Here’s a fun fact: October 17th is Spreadsheet Day.
First celebrated in 2010, it’s a day meant to commemorate the all-powerful spreadsheet. Love or hate them, there’s no denying the impact it’s had on the way we work.
In 1979, Dan Harvard Business School student Dan Bricklin created it because according to Business Insider, he “wanted to see his calculator come to life.”
So…why are we talking about spreadsheets? Because for the longest time, it was the most convenient way for us to get all sorts of project-related work done — from crunching budget numbers to building roadmaps, tracking progress and measuring ROI.
But even though spreadsheets are convenient, they’re not the most productive way to capture all your project documentation needs. Researchers found that only a third of company spreadsheets were error-free (and some of these mistakes cost companies a lot of money).
The good news is, project documentation has evolved into a mature business necessity with the help of new tools and methodologies.
In this article, we break down what it means to have great project documentation and how you can go beyond spreadsheets to create documentation that isn’t going to be left unread.
What is project documentation?
Project documentation is a term used to describe the process of capturing useful and necessary information to execute a project correctly.
Great project documentation is well organized, often broken up into different content buckets and formats to help teams visualize the timelines, action items, risks, resources and… all that fun stuff.
The Tactical Project Manager blog describes project documentation as the first thing you think about when a new project is assigned.
It also likens the role of project documentation to a paint-by-number kit — it gives you direction to accomplish an outcome you otherwise would not have been able to do with the same quality.
“And even painting a Mona Lisa becomes achievable when all you have to do is fill out a pattern,” the article says.
So roll up your sleeves, my fellow Da Vincis!
The right documents might not solve all your problems, but they’ll keep you and your team aligned on your success benchmarks and the steps you need to take to get there.
What are the benefits of project documentation?
Some say project documentation is a “nice to have.” There are a few reasons why it’s way more important than you might think.
- Project managers today have too heavy a workload: PMI’s 2021 Talent Gap reports that to meet global demand, 2.3 million new project management employees will be needed each year. Almost 60 percent of project managers today run two to five projects at a time.
- Employees are burnt out: 63 percent of employees feel like they aren’t doing their best work. Burnout and dissatisfaction follow the stress of excessive notifications, unclear communication and not understanding their assigned tasks.
- Workplace productivity is easily lost to inefficient communication: Teams spend 129 hours in unnecessary meetings. Imagine how much time you could save if teams are aligned on projects right from the get-go with thorough documentation.
A perfect example of documentation as a priority is in GitLab’s company culture.
GitLab has been remote since day one, with employees in over 60 countries. Darren Murph, GitLab’s Head of Remote, tells Slab that documentation “has to be the heartbeat of where work happens.”
He even goes as far as to say that the skill of writing documentation well has become an essential business skill in a post-COVID world.
Here’s why great documentation is the heartbeat of your projects, too:
1. Streamlines and standardizes fragmented information
In a work environment where over 40 percent are distracted by never-ending notifications and pings, you’re likely to find different interpretations of the same message. Don’t expect your employees to grasp a project through memory — that’s not fair to you or them.
Project documentation empowers team members to:
- Work toward shared goals.
- Take ownership of tasks.
- Stay accountable for their own and the group’s responsibilities.
2. Aligns team motivations
Project documentation lets teams see how their skills and expertise contribute to broader goals. It gives employees clarity on the mission they’re working toward and the insight to carry out their responsibilities at the highest quality.
Documentation also makes it easier for teams to keep each other in the loop and acknowledge successes. As a project manager, you can recognize contributors for their efforts (and actually know who did what)!
3. Creates a strong work ethic
One of the biggest benefits of project documentation is creating an organized and well-prepared work culture.
A study by Asana in 2021 found that inefficient processes cost teams over 250 hours of wasted time. That’s a lot, to say the least.
You lose time to unnecessary mistakes and unproductive discussions when teams don’t. know. what. to. no. Not to mention who to communicate with and how to get tasks done accurately.
4. Builds trust between colleagues
Miscommunication makes it harder for teams to trust each other.
With your project documentation as a single source of truth, you’re creating an environment where team members are less likely to push responsibility around and point fingers.
It gives your project a framework that lets teams openly communicate strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and common expectations for colleagues and decision-makers.
Types of project documentation you can use
So…what’s the right project documentation for your team?
Well, that depends on each stage of the project management process and the information you’ll need.
We suggest you use a clear project management framework to break your tasks into stages, compile all your content and map it to suitable project documentation formats.
Project Management Institute’s (PMI) five project management phases are an excellent place to start!
We’ve listed down a few examples of project documentation you can use for each phase:
Phase 1: Initiate the project
Before any project takes off the ground, it goes through a review and approval process led by a proposal. This document shows decision-makers the impact a project can have on the organization and why it’s worth their investment. Your project proposal should include information, like:
- An executive summary.
- A project background that explains the problem you’re trying to solve.
- How you’re planning to solve the problem with your project (e.g., your project schedule, milestones, how you’ll track success and avoid risk)
- Project goals and deliverables.
- Proposed budget.
This document formally validates the project’s existence to stakeholders and aligns expectations on resources and investments required. Your document should focus on high-level details like:
- Project objectives.
- How success will be measured.
- Project schedule and milestones.
- Process for approving project deliverables and success.
- Conditions for canceling the project or parts of it.
- Details of the person signing off on the project charter.
Phase 2: Planning your project
Defines a project’s vision, strategy, milestones and progress throughout its whole life cycle.
This document is a living, breathing document that is consistently updated to keep everyone on the same page as the project goes through different phases. Examples of roadmaps include:
- Timeline-based roadmaps (e.g. Gantt charts) like this example from Roadmunk.
- Agile roadmaps (e.g. Kanban boards) like this example from Miro.
