Do you use a list when you shop for groceries? If so, you are already a project manager. There’s a reason countless productivity, task, and to-do applications highlight grocery lists among their use cases. As simplistic as it may seem, shopping for food has all the hallmarks of project management. We all have to feed ourselves (not to mention our families), and doing so demands some amount of forethought.

Grocery Store

A grocery list is also a valuable metaphor for understanding how people get things done — even elaborate, lengthy things that involve multiple stakeholders in an organizational setting. Yes, it’s shockingly easy to make the comparison between creating a list for the supermarket or farmers’ market and strategizing for, say, IT infrastructure implementation.

Here are just a few examples of the questions a grocery list-maker faces—questions that speak to challenges inherent in all levels of project management:

Budgeting and Resource Management

Whatever the frequency of your shopping—weekly, semi-weekly, daily—you’re almost certainly limited to a certain budget for each trip. It may be a concrete number like $150, or perhaps it’s a looser idea of what you expect to spend. Either way, you already have one constraint, one aspect of your project’s scope.

At the same time, along with their cost, you have to consider each product’s quality, freshness, and—unless you’ve planned out every meal in advance—usefulness in the kitchen.

Format and Structure

When it comes to recipes, how much do you plan in advance? How much can you? If you live with children, it’s a familiar question: how many “emergency” foods do you need for picky eaters who can’t stomach a new dish or unfamiliar ingredient?

The uncertainty around preparing meals influences how someone structures their shopping list:

Is it by recipe, by store section? What about family staples—do they need to be included every time Do they even need to be listed?

Then, there’s the issue of timing:

How often should you replace regular ingredients, like spices? The same kinds of questions also vex project managers planning for ongoing needs and roles within teams: How can you minimize the risk and cost associated with overspending on unnecessary resources and maximize each team’s efficiency?

In other words, how much can you anticipate what’s needed and when?


In households where more than one person buys groceries, every person needs to agree on shared food in advance, or shop together.

Sometimes, there’s friction.

Someone’s junk food habit might annoy someone else. Another person may have rigid dietary restrictions. How much a person’s shopping responsibilities entitle them to construct the grocery list is usually a sensitive and unspoken subject.

As is the case with formal project management, determining the extent of each person’s involvement can have political and emotional ramifications, and yet it is vital to the project’s (read: grocery trip’s) success and team’s (read: family’s) morale.

Risk Management and Room for Creativity

Imagine you’ve totally figured out your grocery list. You’ve engineered it perfectly, confident you’re buying every single thing you’ll need for the next seven days, and using every single cent of your budget.

And then you notice that pomegranates are on sale.

And the store’s out of the boxed macaroni and cheese your daughter likes.

And then, you remember this great recipe that you heard about a podcast and which you promised yourself you were going to try before the next dinner party—which is…oh right, this Wednesday.

Experienced grocery shoppers and cooks understand the necessity of planning for the unplannable. You could view it as risk management or leaving room for creativity. It’s not only a matter of being realistic and saving money, but letting ingredients inspire you and taking chances.

Next time you’re coming up with a list before visiting your local grocer or farmers’ market, consider each of the factors that play a role in your decision-making process before and during your trip.

And give yourself a little test: see if you can buy what everyone wants when they want it, stick to your budget, and sneak in a few surprises. If you can, consider yourself not just a competent project manager, but a talented one.

Cardsmith can be a fun and useful tool for lists, party planning, and recipe-making. Its real power, however, lies in how much flexibility it gives to managers of big, ambitious projects that involve the imaginations of their team members. Visit our blog for more ideas and examples of creativity and productivity in action.

Photo by Matheus Cenali from Pexels

This post was updated in April 2020.