Project Documentation: A Project Manager’s Secret Weapon

If you’re managing a project, things can get rough.

You’ve got a lot of effort that needs to be sustained.

A lot of experts are amazing at their job but still can get in trouble when they need to work with other departments.

Add remote teams into the mix and it can get confusing.

And to top it all off…

Investors want to be kept in the loop.

Reminders and a tidy calendar will help. But if you want to up your project management game, you need good project documentation.

A lot of people overlook project docs.

But that’s risky.

Read on to find out why.

What is Project Documentation?

Project documentation can have a lot of definitions.

From Merriam Webster to the Cambridge dictionary, everyone has a different thing to say about it.



For our purposes, documentation refers to documents created during and for the project itself.

For example, a budget is part of project documentation.

Risk analysis too.

And the best project docs feature a home base - usually called a Project Business Case, incorporating the reasoning for the project and an overview of everything covered in the documentation overall.

To put it simply, documentation is a guide.

It’s like a map that helps everyone on the team navigate the route to completion.

Unfortunately, not everyone’s a big fan of this map.

A lot of project managers will postpone writing documentation, and when they do come around to writing it, it’ll be in a rush.

Usually, because they’re already experiencing problems with the project that could have been avoided if they wrote the proper documentation early on.

Why is Project Documentation Important?

A lot of managers aren’t big fans of documentation.

That’s because it’s time-consuming if done right.

And because the benefits are not easily seen.

After all, if your MVP delivery is one month from now, you should focus on building the product right?

Well, not really.

Documentation is not a deliverable itself.

And it will rarely help with creating deliverables.

At least not directly.

But good documentation is fundamental if you want to avoid your team feeling lost. It’s also great if you want to avoid disputes that arise because there are no clear procedures in place.

So indirectly, documentation helps with everything because it provides clarity.



But that’s not all.

Besides a clear route for your team, documentation has plenty of other benefits.

First, it incentivizes critical thinking.

When you lay it all down, from the budget to the risk analysis, you can better analyze the project. It’s not an abstract idea in your mind, it’s a standalone entity that can be scrutinized by everyone.

This means an increased chance of identifying soft spots.

But it’s also a catalyst for better meetings.

Everyone has a base to talk from.

Arguments about the specificities of the project disappear because everyone can refer back to the project business case.

Besides that, project documentation is important for identifying the right KPIs. This ties back into critical thinking, but it’s a bit different.

Let me paint a better picture.

You can have an intuitive knowledge about a team’s ability to produce a complex function.

You can even make a pretty accurate estimate of how many hours that will take.

But without complete documentation, with a budget, risk analysis, and communication guidelines, you won’t be able to estimate that as accurately as possible. Things will come up that you couldn’t have taken into account.

And you may not even realize that if you’re not measuring performance with good documentation.

Even if you do.

You won’t be able to measure how well you’re performing overall.

And that’s important.

But the benefits don’t stop here.

Besides an incentive to think critically and a better way to measure success, good documentation means memory space.



The human mind is limited. You can know a project in and out, you’re still going to forget some minute details that can be important for decision-making.

Good documentation is like a hard drive update, but for your project.

You can lay everything out in detail.

And this helps you keep track of all variables.

Lastly, good project documentation declutters the schedule of a project manager.

Are developers having a block?

Refer back to the appropriate section of the documentation.

Are Investors waiting for an update?

Not if you have clear communication guidelines, they don’t.

Because project documentation shouldn’t be something you write out of necessity and forget all about a week into your project.

It should be a live document, evolving together with your project.

If it’s not used, you either wrote it wrong or you’re not enforcing it right.

How To Do Project Documentation

First of all, you need to start with the project documentation.

Don’t postpone it until you deliver this or that.

Don’t “snooze” the task.

The faster you do it, the faster you can tap into the benefits of good documentation.

Moreover, the faster you do it, the easier you can adapt to changes in your project and incorporate them into your documentation.

So timely.

That’s what good documentation needs to be.

Secondly, it needs to be useful. If something is unclear or repetitive in the documentation, either cut it or change it to be more specific.

If you want extra tips on how to write documentation, you can check our guide on how to create software documentation.

Now for the documentation itself.

You have a lot of leisure in how you choose to create it.

It can be a gDrive folder with the basic documents.  

It can be a series of emails (though we’d advise against that, it’s hard to keep track of emails)

It can be a wiki developed with documentation software, which makes it much easier to modify and keep track of your documents.

Or it can be a combination of these and other online and offline alternatives.

For example, you can print the most important procedures, color code them and hang them up in the office.

Regardless of what you choose, there are a few documents we’d advise you have in one form or another.

A Home Base

A home base is something that outlines the entire project, the reasoning for the project and links back to all the rest of the documentation for specific info.



This is often called a Business Case or Project Business Case.

First of all, it will include the reasons for running the project, just so everyone knows what they’re working for.

Second, it should be an overview of what you’re doing.

And this can include many things.

