Investigative Checklists: “Value add” or “value bad?”

Recently, while giving a presentation at a conference in New York I happened to ask attendees whether their company’s gave them a checklist to use while conducting investigations and phone interviews. About half the attendees raised their hands and this leads to the bigger question. Does utilizing an investigative checklist help or hinder investigations or telephone interviews?

While one could certainly argue the merits that checklists provide (reminds the investigator of the steps they need to take and relevant information they need to gather), the flip side is perhaps more important. Investigation is not a precise science and very seldom does information fit neatly in Box #’s: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., as projected with the use of a checklist. In fact, there are always pieces of information that fit “between the lines,” information that needs to be gathered, or steps that need to be taken which aren’t a part of any box. As I said during the session there’s always something that’s 1.5, 2.5 or 3.5… and checklists don’t account for that.

But perhaps more importantly, aside from the fact that investigations are fluid and not static, (most investigations and interviewees don’t fit neatly in a checklist box), my bigger concern is the “blinders mentality” checklists cause in investigators and interviewers: a very defined and rigid, “by the book” interview and investigation style. While this may be fine in some companies, from my experience, the reality is that the “checklist mentality” really promotes an inflexible and ineffective investigative information gathering and case management style. Further, it prevents the investigator or interviewer from practicing active listening skills, utilizing investigative intuition and following the case or interviews natural transition with appropriate steps, responses, questions and follow up questions.

So with that premise in mind, revisiting the original topic: Investigative Checklists: “Value add” or “value bad?” my belief is that investigative checklists are fine, if used as a “general guideline.” But a company provided checklist should NOT dictate an investigations or interviews exact steps, how a case or interview should be conducted or questions that should be asked, as each situation, case and individual interviewee is different.

Each case, or phone interview, calls for unique insights, strategies and techniques and this promotes the need for a more flexible case management style. The reality is… the expression “thinking outside the box” really applies here as it’s often not what’s in the box that counts… but what’s between the lines and the use of rigid checklists in investigations and interviews don’t account for that fact.