1. Project management
  2. Key project documentation every manager needs for effective planning

Key project documentation every manager needs for effective planning

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

November 11, 2022

It’s almost impossible to build a house without a blueprint. The same is true for any complex project; you need a plan if you want to succeed. That’s why creating and following project documentation is so important.

Just like a blueprint guides the builders, thorough documentation will keep your team focused on the project objectives. Without that, you’re flying blind — and probably wasting a lot of time and energy in the process. In this guide, we’ll show you the 21 essential documents every project manager needs in order to succeed.

What is project documentation?

Project documentation is a collection of all the documents used during the course of a project. It includes everything from the initial project proposal to the final project report and beyond.

The purpose is to provide a single source of truth about the project, ensuring everyone involved has access to the same information. It also provides a record of decisions made throughout the project, so everyone can see how things are progressing over time. Once the job is done, having a record of what worked well (and what didn’t) is also useful for managing future phases and new projects.

What happens if you don’t use project documentation?

Just like setting off on a journey without a map, starting a project without documentation is likely to result in a few wrong turns. 

First, you’ll see a lack of communication between project participants. This can lead to misunderstandings and disagreements about the project goals and objectives.

Second, there won’t be a record of decisions, progress, milestones, and other key project phases. This makes it difficult to track the project’s progress and make changes if necessary. You’ll find it harder to report back to stakeholders, prove project success, get buy-in for future jobs, and learn from mistakes and successes. Basically, you’ll miss out on a wealth of recorded data.  

Finally, without project documentation, it’s really difficult to hand over the project to someone else. They’ll have no way of understanding what has been done and which tasks are still outstanding. Then, when someone is out sick or the project is reassigned, everything grinds to a halt. 

To summarize, project documentation: 

  • Provides a single source of information about the project
  • Aids team communication
  • Provides a record of decisions, responsibilities, scope, milestones, and more
  • Makes it easier to track the project’s progress
  • Makes it easier to make changes to the project if necessary
  • Makes it easier to hand over the project to someone else

Project documentation by project phase: a complete list

You’ll need specific types of project documentation at different stages of the project. Here’s a complete list of everything you’ll need, organized by project phase.

1. Project initiation 

Project initiation documentation defines the project goals and objectives, and it includes the following:

  • The project charter
  • The project proposal
  • The business case
  • The project kickoff meeting agenda

2. Project planning

Here’s a list of everything you’ll need during the planning phase:

  • The work breakdown structure (WBS)
  • The work plan template
  • A working agreement
  • A statement of work (SOW)
  • The project schedule
  • The communications plan
  • The risk management plan
  • The quality management plan
  • The procurement plan
  • The change management plan
  • The budget
  • The resource plan

3. Project execution 

Project execution documentation helps you track the project’s progress and performance. It includes the following:

  • Deliverables
  • The issue log
  • The status/progress report
  • Timesheets

4. Project close-out 

Close-out documentation helps you finalize the project and hand it over to the client. It includes the following:

  • The project closure report
  • The customer satisfaction survey
  • The audit report
  • The project archive

Now that you have the full list, let’s go into more detail about each document and why it’s useful.

Project initiation documentation

1. The project charter

The project charter is a high-level overview that sets out your project goals, objectives, and approach. It’s one of the most important documents you’ll ever create and typically includes the following information:

  • Project name and description
  • Project manager’s name and contact details
  • Names and contact details of other key project personnel
  • Brief description of the project scope
  • Project objectives
  • Success criteria
  • Approach/methodology
  • High-level risks and assumptions

It’s important to note that the project charter is a living document and should be updated as the project progresses.

2. The project proposal

The project proposal sets out the business case for undertaking a project. It’s essential for persuading stakeholders to approve the project and provide funding. 

The proposal should include the project chart but focus on the information from the stakeholder’s perspective. Outline factors like growth, profits, and opportunities with supporting evidence to show stakeholders what’s in it for them.

3. The business case

The business case sets out the justification for undertaking the project. It includes information on the expected benefit, ranging from financial to cultural. 

The secret to creating a great business case is to be clear and concise. Keep in mind that the business case is for the project stakeholders, not for you or your team.

4. The project kickoff meeting agenda

The project kickoff meeting is when the project team and the stakeholders come together to discuss the project objectives, approach, and expectations. Creating this document will ensure you cover the most crucial details in the meeting and make actionable decisions to start the project off well.

Project planning documentation

1. The work breakdown structure (WBS)

The work breakdown structure (WBS) breaks the project down into smaller, more manageable tasks. It’s a hierarchical list of every milestone, deliverable, and task in the project. Having it makes the road ahead seem a little less daunting and helps you assign tasks. If your project were a novel, these would be your chapters, each one marked by a milestone.

2. The work plan template

A work plan maps your overarching mission, with the tasks you’ll use to achieve that goal. Your work plan template should include your approach and any methodologies, plus the timeline, deliverables, risks, milestones, and resources. Keep it all high level; you’ll be creating separate documents for most of these things a little later on.

3. A working agreement

The working agreement sets out the expectations for how the project team will work together. It should include things like communication protocols, meeting frequency and format, and decision-making processes. This might seem like a small thing, but it’s incredibly important. Having a working agreement in place from the start will help prevent conflict and confusion later on.