For example, you can have:

  • Cash Flow Statements
  • Opportunity Costs
  • Business Drivers
  • Objectives
  • Strategic Options
  • Key Performance Indicators
  • Channels of Distribution

And many more, structured to suit your project’s needs.

We can’t tell you what you should include in a PBC (Project Business Case).

This is something you’ll have to decide, according to your company’s needs.

But we can give you some tips.

A PBC should be presented in a well-structured matter.

It’s important for the information to be taken in the proper flow.

And the structure is important to help people navigate the document when they’re looking for something specific.

The logic is simple:

A PBC should let you know if what you’re doing is in accordance with the project’s overarching goal.

Whenever you want to spend resources on something.

Or seize an opportunity.

You should check back on the PBC and it should help you determine if taking action means furthering the goal of the project.

For example, it’s helpful for the PBC to include an overview of strategic options and objectives.

That way, if you have a new partnership opportunity, you’ll check back on the strategic options overview and determine if investing in that will help you achieve your project’s goal.

If not, take a pass.

A Timeline

Writing timely documentation is important, but having time-bound processes is just as important.

You should have a delivery schedule.

And it should be as accurate as possible.



Of course, you’re most likely going to deviate from a schedule.

At least a little bit.

But that doesn’t mean it’s pointless.

A timeline for your project will help with everything:

  • Managing employees
  • Assuming time-bound responsibility for partners
  • Strategic Planning
  • Resource management

And everything else, simply because you have an informed understanding of your project’s evolution.

However, a schedule is only good if it’s done right.

That means don’t rush it.

Analyze everything about your project before coming up with a timeline.

And be ready to adapt to changes, especially if you’re working in a startup environment.

A documentation tool can help a lot here because it’s easy to edit as you go along.

Risk Assessment

Just like a business, a project has risks.

They can impact the development of your product negatively and positively, but you should be aware of both.

Risks are uncertain events.

That’s why you’ll never be able to fully analyze risk, and how it can affect the evolution of your project.

But that’s exactly why you should pay attention to risks.

Because you want to minimize the negative impact.

And capitalize on the positive one.

But how do you go about it?

Well, risks should be analyzed in-depth to formulate the possible outcomes.

Besides that, you should have a way to foresee a risk:

“What will precede a drop in productivity?”

You should have procedures for treating that.

But perhaps more importantly, you should be able to measure the likelihood of uncertain events taking place.

And place a stronger emphasis on risks that are more likely.

Risk assessment is not science. It can be accurate if you put in the hours, but because of its uncertain nature, you’ll need to be prepared to adapt.

That’s why the shape of your risk analysis should be tailored to your industry, team size, objectives and even the risks themselves.

It can be a spreadsheet with all analyzed risks.

Or it can be a complex mind map sprawled on your office wall.

Resource Management

You probably saw this one coming, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mention it.

Project ideas can run wild, but they need to be kept in check by realistic expectations about what your team can produce.



Resource management is fundamental to that.

And not just for a big corporation employing hundreds of people.

Even a one-man show that outsources some of the project development needs a budget.

Regardless of your size and needs, a resources overview and some guidelines on distributing them are important right off the bat.

Perhaps even more importantly, you need to keep track of them.

If a function or a website area takes more than expected to produce, that’s a change that should be reflected in your resource management document.

Or you’ll fall behind.

Again, documentation software will help with keeping track of your resources.

Because they’re easier to edit.

And oftentimes, more accessible by your team too.

Communication Guidelines

Lastly, you need to remember that any project you manage is run by people, not papers.

Documents should be there to help those people achieve more.

And communication guidelines do just that. They help you keep track of who should be notified of what and who’s in charge of doing the notification.

“Communication is key.” is a cliche for a reason.

When everyone is kept in the loop, everyone can contribute.

But how do you manage communication?

If you have a lot of team members and investors or higher management to keep happy, it can get confusing.

To avoid that, you can use a RACI matrix.

This is a responsibility assignment matrix, and it outlines the involvement of people that work for your project’s success:

  • Responsible. Who’s in charge of executing what.
  • Accountable. Who’s going to answer for the completion of tasks.
  • Consulted. Who should be asked about new developments or strategies?
  • Informed. Who needs to be updated on how you’re doing.

Creating a RACI matrix is not hard in concept, but can require some repetitive work.

You should start by identifying all the tasks required for the completion of your project.

Then you should list all people responsible, accountable, and that need to be consulted or informed about each task.

As with everything, don’t forget to update a Communication Guideline or RACI matrix as soon as developments come up.

If you have a new team member, go through the document and update it according to their responsibilities.

So Your Objective Is...

Clarity.

Above everything else, aim to be clear in your project documentation.

This means useful content and a clear structure.

That is, as long as you understand how important good documentation is.

Considering the struggles it can help you overcome.

The critical thinking it incentivizes.

And the competitive edge it gives you over projects that don’t spend the time to create proper documentation.

We’d say you can call it a project manager’s secret weapon.

Do you agree?

What’s your experience creating project documentation?

Dragos
Dragos
Founder & CEO. Creating awesomeness with code

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