Documentation: How Much is Too Much?

When I first got my project management certification, I wanted to use the knowledge I had gained to the best of my ability.  So I jumped right in and tried to “live the life” of a project manager.  I reviewed all the inputs and outputs of each process discussed in the PMBOK and downloaded oodles of templates from and other sites.  It wasn’t long before I became overwhelmed and disenchanted by all the documentation.  I thought, “This can’t be right?  Is this all project managers do? Fill out forms?”  If you are new to project management or don’t have a well-structured PMO, you might be in the same situation.  Here is what I learned since that time in 2002.

Start Small

Pick one or two documents that you think you can handle easily and that will be useful throughout the project.  Download several different versions of these forms and start completing them to determine what information comes easy for you.   Don’t get caught up in trying to complete every section of the form.  If you are struggling to complete parts of a form, you probably don’t need or are not ready for that section.  Take it out for now.  You can always add it in later if you need it.

Now that you have completed multiple forms, review them to see what sections from each form you were able to complete easily.  Create a new template, with only those sections. My first two templates were the Project Charter and the Project Team Directory.

The project team directory was easy, yet it is quite useful.  You can distribute it to your project team so everyone has the contact information of everyone on the team along with each persons, title in their organization and their role on the project.

The project charter was a little more of a challenge.  Some charter templates out there on the web are really comprehensive.  That may be great for your shop.  For mine, it was way too much.  So I applied my method of completing only sections that came easily to me.  I finally came up with a customized template for my shop.  It is pretty simple.  It has the project number and title along with its description.  I also have a high level timeline for the project.  However, I have since removed this as I know do a pretty comprehensive project plan, which I will discuss another time.  You can download my simplified Project Charter here.

Tools Not Torture

If you are feeling tortured trying to fill out a form you’ve decided to incorporate into your methodology, you probably don’t need to form.  Throw it away!  Chances are the output you are producing using this form template is not useful to anyone as their input.  Why?  Because if it is not coming easily to you (and you know the project well) then the quality of the content is probably not helpful to others at all.  You could ask for feedback to make improvements but again, don’t get caught up in forcing yourself.  It could be that your shop has not matured enough yet to find it helpful.  Put it aside for now and reintroduce it another time.  You will know when it’s time to pick it up again because you will need a place to document the information that is required by someone in the project lifecycle.  My rule of thumb is if I create a document and it is never looked at again by anyone, then I don’t waste my time.

Documentation does not have to be Formal

You can white board a business flow, for instance, and take a picture of it with your smartphone and save it in your documentation directory with the name: Process XXX Business Flow.  Of course if you want to clean it up you can do so, but you worked on that business flow with others there who all agreed it was correct.  So if you don’t have time to formalize it, at least your work is memorialized and your process of understanding the business flow is complete.   Good for you!

The bottom line is that if you create a template that isn’t easy to implement, your organization may not be ready for it.  Little by little you can build more structure.  After a few embarrassing moments, your staff will start embracing the structure.

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