Documentation done right

Kevin Torf
Jul 7 · 4 min read

‘Know your why’ is a common phrase in self-help circles, but it also applies perfectly to a key component of successful project management: documentation. Documentation is a crucial tool for project managers, but it only works if everyone responsible knows why it’s happening and why it’s important. In addition, decisions regarding what will be documented throughout the course of a project and how these records will effectively be maintained are vital for success (and sanity). Differentiating between project-driven versus operational documentation is the final step, as this distinction will further help you identify ‘the why’ behind what you’re keeping track of and how it serves the needs of your current project or future operations.

James Murray, famed creator of the Oxford English Dictionary, had rooms filled with paper. People from all over the world sent him thousands of pieces of research on the etymologies of words; a single word alone could generate 10,000 pieces of correspondence. Murray’s workrooms were an overwhelming scene of clutter, but documentation of that scale was absolutely required for what he was trying to achieve; he succeeded because he matched his documentation system to the needs of his project — writing a dictionary.

While Murray provides a great example of documentation done right, bear in mind that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to documentation — it will be dictated by, and must be responsive to, the requirements of the project and the capacity of team members to update and maintain records. The five tips below can help you perfect your documentation process and ensure that the records you keep will serve their purpose:

Identify ‘your why’

Even before a project begins, start thinking about what needs to be documented, and most importantly, why. The mistake of tracking too much information is just as common as the mistake of tracking too little, so make sure the reasoning behind each documentation decision is crystal clear. Consider what information will be needed for reports to clients or shareholders throughout the lifecycle of a project. What data needs to be tracked consistently so that project records will be accurate and up-to-date, such as goals and objectives, processes, final service or product deliverables, roles and responsibilities, timelines, budget and required resources. Remember that some project records might contain useful information that could form the basis of, or be added to existing, operational documents. For each piece of information that you’re documenting, you should have a concrete answer for why it’s being recorded.

A ‘why’ without a ‘way’ doesn’t work

Even if you have a strong case for why you want to document an aspect of your project, if there’s no manpower to do it and maintain it, it can’t be done correctly and shouldn’t be attempted. Shoddy, half-complete records are useless and will cause frustration and mistakes. Instead, carefully assess the documenting capabilities of your team. Then, assign individuals to realistic documenting tasks, with clear instructions on how to keep records updated throughout the course of the project. Many team members will say they don’t enjoy the administrative side of projects and feel that documentation takes up too much time or isn’t as important as other aspects of the project, so show them easy ways it can be done and why it is needed in the long-run. Help your team learn how to write in a clear and succinct manner to help alleviate any feelings of burden or overwhelm toward documentation duties.

Build documentation into the flow of the project

Documentation shouldn’t be a phase of your project that occurs after all tasks have been completed, it should be considered part of what’s required to finish each task. Integrate documentation into your team’s workflow to ensure it’s happening constantly and consistently. Projects rarely go completely as planned, so make sure your documentation processes are updated if any changes in the project’s scope, strategy or deliverables occur.

Differentiate between project documents and operational documents, and keep the latter ‘alive’

After your project is completed, some documents will remain active as part of day-to-day operations. Keep these ‘alive’ and relevant by evaluating how operational needs differ from the original project needs. Operational documents most likely will need to be pared down — they should contain only the minimum amount of information required to be useful and effective.

Reassess regularly

Examine your documentation routines and processes monthly, quarterly and when there are any changes to your company or business environment. As always, question your documentation decisions and have answers for the ‘who,’ what,’ ‘when,’ ‘where,’ and most importantly, ‘why’ — while not forgetting the ‘way’.

Keeping these five tips in mind, project managers can create and manage successful documentation strategies. An organized and efficient documentation strategy can be the deciding factor between a project’s success or failure and can greatly influence the effectiveness of your team and company and the on-going management of day-to-day operations.

About Kevin Torf

Kevin Torf, co-founder and managing partner of T2 Tech Group, has been a renowned innovator and thought leader in the technology industry for over 35 years, specializing in large-scale IT strategic planning, project design and implementation. Kevin brings decades of experience in complex application deployment, IT architecture, electrical engineering and data center construction, infrastructure and consolidation, particularly within the healthcare space.

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