Can you please send me the Templates?

How often have I heard this question which hurts me every time I hear it, and with good reason.

Despite there being advantages to creating project related documents from a template there are also some major disadvantages in doing so.

On the one hand, a template gets you started easily and helps you create a document for your project based on what many have experienced before as being a good content for that document.

And that is fine, as long as you don't stick to the template to the letter and fill it out without thinking why the document is needed, how it will be read and by whom and what it should really contain.

I have seen too many project managers in the past reusing "templates" of documents without (re)considering what that document was actually about and it gave them a false sense of understanding the method they were trying to apply.

Creating a document is a bit of an art. It needs care and understanding of your audience.

A new document should be crafted with the reader in mind.

It is very likely that the recipient of your document will have little time to read the document in detail and will jump to quick conclusions and make snap decisions based on the information they have filtered from the document.

Focus on the information

Ultimately, any document is irrelevant and has no value but the information it contains.

Whatever the shape or form of your document, be it a Word document, an Excel sheet, a Powerpoint presentation, a website, a blog entry, a form in a Sharepoint environment, a Gantt chart or a Pert diagram, it will only communicate the information well if it is suited to its intended recipients.

It is information that help people make decisions not documents. 

Adapt to circumstances

Every business is different, every company or institution has different information needs.

Some have requirements led by legal or compliance obligations. Others need to right level of detail of information to make the right decision at the right time.

Don't overkill in documentation, focus on what is strictly necessary to the specific circumstances of the project. Do no less nor more that what will help.

Use as a memory jogger

Most of the time, in smaller organisations, decisions can be made on the spot following a short discussion. And that is fine. There is no need to elaborate any further in lengthy documents to support what has been decided.

However, it is good to make a simple note confirming the decision and why it was made the way it was.

Why? Simply as a memory jogger.

I can guarantee that six months down the line, both parties who have agreed and committed to that decision will have different interpretations on why the decision was made and even in some cases what the decision actually was. Without any malice on either side I want to add. Simply because memory fades over time, in particular due to the amount of micro decisions which will be made over time.

Having a written confirmation of the agreement will enable both party to remind themselves of what was in fact decided. If needed at that moment in time, nothing stops both parties to review the decision and correct or modify it if the current circumstances require to do so.

Then confirm that in writing, if only as an email or in your project documentation system.

That way you can keep track of what we have agreed upon and move on accordingly.

It's all about communication

Projects succeed because of the clarity of communication and the decisions that are enabled by it.

Communication is key and the right level of documentation will support projects and programmes in achieving their goals.

Consider how you will communicate to your stakeholders from the very beginning. Analyse who they are and what information need they require. Determine which level of detail and which format suit each of them best. Record what is needed for whom and when and adapt when necessary.

If you follow your communication approach you will improve the performance of decision making in your projects. It is worth taking the time going through this analysis and I can guarantee that doing the economy of it will not serve you well.

Get started on the right foot

Define a small set of basic documents to help you with the information flow of your project.

Keep it as simple as you possibly can.

The more documents you create, the more you will have to manage and maintain.

Put a simple system in place on which all involved can agree and commit to keep the set of documents updated. And stick to it until there is a need to improve.

If you have an existing documentation system in place, use that. Do not reinvent the wheel. There are better things to do with your precious time.

Enjoy driving, piloting, creating your project over managing documentation.

Only the creation of new products and/or services will enable you and your team to make an impact on your organisation or for your client.

John Higham

John helps organisations blend Best Practices in their management systems to improve the way Portfolio of Change Initiatives are run.