Keeping project documentation up-to-date and accurate can be problematic for project managers. In agile or flat organizations, documentation can be viewed as blockers to getting the project done efficiently. Whereas in other organizations, there are institutional and legal requirements to maintain proper project documentation.
Here’s the problem. Most people hate doing documentation. It’s time consuming, tedious, and often under-appreciated or ignored by the people for whom it is intended, or even the people that requested it! If you are one of those project managers that detest documentation, the following may help you adjust your viewpoint and get to the point of enjoying (okay, that might be a stretch), but at least tolerating the right amount of paperwork.
What’s Worth Documenting
No matter your organization’s structure, the ability to record and document all aspects of a project is vital to being a successful project manager. Multiple reports, charts, graphs, documents, change requests and status updates need to be maintained throughout the lifecycle of a project. And documentation works to stitch all the disparate pieces of a project together and bring it to a successful end.
However, your time is limited, and so is patience in most orgs for time-wasting paperwork. So how can you maintain efficiency and effectively document the project as well? Consider the following guidelines to determine what’s worth documenting:
- Client-Related Everything – Imagine this scenario: A client suddenly questions a decision that was made a couple of months ago. The client says that they chose one direction but your company decided to go down another path during implementation. Clear documentation on client meetings, including notes with dates, times, and attendees will help everyone recall the decision that was made and clear up any misunderstanding.
- Legal Dictates – For certain projects, legal teams are required to review documentation during the project. For public projects, there might be oversight and review processes that analyze a project after its completion. Know the documentation requirements your legal team needs to have before your project begins. Playing catch up is too risky in this kind of environment.
- The Right Amount of Process – While you don’t want to get lost with documenting so much of the plan and process that you’re not actually processing, you do want to have put some definition around the project plan and goals and how that’s going to be accomplished. Let your organizational structure guide how much process you should document. Insisting on a layered structure within your resources plan in an agile company, doesn’t make much sense. Similarly, trying to operate process-free on a project that requires legal documentation will only get your project in trouble. When in doubt, as your leadership about the best approach to documenting process.
- Changes to the Project – Ongoing updates to a project are essential to document especially as project goals shift due to internal factors such as product pivots or external impacts such as personnel changes or budget changes. Ideally, you’ll have a real-time online project management tool, so your resources and task changes are scheduled live, and issues are captured as they occur. However, larger impacts to the overall project plan should be added to project documentation in a version controlled manner.
Documentation Best Practices
So what are the best strategies you should use to keep your documentation effective, efficient and timely? To align your documentation according to best practices you should:
- Take the Time – Here’s a trick when it comes to developing robust documentation: use your calendar. Many people think that your calendar is only for scheduling meetings. It’s not. Use it to schedule two to three hour blocks of uninterrupted time to think through and assemble an essential document. You need take the time to get in the zone of writing, and that often doesn’t happen when you’re taking calls, having conversations with your deskmate or multi-tasking. You should book a room in your office, if available, shut the door and make sure to indicate your calendar status as “Busy.” With focused time and attention, you’ll be able to make significant progress. Likewise, schedule 10-15 minute blocks in your calendar each week to review and update documentation.
- Have the Right Level of Detail – Putting documentation together for engineers is very different than documents you present to executives. Engineers need all the detail you can provide, and it still won’t be enough! Executives, on the other hand, don’t have the time to be bogged down with the details. They just want a few bullet points, the bottom line, and next steps. It’s up to you to determine the right level of documentation for the right audience to achieve the desired effect.
- Use Smart Storage – Your documentation needs to be easy to locate and access. Documentation is no good if you bury it under a rock and nobody knows where it’s located. This includes making sure the infrastructure is in place to access the documentation online and that the folder structure and hierarchy is easy and intuitive to understand.
- Share with Others – Most people hate putting documentation together but love it when it’s all packaged up for them. You’ll also pleasantly be surprised that people actually read the stuff! Documentation is no good if you bury it under a rock and nobody knows where it’s located, however. Use your online project management software to store your documents online with the project, ideally in a collaborative yet secure environment.
- Version Control and Up-to-Date – Keeping project documentation current and up-to-date is the hardest thing to do. It’s easy to get to the point of the initial version, but it’s painful to go back and update documentation and maintain version control. Again, the biggest help here is going to be the document repository infrastructure you have in place. Automatic version control will allow you to manage this process more easily, and the consumers of your documentation will always trust they have the latest version.