Heilmeier’s Catechism – a checklist for software projects

NOTE: I originally posted this at my old company's website in 2010,
but as that blog has been taken down, I thought I'd resurrect this
post here.

Until recently, I am ashamed to say that I had never heard of George Harry Heilmeier. A recent retweet by Roy Osherove on Twitter soon had me digging for more information.

It turns out that not only was Mr. HeilmeierĀ  a pioneering contributor to liquid crystal displays, he was a Vice President (and later CTO) of Texas Instruments during the time they produced the mighty Speak and Spell.

Mr Heilmeier’s Wikipedia page lists an amazing amount of awards, including the National Medal of ScienceĀ  and the IEEE Medal of Honor, but that’s not what sparked my curiousity.

What was interesting to me about Mr. Heilmeier was a series of questions anyone should be able to answer when proposing a research project or product development effort. These questions are known as Heilmeier’s Catechism.

Here is Heilmeier’s original list of questions:

Heilmeier’s Catechism

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares?
  • If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks and the payoffs?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?

When I read this list, it struck me that these questions could easily be adapted as a software project checklist.

With some small tweaks in language, this list becomes a standard project checklist that any consulting organization should work on with their customers to answer when deciding whether or not to go ahead with a project:

Project Checklist

  • What is the underlying business problem we are trying to solve with this project?
  • What happens today? Is this problem worked around with manual processes?
  • What’s new in this approach and why do we think it will be successful?
  • Who are the project stakeholders?
  • If we’re successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks and the payoffs? How can the risks be mitigated?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • How will we measure progress on the project? How do we know we’ve been successful?

What about your organization’s project approval process? Does your company use Heilmeier’s Catechism to decide whether to give a project a green light? What other questions should be asked before starting a project?

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