Risk management document
Helps teams identify potential risks, calculate the likeliness of risks occurring, evaluate risk impact and describe solutions.
Your risk management documents can be spreadsheets to tabulate data and a matrix for assigning and comparing different risk levels.
Here’s an example from Smartsheet of a risk management plan.
Software and process tutorials
A crucial part of your planning process is documenting how to do tasks and use technology tools throughout your project.
You should embed these guides throughout your documentation so they’re easy to find. For example, you can embed Scribe tutorials in your roadmap to centralize SOPs and introduce your team to cool hacks that help get things done.
Scribe is a step-by-step guide generator that turns your work into visual instructions — fast! Just turn on the extension and run through your process. Scribe creates your doc in seconds.
Phase 3: Executing your project
Once you’ve started executing your project, you need a way to keep up consistent progress and see any potential blocks.
Your status reports should move with your roadmap, detailing information like:
- Completed work.
- Upcoming work.
… and more!
Phase 4: Performance control
With your team members nose deep in their tasks, you must keep track of resources like team bandwidth, budget, and time spent.
Besides managing cash flow, you can use documentation to keep track of the tasks each team member handles to better distribute work and avoid burnout.
Phase 5: Closing the project
Teams use this document to evaluate:
- What went well.
- What could have been done better.
- What learnings and experiences you gained.
This document is flexible — so structure it into a format that’s most productive for your team to use again and again.
How to create your project documentation
Here’s the biggest problem with project documentation.
Nobody ever wants to read it.
To avoid this problem, you want to start by creating concise, reader-friendly and practical documentation.
Nobody wants to read through a 10-page PDF just to find a one-line answer for their quick question.
Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you structure and write your project documentation:
What information is most important for your audience?
Project documentation can be very extensive, so you want to make sure it's structured correctly.
What does it mean to have a good structure? Here’s a tip: organize your important points as though your reader only has 30 seconds to get what you really want to say.
Today, distractions are rampant in workspaces, with employees bombarded with more notifications and fragmented business apps than ever before.
You want to optimize your documents to lead with value right away.
You can use the Reforge Executive Summary as a framework for structuring your project documentation.
Although you’re not exactly writing an executive summary, you have the same intent — cover everything important, and motivate your reader to take the next step.
There are three things this framework helps you focus on:
- Your audience: How does your document connect to the roles and responsibilities of everyone reading it?
- Their intent: What action do you want your audience to take after reading this document? What information isn’t necessary at all to motivate this action?
- The message they’re leaving with: What examples or support can you provide to help them follow through with your ask?
How will you present your information?
Depending on your audience, you have the freedom to fit your content into a compelling format that’s easy to engage with.
You can use different tools to arrange your information into intuitive project documentation templates that are easier to refer to.
- Teamwork: Create project calendars, roadmaps, and role-specific tasks with task management features, including Gantt Charts and Task Lists.
- Wrike: Calculate your resource expenditure and generate reports outlining success metrics.
- Scribe: Capture workflows on your desktop to create instant visual step-by-step guides on any process.
- Prospero: Create stunning proposals with a template library, drag-and-drop editor, and embeddable multimedia elements.
- Airtable: Build comprehensive project database views to easily display information and navigate data with customizable views and filters.
What can you do to make your content easy to digest?
Once you’ve gathered all the information you want to document, it’s time to condense your content into clear and actionable sentences.
Writing is hard, especially when you think you’re writing about something very important. You often end up dumping long paragraphs and windy explanations that serve you more than anyone else.
The truth is, your team members most likely only care about their respective tasks and how it impacts their KPIs. You want to optimize your documentation to what’s actually relevant.
Julian Shapiro’s writing handbook states that writers must achieve a few goals when rewriting first drafts into something presentable. Two of these goals are also useful as you optimize your documentation into something more reader-friendly:
- Be understood: Use simple sentences, remove abstract phases, and provide examples.
- Be concise: Have a purpose for everything you write, remove unnecessary detail and try rewriting sections from scratch based on memory (this helps you jump right into the most important points without the fluff).
Here’s an example of project documentation you want to avoid because it doesn’t work toward the above goals.
This resource forces readers to read through a dense wall of text. It has no visuals and no other support like find buttons or info panels.
You could make this a lot easier for your team members to follow if you include a visual walkthrough of the process, with screenshots and annotations.
We’ve got you. Project managers use Scribe to document process workflows by simply capturing their screen — creating visual manuals with short instructions that you can edit for more clarity.
How will your team members find your documentation?
Great executors tend to be masters at keeping their ideas organized.
In the book “Where Good Ideas Come From,” author Steven Johnson likens this process to scholars in the Enlightenment era keeping a “commonplace book” to highlight their most exciting readings.
Similarly, great project managers are experts at organizing their documentation so team members and stakeholders can easily refer to codified best practices that best guarantee success.
So, what does a “commonplace book” for project documentation look like?
Create a hub that your team can easily navigate to find information related to their assigned tasks. You can arrange this hub in a few different ways:
1. A project wiki that links to all your documents.
2. A database of project resources and brief descriptions.
3. A folder-based structure that divides documentation up by departments and functions
An interactive resource page with visual walkthroughs of tools and processes used in your project.
What is project documentation: keep the great work coming!
The best thing you can do for your team is to support them with a consistent and scalable approach to project documentation.
This means that no matter how large the project or how many moving parts there are, you’ll have a framework to keep your work intentional, productive and relevant.
Here are a few project documentation best practices we want you to leave this blog with (hint: you can try creating a free Scribe account to put these into practice):
- Meaningful production: Create documentation with your audience in mind, not to check off a box.
- Smart distribution: Use tools that reduce your workload by streamlining information, integrating with business apps, and simplifying sharing.
- Easy maintenance: Find ways to minimize your efforts to keep information and tutorials up-to-date.