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How to Streamline Your Project Documentation

A slimming diet for your project management, or: How to reduce project documentation to a third without missing anything.

Not only inexperienced project managers tend to make the mistake of creating too much documentation. Tables nobody maintains. Reports nobody reads. Concepts that are not implemented. How can you make sure that no input field is left blank and no sentence remains unread? How can you create a slim documentation that includes only the information you really need?

The Enticing Nature of Best Practice Approaches like PRINCE2

It is tempting to blindly follow Best Practice approaches like PRINCE2, but the framework composed of processes, roles and documents should be used with some caution. Applying them to your own project without careful consideration often leads to even more bureaucracy nobody needs and profits from, and, even worse.

PRINCE2 names 26 document types. While some of them will replace each other during the course of a project this is still a large number. Hardly any project really requires this bulk of document types. But wait; do not just consider this as overcharged and useless.

A Plausible Taxonomy

The structure for documents in PRINCE2 is well-thought-out and a good basis for a more pragmatic approach. There are the three document categories in PRINCE2:

Baseline: This includes all documents of a more or less definite, or final character with an impact on the project and the form of project management. These documents form the basis of the project.

Records: Records are information containers in table form helping to structure and organize project information constantly created.

Reports: This includes all reports created during the course of a project. A report may deal with a single event or comprehensive reports on the state of a project at a specific point in time. The reports are based on the information contained in the records and offer a snapshot of these records.

Small-scale Documentation: 3 is the Magic Number

This catchy model can easily be applied to any project of any scale. It is also very helpful for work in small-size projects for which this model offers a clear hint at the minimal number of documents: 3, one document for every structural element. Each project requires a baseline, i.e. a list of goals as well as of the means of how to achieve these goals. Each project manager needs a place where he or she can store all the information gathered, be it information on the progress of a project or project events such as events, problems or change requests. Ultimately, every project needs a final report revealig if and to what extent the project manager has reached the aims defined in the baseline.

80% Need Just 9

One thing we learned when helping our clients make the most of PRINCE2 is that 9 documents is absolutely sufficient for 80% of the projects, reducing the number of PRINCE documents to a third of the original number:

  1. A project description including all information necessary to decide on the realization of a project.
  2. A project plan that defines what is to be produced and how to achieve that.
  3. A project baseline defiining all aspects of project operation.
  4. A project register documenting all important events.
  5. A risk register serving to trace all risks and related measures.
  6. A product register measuring the progress by tracing the results.
  7. An events report serving to present an event in all detail to involved parties.
  8. A status report providing an overview of the current state of the project or of a part of the project.
  9. A result report serving as proof of the successful implementation of the plan.

5 Steps to Project Documentation Without Dead Weight

The task should be clear; minimizing the amount of project management documents. The question is what is the minimum required for your specific project?

  1. Don not start with the maximum an try to reduce it. Instead, begin with the bare minimum: an empty set of documents, and ask yourself: Which documents do I really, truly need?
  2. It is not necessary to define the scope of the records and reports right at the beginning of a project.  Just begin with a basic set and go from there.
  3. When creating records, synchronize with the receiving parties in order to hand over only information they really need.
  4. Sometimes, document templates for Word, Excel or Powerpoint are not the most efficient way of editing. Think about other forms of quick and efficient work; these may even be whiteboards or pin boards.
  5. Make sure that you as the project manager are not the bottleneck. It is not your responsibility to take care of and maintain all documents by yourself. Empower and involve other team members. Clear rules and responsibilities will avoid chaos.

Project management is a serious business, but there is one thing we must not forget: It is not an end in itself. The only thing that matters is the project progress. 

Oliver Buhr is the CEO of Copargo GmbH. With 15 years of experience in project management functions , his expertise and enthusiasm, he is considered one of the best PRINCE2 trainers for medium-sized companies and cooperations in German-speaking countries. The SmartPM developed by him provides project companies with an ideal framework with the combination of the best classical and agile approaches.

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