Today, I’m going to talk about a resource most of us don’t have the opportunity to utilize often enough. The project assistant, a combination secretary, record-keeper, and general project minder who is probably not a project manager himself but who by dent of effort knows as much as any of us about what is going on. He attends all of the meetings, witnesses most of the key decisions, and records it all for future use.

It’s easy to overlook this resource or treat him as if he were less important than he really is. The fact that a good project assistant knows how to keep his mouth shut, his ears open, and to fill out forms at the speed of light doesn’t help. Project managers are busy folks; I know I myself tend to just feel relief that the paperwork landslide lightens up a bit and not worry about how to really get the most I can out of the project assistant.

To start with, a project assistant is neither a departmental assistant nor a personal assistant to the project manager. His focus is on building and maintaining the project’s archives, not absorbing all of the minor tasks which keep the project manager busy during the day. This focus has the pleasant side effect of removing the need for the project manager to take minutes, but does not remove our responsibility to help construct the action item lists and clarify information before it becomes part of the permanent record. The assistant may also hold responsibility for gathering project e-mails, forms, and proof of approvals to the correct locations.

The role of archivist, one often unfamiliar to those of us who grew up in IT, is not just a passive collector of documents or a taker of notes. Whether we want them to or not, a project assistant will have to make active decisions about what information is important, how to categorize it, and how to provide this information back to people who request it. If we want to make the best use of this role, and of the people thrust into fulfilling it, we might consider the following:

  1. How much documentation do you really need to keep?
    Most of our projects produce hundreds, if not thousands, of documents to comply with various methodologies and auditing standards. Most of them do not have value to future projects. Those which do, the ones we need to keep, should find a quiet place to hide for later use.
  2. What information do you need to keep?
    This is actually different from what documents you need, though the information may or may not be stored in documents. If you know what pieces of data you will need to perform later analysis — order of decisions, criteria by which you extended scope, etc — you can have the assistant tag and sort the documents (potentially on a wiki) for later retrieval.
  3. What information do you need to share?
    A good project assistant has seen thousands upon thousands of reports, meeting minutes, and professional presentations. Take a moment to ask him where he would put things, how he would organize the document, and what he would do in your shoes. You might be pleasantly surprised to learn that yes, someone has used meeting minutes to communicate complicated information before.

There’s more, obviously, to using a project assistant well. However, most people can figure out how to off-load unappetizing tasks onto him. I’m always more concerned not with now, but with what we can do to make things flow more smoothly in the future — in this case by supporting an unintentional but real role the assistant assumes in an ordinary project.