Project Documentation: A Complete Guide

May 14, 2024
6 minute read

Project documentation is an often overlooked aspect of project management, yet it can be one of the most satisfying pillars of a project’s success. Without it, teams can lose sight of the end goal, which can lead to catastrophic results.

In this article, we examine how project documentation impacts success, explore some of the most common documents that occur in projects, and outline tips and tricks for ensuring that project documentation adds value to your projects.

What is Project Documentation?

Project documentation refers to a wide umbrella of resources that outline the ins and outs of a project. These are created within a project’s life cycle to capture relevant information like processes, technical specifications, tasks, issues, schedules, and budgets.

Because there can be many stakeholders and other moving parts involved, many documents serve different purposes so teams can stay organized, track progress, and optimize effort.

Effective project documentation satisfies the following conditions:

  • They must be organized and easy to access for all stakeholders,
  • They must be digestible or easy for their intended audience to understand,
  • Most importantly, it must be relevant and kept up-to-date in order to be informative.

Why is Project Documentation Important?

Documentation is often an overlooked activity in projects, but we cannot emphasize its importance to any project's success. Here are some of the benefits of ensuring the effectiveness of your documentation:

Project documentation aids in alignment

One fundamental way to maximize effort is to ensure that everyone on the team moves in the same direction toward a common goal. Processes, technical specifications, and design documents help establish standards for your team to follow for a smoother workflow and accurate delivery.

Project documentation informs and speeds up decision-making

Project documentation ensures your team has the information they need to do their best work. This makes it easier for them to make decisions and to work on tasks confidently. Having resources for planning, allocating, and monitoring progress also helps project managers better account for risks that may slow down the project.

Project documentation improves continuity

Effective project documentation allows teams to preserve valuable knowledge, skills, and insights essential to executing a project. This is especially important in events where certain team members might not be available, whether temporarily or permanently. It also allows new team members to get up to speed on the work easily, a sign of effective knowledge transfer. When you can protect against the bus effect, your project’s chances of success shoot up exponentially.


5 Essential Project Documents

Depending on the nature and scope of your project, you might require different sets of documents. In this section, we outline some of the essential documents found in a wide variety of project types. These are categorized into the various phases of the project life cycle: initiation, planning, execution, monitoring, and closure.

Project Initiation

The initiation stage of a project revolves around defining the purpose and the feasibility of a project, as well as bringing together stakeholders to determine responsibilities for a project’s success.

  • Project Charter. A project charter outlines high-level details about a project and aims to get it approved. Others might call this the statement of work or a quote.
  • Marketing Plan. A marketing plan outlines a company’s strategy for launching and promoting a given product or service. This includes identifying the target market and competitors and the activities, budget, and expectations for a campaign to succeed. In other industries, this also serves as the business case document.

Project Planning

The project planning stage fleshes out the approved project proposal in more detail—objectives are more clearly defined, resources are allocated, schedules are laid out, and various pipelines are established to determine how the final output will be achieved and delivered.

  • Work Breakdown Structure. A work breakdown structure is a detailed look into a project's deliverables and tasks. Work is broken down into manageable chunks, and relationships are drawn to show how the work contributes to the final output.
  • Project Timeline. A project timeline is a visual overview of a project’s deliverables, presented in chronological order or from start to finish. It provides stakeholders with visibility on key milestones, individual tasks, delivery dates, and dependencies between tasks.
  • Budget Plan. A budget plan outlines how finances are allocated towards other resources, such as equipment, manpower, and events. It also determines how a project expects to generate revenue from various sources and forecasting returns.

Project Execution

Project execution involves implementing plans. In this stage, tasks are completed to meet specifications or standards. Teams constantly coordinate work with one another and track progress to make informed improvements to performance.

  • Task Lists serve as the team’s reference for ongoing work. This involves monitoring the status of tasks and allowing teams to break down work into more detail as decisions change or new information emerges. Various project management tools are fundamentally task lists, with features added to aid monitoring, coordinating, and the like.
  • Timesheets. A timesheet records the time team members spend on any given task. It works in tandem with the task list to monitor where manpower is being utilized and can also be used to review resource allocations and balance workload.
  • Lessons Learned. A lessons-learned document is a tool for teams to share their experiences on a project, identifying strengths to capitalize on or weaknesses that need to be addressed, whether that involves the output, the process, or the team members themselves.