4. A statement of work (SOW)

The statement of work document outlines the scope of work for a project. But rather than it being something that guides the team, it’s a formal document between a client/buyer and an agency, vendor, or contractor. 

The SOW includes information on the objectives, deliverables, milestones, and approach and defines expectations on both sides.

5. The project schedule

The project schedule helps you plan the project’s timeline. It shows the start and end dates for each task in the project, as well as any dependencies between tasks.

While not technically an essential piece of documentation, the Gantt chart forms a key part of the project schedule. It’s a visual representation of the schedule from start to finish, with start and end dates for each task, as well as any dependencies.

Free Gantt Chart template in Cacoo by Nulab

6. The communications plan

The communications plan outlines which team members need to receive specific information, how and when it’s due, recommended communication channels, the chain of command, and the contact list. Setting out a detailed communications plan helps the team avoid miscommunication and have contingencies in place when a key person is unavailable.

7. The risk management plan

The risk management plan (or risk breakdown structure) helps project managers identify, assess, and respond to risks. It includes information on the project’s threats and opportunities, as well as guidelines detailing how to mitigate risks and respond effectively to change.

8. The quality management plan

The quality management plan helps ensure the project meets its quality objectives. It outlines the objectives and route to achieving them, often in the form of a checklist. A good plan also includes the quality control methods and steps to ensure excellence at each project stage.

9. The procurement plan

No adventurer sets off on an expedition without a list of gear. Similarly, the project procurement plan helps managers identify and procure all the goods and services they’ll need for project completion. 

It should include what services or goods to source and when and how you plan to complete these transactions. To be prepared, you can also include a list of contractors and freelancers to call if things don’t go as planned or a team member becomes unavailable.

10. The change management plan

Ignore this vital document at your peril! The change management plan includes information on how the team should request, assess, and implement change. It also provides details on the project’s change control process, the proposed change, the reasoning for it, and information on who has the authority to approve changes. After all, every change needs to be stakeholder/boss-approved!

This document is so important that we’ve written not one but TWO guides to help you. Here’s how to create a change management plan from scratch, and here’s how to design a change management process.

11. The budget

The project budget is the benchmark against which you’ll track the project’s finances. It includes information on the project’s income and expenses, as well as the status of each. To create a project budget, you’ll need to consider the potential costs, limitations, revenue, and profitability.

12. The resource plan

The resource plan helps you identify and allocate resources. It explains who is responsible for each task, when they’re available, and how much time they have to complete the task. You should create the resource plan in tandem with the budget and project scope.

Understanding the triple constraint will help you manage your resources like a pro.

Project execution documentation

1. Deliverables

The deliverables are the end products of the project. This document should include a list of every item/service the client expects, the delivery timeline, and a breakdown of responsibilities. Most importantly, it should have both internal and external stakeholder signoff.

2. The issue log

The issue log is a tool everyone on the team uses to track and resolve issues. It includes information on the problem and the actions needed or taken to resolve it.

3. The status/progress report 

The status report communicates the project’s status to the stakeholders. It includes progress information, as well as any risks or issues that have cropped up along the way. 

Traditionally, progress reports take the form of daily, weekly or monthly check-ins, but managers are increasingly using project management software to make the process more transparent. Using a cloud-based project tracking tool means everyone with access can log in and see progress in real-time. This means fewer update emails flying around and less need for expensive face-to-face meetings.

4. Timesheets

Timesheets track the time spent on each project task, which is important for billing and accurate progress reporting. Usually, workers fill out timesheets on a daily or weekly basis and include information on the date, hours worked, and relevant notes. 

  • Top tip: use a project management tool that includes an interactive timesheet feature (e.g. a Gantt chart and/or burndown chart), so you can see who’s working on what and how much time they’re spending on each task.

Project close-out documentation

Phew — you made it! But your work isn’t over yet. Closing a project properly is as important as a strong opening. Here are the documents to help you close out in style.

1. The project closure report

Your project closure report is like the full stop to your project. Not only does it include information on the project’s final results and deliverables, it also assesses the project as a whole — what went well, what didn’t, and how you could improve future projects. Create it after holding a project post-mortem with your team.

2. The customer satisfaction survey

The customer satisfaction survey records how happy the customer is with the final results. The questions should highlight different aspects of the experience, because even when clients are satisfied overall, they may still have good suggestions for improvement.

The customer satisfaction survey is usually conducted soon after the project is over, but you can also run surveys during or before the project to gauge customer expectations.

3. The audit report

The audit report documents project compliance with applicable standards. It includes an audit record and the results. Keep this information safe in case you’re ever audited as a business by external bodies. Not having this information could land you in hot water! 

4. The project archive

The project archive is where you store the project documentation. It includes all of the important documents above and any supporting materials. Keep it safe — there are tons of data in here you can use again for future projects.

Final thoughts 

Gathering all your project documentation can feel like a daunting task — and make no mistake, it’s a big job. However, it’s well worth the effort and will improve many business operations in the future.

To make the job easier, we recommend using a cloud-based project management tool, like Backlog. Not only does this ensure a single source of truth for all your documentation, but it also simplifies project tracking, thanks to automatic notifications, interactive Gantt charts, milestones, commenting, and more. Try it free today! 

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