Why documentation could save your project (or even your business)

Ah! Documentation! It’s everybody’s least favourite activity. We all like to be creative, whether you’re a web designer creating great sites, a writer penning brilliant copy, or even a consultant electrifying the room with your ideas and wisdom. And that’s fine, that is the most exciting and satisfying part of a project, it’s what keeps us doing the things we do (that and money of course). But without documentation, boring old documentation, we’re all heading for a fall.

But what do we mean by documentation? That’s a good question. Documentation takes many forms, from invoices to functional specifications, creative briefs to project timelines – and they’re all important. Documentation is the backbone of any project for two crucial reasons:

1. It sets the limits on a project

When you come out of a creative session, or a briefing, your head is usually buzzing with ideas. As is the clients. At this point in the project, the end product is rather nebulous and probably looks different in your head than it does in theirs. Good documentation helps you to distil this creativity into a deliverable. By taking a step away from the creativity for a moment, you can clearly define what you will deliver – be it 300 words or a website design – in terms that are unequivocal. It should also define how you will deal with changes, which we all know and accept are part of the process. How many rounds of amends will you allow; are they free or paid? And finally, having set out the deliverables, it should also say when you will be paid – be it 100% on completion , 100% after the initial delivery, or 50% up front and 50% on delivery. You must set the terms of engagement, so that the limits are clear, both positively (what you will do) and negatively (what you won’t do). By doing this, the client understands what they are getting and if they overstep the limits, you have the power to push back or charge more.

2. It sets expectations

So you’ve set the limits on the project and the client knows exactly what they are getting. The next step is to set expectations. Expectations are different from limits. Limits define the deliverables for a project, whilst expectations set the times and costs. A good documentation set will tell the client when you will deliver and how much it will cost them. It allows you to set out your terms, and the client to benchmark your demands in an open and transparent manner. For me, in my career in digital agencies, setting expectations has always been the key to a good client relationship. By being honest about costs and times, you can create trust, and trust will get you a long way. Setting expectations means you can beat them, and meet them. Conversely, it empowers your client and makes them feel in control. It also stops you from being hassled when you need to work (”is it ready yet?”) and buys you time to do a good job.

If you don’t provide documentation around a project, you’re opening yourself up to risk, and as a freelancer risk is the one thing you don’t want. In big companies, if a project starts to wander off-course, they can throw additional resource or budget at it without causing too much of a dent in the bottom line – I’ve seen it happen. For you, that’s just not possible, or it might be, but at your expense – you’re either going to be putting in a lot of long days and late nights, or reaching into your bank account to pay people to help you. It’s in your interest to stop this from happening and it’s here, in the dark times, that documentation is your friend.

So next time you start a project, for a new client or an existing one, make sure you’ve got your documentation in order. It’s boring, yes, but one day it might just save your project, or your business.

In the next post, I’ll look at some of the key document you should use to control your projects – from briefs to project plans.

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2 thoughts on “Why documentation could save your project (or even your business)

  1. PM Hut (@pmhut) September 29, 2014 / 6:04 pm

    Hi James,

    Technically, documentation means something else in project management (see: http://www.pmhut.com/the-importance-of-documentation-in-project-management ). In your context, I think it means the project charter.

    Nevertheless, I think this a good post and I would really love to republish it on PM Hut where many project managers will benefit from it. Please either email me or contact me through the contact us form on the PM Hut site in case you’re OK with this.

  2. James Gardner September 29, 2014 / 7:44 pm

    PM Hut – I’ve emailed you. Happy for you to re-post, but please provide the appropriate attribution. Thanks!

    Hope your readers enjoy the article – there’s a follow up coming up later in the week which looks in more detail at five of the most important documents for a software development project.

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