Project Monitoring

Monitoring coincides with project execution and requires the team to evaluate performance continuously. Issues are then corrected to keep the project on track.

  • Project Status Report. A project status report is designed to help stakeholders who don’t mainly work on the project understand its current state. It outlines progress and issues on deliverables, among other important information that might require other stakeholders’ input.

Timesheets and Lessons Learned documents also present uses in the monitoring stage.

Project Closure

Closure is the project's final phase and involves finalizing deliveries and documentation before releasing resources to be utilized elsewhere. A final round of evaluation is also conducted here to synthesize lessons learned and reduce repeat mistakes on future projects.

  • Turnover Checklist. A turnover checklist, and in some places a punch list, verifies that required output has been delivered to a client. This document serves as a way to approve whether the project has been delivered based on the standards and specifications set.
  • Post-mortem. A post-mortem is an evaluation tool created at the end of a project. Similar to a Lessons Learned document, it is meant to synthesize learnings based on experiences within the project. Its unique feature is focusing on the final outcomes and their root causes.

Project Documentation Best Practices

Now that we’ve gotten acquainted with some of the essential project documents you need, here are some tips and techniques for creating effective documentation.

1. Optimize for accessibility

Your documentation is useless if it doesn’t reach the right people. For starters, you want to store it in a single location. Your team can then rely on that single address to locate any relevant documentation. You can further organize within this folder however makes the most sense for your project, such as by document type, by department, or by project phase.

2. Use descriptive file names

This mainly applies to digital files—there are virtually no limits to how descriptive you can be with document titles. This lets your team members immediately understand a certain document's purpose. This also makes your documents easier to search for, especially when you can use good keywords to name your files.

3. Create a web

Establishing a “single source of truth” is a great way to structure your documentation—if certain information needs to be present in two documents, consider linking to the original instance where this information is located. This is especially effective when working with process documentation or SOP. You can also do this within individual documents by linking to previous or later sections instead of having to write down information twice. This also gives the added benefit of not having to maintain two different sources and further aids in keeping your team aligned on information critical to the project.

4. Make it collaborative

A common pitfall in project management documentation is expecting a small handful of team members to maintain them. Because project documentation is intended to capture the entire team's expertise, it would make sense to share this responsibility with everyone. This is especially helpful in highly technical projects, as the experts can best document the knowledge to make it easy to turn over to juniors or to newly assigned teammates.

5. Keep it simple and keep it updated

Documentation should resonate with your team—coupled with collaboration, it’s important to write in a language that’s easy for your team to understand so that they can act on the information as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you risk defeating the purpose when team members have to interrupt other members anyway to clarify doubts.

It’s also worth revisiting documentation regularly to check for outdated information. This ensures that your team is making decisions that are timely and relevant to the project's current state.

6. Create templates

Templates are a great way to speed up your documentation processes—if the nature of your work involves an established pipeline, being able to set up and roll out documentation quickly allows your team to focus more time on sharing and applying knowledge instead of figuring out the best way to structure information in the document. Many project management documentation tools come pre-equipped with ways to generate templates from existing documents, which you can do after observing patterns in the work. Progress trackers, turnover checklists, and meeting minutes are great candidates for creating project management documentation templates.

You also want to consider looking for project documentation software that supports these practices for best results. In applying these tips, documentation can take off a considerable amount of mental load on your team, allowing them to put their best effort into the actual project.

Manage Documentation & Optimize Your Team with Workamajig

Effective project documentation ensures that your team is aware of its responsibilities in relation to the larger goals of a project or campaign. This cascades into optimal resource allocations, quick and informed decision-making, and continuity across changes in team composition or project scope.

With Workamajig, the premier agency management software, you have an all-in-one solution for planning, organizing, and delegating these efforts and easily transitioning between the phases of every project. Easily adjust your schedule or modify task requirements and assignees to ensure efficiency, and use native reporting tools to measure your progress and identify and address roadblocks along the way.

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