Let’s face it, documentation isn’t the sexiest part of project management.
But while document admin can feel like a chore, reliable project documentation is critical to successful delivery. That’s because, if you get your documentation approach wrong, you risk costly re-work, stakeholder confusion and, ultimately, losing control of your project.
To find out how to avoid that, I sat down with someone who knows a thing or two about project documentation.
In his 18-year career, Jay Armstrong has overseen tightly controlled engineering projects in Australia, Canada and the UK. Alongside his programme advisory role for Turner & Townsend, Armstrong is a member of APM’s Planning, Monitoring and Control Specific Interest Group (PMC SIG), which helps APM members level up their integrated planning.
So, with Armstrong alongside me, here are three secrets to help you create and manage amazing project documentation.
#1 The three-tier structure
Especially in technical projects, documentation has a tendency to become long and detailed. And while it’s essential to have all the right information, documents with thousands of words are objectively hard to read.
Armstrong recommends a three-tier approach to creating well-structured, easy-to-read documents.
“Tier one is a document map that serves as a landing point for all readers to find what they need,” he explains. “Tier two is an executive summary or guidance note that summarises the key areas of the document – perfect for senior project stakeholders. Tier three is where all the detail lives, explaining the what, why and how of the document’s subject. This is where your project engineers, developers and analysts spend their time.
“Tiering documents in this way helps readers at all levels find what they need without having to waste their time searching through thousands of words.”
#2 Reduce barriers to access
What use is an excellent project document if no one can find it? Many project teams make their most important documentation near impossible to find, hiding it away in complex folder structures and shared drives.
If project documentation isn’t accessible, you risk project teams going rogue and implementing their own ways of working. This is especially dangerous in regulated sectors, where non-compliance leaves you open to commercial, legal and safety risks.
“The key to excellent document access is twofold,” Armstrong says. “First, it starts with using the right technology to make documents easy to find, access and manage. Whether that’s an intranet page, a project management system or a wiki, ensure the system you opt for is intuitive and has basic features such as search, filters and tagging.
“Then you need to align file types and formats. Especially in industries that use bespoke software packages, such as engineering, it’s important that everyone has the tools to open and read the documents they need. There’s nothing more frustrating than opening a project document only to find you don’t have the means to see it.”
#3 Iterate, improve and update
One of the reasons we all love working on projects is because they’re fast-paced, ever-changing environments. Keep that in mind with your project documents too, by taking a dynamic, iterative approach to document management.
Fail to do so, and you’ll quickly find your documents are outdated, leading to processes falling apart and your team feeling confused, frustrated and demotivated.
Armstrong shares some tips to avoid this: “All project documents should be viewed as iterative, continually improving artefacts that need regular management. That all begins with ownership. As a project manager, ensure each document has an owner responsible for keeping it up-to-date.
“Then, that owner has to iterate by scheduling periodic document reviews, publishing changes and communicating version control updates to stakeholders.
“During this iterative cycle, it’s important not to lose focus on value. Every addition or change must add legitimate value to the reader. If it doesn’t, you’ll quickly end up with something that looks more like War and Peace than a project document.”
When managing a well-controlled project, getting your documentation right is key to success. Fail to do so and things can quickly spiral out of control, opening you up to unnecessary risks.
But the good news is there are some easy wins to help get your project documentation under control. The real secret? Put yourself in the end user’s shoes and focus on making your project documents accessible, easy to read and packed full of value.
If you’re looking for more project documentation tips, I’d recommend reaching out to Armstrong and the team at the PMC SIG for expert advice on all things project control.