Managing documentation projects

On schedule and within budget 
Writing projects can be some of the most challenging projects to keep on schedule and within budget. Out of fear, some people avoid setting parameters around the cost and time involved. But a documentation project without a schedule is likely to never get done.

To make things more challenging, documentation projects are often undertaken as an extra responsibility assigned to people who are already overworked. The timelines may be aggressive. Building a strong team and getting the most out of their time and effort is essential. Enthusiasm evaporates if people think the project is not being managed effectively.

Over the years, I’ve kept a variety of projects on time and within budget. I’ve helped small consulting firms, government organizations, high-tech companies, a construction association, academic institutions, and power companies. I work as hard at managing the project as I do at any other part of my job. This is what I’ve learned.

1. Ensure management buy-in 
Start with a clear document plan and don’t go one step further until management has signed off. Some people wait until the last step to involve management. That’s too late. If management is not committed to the project from day one, it will be a struggle to find the time and resources needed to get the work done.

2. Build a diverse team 
The more complicated the documentation project, the more people you need to involve. Not only does it make the work more doable, but it helps to ensure that the knowledge and skills of the organization are properly represented. Look for people with varying degrees of experience and areas of expertise. If there is known controversy, involve people from both sides. Don’t avoid the difficult choices. Face them head-on from day one. This is not only more effective. It helps create the best documentation possible.

3. Keep the team motivated 
I worked on a safety course for a major oil company that involved a documentation team of 15 subject matter experts working under tight deadlines. Each subject matter expert had clear responsibilities. Their efforts were recognized weekly in the progress report sent to management. At the end of the project, we celebrated with a lunch and trophies to those who worked the hardest. The means of recognition is less important than the fact of it. When people work hard, they need to be recognized.

4. Make responsibilities clear 
At the start of the project, we met to scope the work involved. Each of the 15 subject matter experts was given clear directions on what needed to be done, and the opportunity to negotiate with their manager to ensure that they had the time to meet their commitments.

5. Give regular progress reports 
Whether the project will take a couple of weeks or half a year, regular project reports are essential. They don’t need to be complicated. Most of the time I simply report the stages, deadlines, accomplishments, and obstacles. I find without exception that this simple action keeps the project rolling. Often, the day after I send a progress report, I get materials I had been waiting for.

6. Reward each success 
The trick to completing a large task is to break it into smaller ones. But don’t just use the smaller tasks to remind people when they fall off schedule. Celebrate the completion of each small task. One or two sentences communicated to management is all that is needed. Recognizing effort builds commitment and enthusiasm for the project.

7. Flag challenges early 
When a task turns out to be more complicated than expected, when information is more difficult to obtain, when a person on the team gets sick–don’t wait. Let management know right away and begin the problem-solving process early.

Documentation projects need to be project managed the same as any other type of project. Get management buy-in from the start and send them regular progress updates. If challenges occur, deal with them right away, but remember to recognize each accomplishment along the way.

In business, documents are built with more than words. They are built by the efforts of people.

© Debbie Bateman 2018. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.

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