When and Why We Use Checklists

Barry Sweeny, 2003

No matter whether a protege is a new hire, new in a department but not new to the location or the organization, or just assuming a new role in the department they were previously in, mentors will need to do some things right away, up front, to help the protege learn the “lay of the land”. There are often procedures and expectations which are new, the new relationships, even new norms and traditions about which a protege must learn, or risk failure.

Then there are the tasks, the processes, the work flow, and tricks to doing a new job. Even if the protege is being groomed for a new role and has not yet assumed it, they still need to learn a great deal, often very quickly.

Since mentors are already very experienced persons in a specific place, they probably already have a good sense of what someone who is new may need to learn. So, if that’s true (it is) why do we need to give mentors a checklist of what to do? Isn’t that a bit insulting?

If we just give a checklist to mentors, it could be very insulting, in which case the checklist may be ignored.

However, the way we write the checklist, and what we say when we provide it to mentors can help mentors understand why they might benefit from using the checklists.

  • Access to the checklist saves the mentor precious time. The mentor may know what needs to be done, but with a prepared checklist, doesn’t have to think about it a lot to decide what to do.
  • The checklist is the product of many experienced mentors knowledge of what should be the priorities. Mentors deserve the benefit of that expertise and the embedded insights in the checklist.
  • The checklist makes it easy to keep track of where you are and what you’ve done and have yet to do in the midst of a longer process.
  • The checklist can be adapted by a specific mentor for a specific protege’s needs and setting, BUT the mentor doesn’t have to start from scratch. They can use it and see what works, and then refine it, or they can refine it first and then use it. Whatever.


When we are using a check list, we either have done an item on it or we have not. It’s simple. The items on a checklist are those things which are right to do, and often are “one right answer” kinds of topics. They don’t involve much judgment or thinking. If the items were more complex, a checklist would be an inadequate tool to assess it. We’d need to use a rubric with different levels of quality on it.

Given all that, a checklist probably only makes sense to prompt and assess something if it happens early in a process, not later when the process is richer and more complex.