What is project documentation, and why do it?

What is project documentation, and why do it?
When your business focuses on efficiency, cost minimization, and speed-to-market, creating lots of documentation can seem counterproductive. If the documentation doesn't directly support a deliverable, why do it?

Project documentation covers documents created during and for the project itself. Examples include the overall project vision, the project plans, the schedule, and the risk analysis. The documentation process has a deeper purpose than merely creating piles of paper.

  • Documentation stimulates and structures critical thinking in planning the project's goals, risks, and constraints. The document is the evidence and chronicle of this critical thinking.
  • It provides memory containers for managing a level of detail that cannot be kept in people's heads. This includes the small details easily overlooked during day-to-day project work, as well as the larger things easily remembered today, but potentially lost or forgotten due to the passage of time or critical personnel changes.
  • It keeps the team and other stakeholders synced up and informed about project changes, issues, and progress.

In many projects, the documentation is often done late, done poorly, or not done at all—usually because the documentation is perceived as having little or no value. And, in fact, this is true if the documents are created as an afterthought or a necessary evil. Even documents with adequate content will lose value if they are created at the wrong time during the project, or aren't used in the project management process. Here are some examples:

  • Timing: If the project documentation is created at the wrong project stage, it may have little or no value, even if its content is quite good. Examples: a vision document created late in the project; a detailed schedule created before the stakeholders have agreed on an overall project vision.
  • Use: If the plan, vision, or risk analysis documents are created and then rarely or never referenced, they will likely have little or no value except for generating some initial critical thinking during their creation. Examples: a risk analysis that isn't referenced to measure progress on mitigations, or updated with newly discovered risks as they occur; a requirements document that isn't referenced later as a design completeness checklist.
  • Content: Inadequate or incomplete content decreases a document's value, even if it is created on time and used correctly. Examples: a status report for product development that doesn't track the product costs; a risk analysis that doesn't include risk mitigations.

A key reason for documenting is to reduce the risks in the project. The level of detail in even the simplest project is simply too great for the human brain to capture, remember, and manage. Properly done, project documentation is a dynamic, animated extension of the brains of the stakeholders. It allows us to focus our limited mental processing and decision making on different areas of the project at different times, without having to keep the entire detailed state of the project in our heads.











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