I picked up a project from someone else not that long ago and I was three months into my management of it before I realised there wasn’t a project charter. There were lots of other documents that all had a degree of overlap with a charter, but not an actual charter. That meant there were some key things missing from the project’s paperwork and the most important thing missing was who was going to pay for it. Oops.
That was a bit of a headache to sort out.
Project management can create a lot of paperwork, and it’s not always the stuff you want or need. Let’s talk about the essentials. Here are nine documents that no self-respecting project should be without. Where I have them, I’ve given you links to free templates as well to save you time writing these from scratch.
1. The Business Case
This is the document that kicks off the whole project. It’s written to explain why the project should happen and it summarises the problem that the project is going to solve. It should be comprehensive and persuasive with enough detail to justify the investment required for the project.
2. The Statement of Work
If you’re working with a third party, they will produce this for you. If not, you can write it yourself: it’s just a narrative description of what the project is going to deliver. It coves tangible deliverables as well as services and can go down to quite a low level of detail.
Not quite the same but it will get you some of the way: get a Terms of Reference document template here.
3. The Project Charter
You need this – it gives you the authority to act as project manager for the project. It’s your mandate to run the project and it’s the document that turns the project from an idea into an actual program of work, with allocated owners (and agreement on funding). Without it, your project doesn’t formally exist!
4. The Project Management Plan
This is a huge document. In fact, it’s probably not one document. I always manage it as separate documents but together they form ‘The Plan’.
It covers everything you need to know and do to manage the project including things like managing project tolerances, variances, the change control approach, how you’ll assess quality and so on. It should also include:
- The scope baseline
- The schedule baseline
- The cost baseline
- A work breakdown structure.
I don’t always do a work breakdown structure. Partly because I don’t think like that – diagrams do nothing for me and I prefer creating a detailed task list. But also partly because I don’t feel that many of my smaller projects don’t need one (shocker! Yes, you can tailor your project documentation to suit your project and drop the ones you don’t need to create!).
I use an action log to keep track of all the project team’s actions. When someone says they will do something I add it to the action log. I copy across the actions from minutes and emails too. It’s different from a To Do list as that only covers my personal actions. The action log covers the tasks for the whole team. I can filter it by team member too so I can chase them when I call them.
6. Risk Register
Like the action log, it pays to have a register of risks so you can keep track of everything. It’s easier to create than you’d expect as you only really need a few important fields:
- ID, so you know which one you’re talking about when you discuss risks with your team
- Risk name
- Risk description
- Impact on the project (normally a number or ‘high/medium/low’)
- Probability of occurrence (another number or ‘high/medium/low’)
- Owner – don’t forget this or no one will take responsibility for doing anything about it.
7. Status Reports
OK, these are a collection of documents rather than a single document. But they are really important because they’re the mechanism you use to get information to your stakeholders on a regular basis. They are the formal written record of progress. And if they are any good, your stakeholders should take action as a result of reading them.
If you need a hand with creating better project status reports, get my ebook and course about project reporting here.
Your project budget is a different sort of document – less text, more numbers. However, it helps to have a text-y document to go with the calculations that sets out information about contracts, procurement and the financial processes you’re expected to follow. It can be a real challenge to get invoices paid so once you’ve found out how, make a note so you save yourself time next month!
9. The Lessons Learned Review
Lessons learned documents might not actually be documents. You could store your lessons learned in a database or wiki, or some other searchable format. I still produce formal end of project lessons learned documents though, and then copy the key lessons into any other system that requires them.
This document forms part of your project closure work and it’s only helpful if you share it with the people on this team so they’ve got something that codifies the lessons they learned while working with you. Equally, it should be shared with other project managers or they won’t benefit.
Less admin means more time leading your team and doing the work on the project, which is more important than producing onerous paperwork. Stick with these nine documents you’ll be able to control your project without too much bureaucracy.