This expands upon points introduced in a post July 2, 2010 at jimmillikenproject.blogspot.com
“I got all these files when I took over from Jim. I threw them away.”
Didn't use ‘em. Didn't even read ‘em. Why bother? Files don't run projects – managers do. And therein lies the essential reason why so many projects come in late, over budget and short of expectations. Projects fail because they are expected to fail, and so they are managed accordingly.
The “files” that got such short shrift were not just paperwork. They were the names of contacts and records of preparations and developments. They were practical history, the foundation for key possibilities in the following phase of the project. Their loss necessitated the re-invention of several wheels, which was fine because that's the only way the successor project manager knew how to do business. While he may have been an extreme case, the attitude tends to flavor some organizations' approaches to projects.
Yet, most project hassles and project shortfalls are avoidable. As a first step, the leader must banish the idea that the seat of the pants is the intelligence department of project management.
That popular concept substitutes shoulder-shrugging for forecasting, and perpetual motion for reality checks. As a result, things can get messy, reinventing the same wheel as last time – including the same missing spokes. There are meetings, proposals, memos, deadlines, reports, recriminations, all in a confusing flurry. It's hard, because everybody has plenty of other work to do, and this project by no means was a priority to begin with.
When all that is allowed to become the way of life, there develops an oh-no-not-again syndrome, sapping energy, optimism – and engagement. Throughout the organization, the term “project” comes to mean a disappointing waste of time, a punishment tour to predetermined failure.
Any project takes a lot longer than it was supposed to, and it may cost more than budgeted – although that frequently is not too clear because no one really kept track. In fact, the actual story of the entire enterprise is obscured because there is no real record of any of it.
The lack of proper documentation is a companion symptom of the damn-the-torpedoes workstyle. And it's based on a false choice. People, including many project managers, operate on the basic premise that your two options are to fly blind or to waste time developing documentation that everyone ignores.
The answer is minimum adequate documentation, created through proper preparation and maintained in a solid project communication plan. Simple, straightforward formats capture the goals, action plans (including risk management), individual assignments, completion criteria, variance management and reporting of every part of the project.
Everything is accounted for with no waste of words. And there's a name, a deadline and completion criteria tied to every action plan.
The project manager coordinates preparation of the major documents, supervises production of the others and maintains the complete set as the plan and the ongoing tracking instrument. The formats are minimally time-consuming to prepare and update, and they are crystal clear in establishing responsibilities and tracking progress, problems and solutions.
No one is unduly burdened in handling their documentation duties, nor distracted from their other project work. But no variance slips into the project without being quickly detected, and the process is designed to record corrective action, outcome and resource adjustments as easily as it reveals the slippage to start with.
Besides resulting in a crisply managed project, minimum adequate documentation imprints the learning process for the participants and creates the institutional memory of the organization.
Minimum adequate documentation demands knowledgeable, disciplined design work. It requires sound, competent delegation. It creates great clarity in project operations. It tasks the project manager, not with filling out paperwork or chasing nonperforming team members, but mainly with leadership actions such as directing, communicating and problem-solving.
The project manager and team don't have to reinvent the wheel. All they have to do is tune the process control cycle.