Project Management

Three tips about project management paperwork

Sometimes, even a practiced project manager gets tired of all the paperwork. Here are three tips for sorting out what's important to keep up on and maintaining an audit trail without going completely insane.

It's time I admitted something. I'm a project manager who hates paperwork. There, I said it. I hate paperwork. Work Breakdown Structures bore me to death. Earned value calculations induce almost instant narcoleptic episodes. And don't ask me over beer what I think of the absolute insanity we quaintly call “artifact generation and management”. The topic sends me into fits, especially when I'm in the middle of getting something done.


That last phrase points to the key issue. I have enough to do during the moment of execution coordinating people, process, and technology within the limits of the iron triangle. I spend all day on the phone, in people's cubes, and in one on one meetings to resolve issues. I get ahead of my team and try to knock down obstacles before they encounter them. I gather groups of people, most of whom I've never met, to make decisions on things no one really understand. That's the immediate job of project management and I like it.


However, immediate success does not translate into long term sustainability. Getting the product out the door has almost nothing to do with whether or not you know what you did, why you did it, and what you forgot to do six months down the road. This is even more true of project management than it is of coding and hacks; with a hack you have a particular solution whereas in project management all you have, really, is agreements between people about what seems important at a given moment. If we do not record those agreements they vanish when people's memory changes.


Great, more airy theory from the project whisperer. What, exactly, does hating paperwork but wanting to record the agreements we reach mean in practical terms? For me, it means three separate things:


  1. I ask my project coordinator to help me keep a project diary. We sit down at a fixed time each day and rehash the day's events. It takes thirty minutes but helps to put everything into perspective. It forces me to organize me thoughts into a coherent narrative. It retouches on the day's events, so that we both know what's going on. It also creates a historical record of what transpired, so if a question comes up later we can go hunting for it rather than trying to remember.

  2. I make sure each milestone has at least one useful supporting artifact. Not every phase, which seems to be the auditing trend, but every milestone. Every important achievement, every real gain, in project management comes as the result of painstaking negotiations. Failing to record those agreements in addition to acknowledging their success means the milestone itself becomes open to renegotiation.

  3. I go over the final agreements with my project sponsors and business users at the end of the project. These final agreements include both what we did do and what we will try to do in the next release. In many cases, the second is more important than the first. It's easy for people to see what we did do, but promises tend to get inflated as the months pass and people start to think about how great the “next thing” will become.


Time to go see what negotiations the next week will bring. I'm sure they will look just as complex as this weeks did, from the outside at least. Somehow in the moment it all makes sense.


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