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Are You Getting Your Project Documentation all Wrong?

Getting Your Project Documentation Right

When I am training Project Managers, one of the main concerns I hear is about Project documentation. No-one likes the feeling of bureaucracy. But we do know that some record-keeping is necessary. So what is the right amount of Project documentation? And what is the secret to avoiding unnecessary reports and form-filling?

Getting Project Documentation Right is all a Matter of Balance

The balance you need to strike is between:

  • Good governance, transparency, accountability, and an audit trail, on the one hand
  • Speed of execution, reduction of effort, focus on action, and efficiency, on the other

I have a simple approach, which would make a nice addition to my list of Project Management rules.

Only add documentation if it either supports good governance, or makes your job as Project Manager easier.

This is basic. As a Project Manager, you have one primary responsibility: deliver your Project within the rules your organization sets. So your Project documentation needs to support this. If it isn’t helping, then it’s just getting in your way! After all, your job is simple: to deliver Your Project. You will, therefore, want to do anything that gets you better project management results.

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Getting Your Project Documentation Right

Getting Your Project Documentation Right

The Big Question:
What’s the Absolute Minimum Project Documentation You can Get away with?

That, in a nutshell, is the question people want answering. So let me answer it…

Assuming you are doing the project for someone else (your organization or a client), then I think you must produce these five documents:

  1. Some form of project definition
  2. Some form of budget or business case
  3. Some form of plan
  4. Some form of risk register
  5. Some form of handover/sign-off document

These are spread pretty evenly across the eight essential Project Management steps.

Notice the prescriptive term ‘some form of…’

This is what allows you to scale and customise your documents to meet the needs of your Project. I am very keen to avoid dictating what form of Project Documentation you will need, because every Project is different.

So, what do I mean by ‘some form of…’ for each of these Project documents, and how do I justify their prime position? Let’s take a look at each one in turn.

Project Definition / Charter

The first document you produce needs to set out what your project is, and what it is not. It also needs to establish a broad reason why to do the project. Without this document, the sponsor has no basis to say yes or no to further, detailed research. And, once started, this is the document that tells you, your team, and your stakeholder what you are going to do – and not do.

Business Case / Budget

If your organization or your client is going to invest it’s money, its time, and its reputation, it needs to be sure this will bring sufficient rewards. A business case sets out the balance of costs and risks, against benefits and value. Nobody should make a decision that carries any risk without some analysis of the cost and the potential return. This could be anything from an outline budget plus projected payback, to a sophisticated investment appraisal. Many organizations set standards for this. If yours doesn’t, then work with your sponsor to get the level of detail and the form of presentation just right.

Project Plan / Program

For some people, the Project plan is the Project documentation. The old adage that ‘Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail’ often holds true. So, if you have a plan, why not document it?

While big Projects may use sophisticated planning tools, simple ones may only need a table of key milestones. Your plan will show your team and stakeholders what they can expect. It acts as a guide to action and also as a basis for monitoring.

Risk Register

You’re spending someone else’s money. And you are putting their reputation at hazard. Therefore, you need to demonstrate that you are managing the associated risks. Your risk register is probably your most important Project Documentation. It acts as a document of record and most of all, as a management tool. At its simplest, it can be a list in your notebook, but for most Projects, you’ll probably choose a spreadsheet.

Handover / Sign-off

Finally, once your project is completed, you need to hand its products over to their new owners or managers. Simple Project documentation that records and formalises this. This will be your evidence that you have done the bulk of your job (prior to closing down your project) properly.

If those are the Minimum, What else is Important?

Our various courses come packaged with a wide variety of Project documentation templates to help our students get started fast. So far, I have listed the Project documentation that is most relevant to all projects. In addition to these, you have a vast menu of other tools that can help you both deliver your project and also remain fully accountable.

Once I have those in place, what would be my next priorities? They would almost certainly be these next five…

Stakeholder Engagement Plan

A simple document to record who my stakeholders are, and how I plan to engage with them in a positive way.

Resourcing Plan

This will be more than just a deployment plan. It will describe what resources I need, their necessary qualities (or specifications), and how I plan to acquire them.

Deliverables List

For me personally, this is probably my favourite piece of Project documentation. A list of deliverables lets me tick off each one, as it is produced. You can also use this to associate quality standards, specifications, delivery deadlines, responsible people, owners, and a dozen other things. A deliverables list could the basis of your Project plan, above.

Status Reports

Once you project is underway, people need to know how you are doing. This is important for good governance – oversight and decision-making. It is also a key part of creating transparency and an audit trail. And finally, it is a means of communicating with team members and stakeholder.

Lessons Learned Review

As a Project Manager, you have a responsibility to your team members. And one part of that is to help them learn and develop as professionals. Consequently, take time to review what the team has learned together, and document it. This is not so much for the benefit of the organization, as it is for the team members themselves. Often, this will be the last piece of Project documentation you will produce for a particular Project.

What do You Think?


What do you consider the most important forms of Project documentation? Let us know in the comments section below.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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