The Right People, The Right Training
Too often we drop checklists and templates into the laps of folks without training that provides the needed judgment. We cannot assume that because someone works with numbers (be they accountants, engineers, market researchers, etc.) they can provide effective decision analysis.

Two quick tests for whether folks are properly equipped are:

  • “Why?” If they can answer why a tool is used they can probably determine when to use or skip that tool.
  • “So What?” If they can clearly explain the tool’s outputs in business-relevant terms they understand the tool’s value.

If a project analyst can’t answer these questions well, we owe it to our people and organizations to equip them with deeper understanding of this role.

The first sign we don’t know what we are doing is an obsession with numbers. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

© 2011 Verax Point Consulting, LLC

About Dave Wittenberg

I am all about equipping business teams to enjoy greater payoffs on their biggest bets. I bring a unique combination of evaluation expertise and behavioral insights developed over the course of more than 300 major strategic initiatives. Applying a highly effective, disciplined framework, teams unleash their full capabilities to generate better solutions, wring out hidden waste, and deliver superior returns. Specialties: Investment Evaluation, Decision Excellence, Strategic Analysis, Mergers and Acquisitions, Investor Relations, Leadership Development, Education & Training
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