Project Documentation: 10 Essential Project Documents

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Project managers know the importance of having project documentation. Project documents must be accurate and constantly updated to keep current with the project. Creating and managing project documentation throughout the project life cycle is critical for project success, but where to start?

This guide defines what project documentation is and why it’s important in addition to outlining the top 10 project documents that you should always create to plan and execute your projects.

What Is Project Documentation?

The term project documentation refers to the project management documents that are created throughout the project life cycle. These documents, such as the project plan, project schedule or project budget, define activities, procedures and guidelines to be followed by the project team.

Project documentation has several purposes, such as project planning, cost management or risk management. In addition, there are certain project documents that must be created at a specific project phase, as they set the stage for the next step, such as the project management plan which must be created before the project execution phase can begin.

Project management software can help you organize and share information that is crucial to the success of your project. ProjectManager is work management software that has unlimited file storage and makes it easy to share product documentation with your team and stakeholders. All of its multiple project views share one source of information to keep everyone on the same page. Get started for free.

A screenshot of the list view in ProjectManager
ProjectManager has a list view with unlimited file storage to make project documentation seamless. Learn more.

Let’s take a look at which project documents should be created at each project phase.

Project Documentation by Project Phase

Projects vary in size and complexity and some might require more comprehensive project documentation than others. Here’s an overview of some of the project documents which are usually created throughout the project life cycle.

  • Project Initiation: Project charter, business case, project kickoff meeting agenda.
  • Project Planning: Project management plan, work breakdown structure, project budget, project schedule, change management plan, scope management plan, risk management plan.
  • Project Execution: Project status report, lessons learned template, timesheets, change requests, change orders.
  • Project Monitoring and Control: Project status report, lessons learned template, timesheets.
  • Project Closure: Project closure template, punch list.

Now that you have an idea of the right project documentation for each phase of your project life cycle, let’s dive into some of the most important project management documents there are.

Top 10 Project Documents to Include in Your Project Documentation

Here’s a brief description of the important project documents and a corresponding project management template for each of them. Don’t forget to check our library of free project management templates where you’ll find dozens of templates to build your project documentation.

1. Project Plan

The project plan is the most comprehensive of all project management documents because it compiles the project documents that are created during the project planning phase. For example, your project plan should include your project budget and your project schedule.

2. Project Charter

The project charter is written during the project initiation phase and it sets the stage for the project plan. Project managers use project charters to provide a quick overview of the project to stakeholders, sponsors and clients.

3. Business Case

Just like the project charter, a business case is a document that’s created during the initiation phase to convince project stakeholders of the value of the project by explaining the potential benefits it could have for their organization.

4. Project Communication Plan

A communication plan sets all the guidelines for communication among team members and project stakeholders. It defines the communication channels to be used, the communication schedule, roles and responsibilities, among other details to streamline the communication process throughout the project life cycle.

5. Risk Register

This document allows you to register all potential project risks and includes a brief description of their potential impact and likelihood. A risk register is an important project document as it provides important information for your risk management plan that contains all risk management documents, strategies and guidelines.

6. Scope Statement

A scope statement defines the activities that will be executed to complete a project. It’s used by project managers to let stakeholders know what will be done and what won’t be done so that expectations are clear from the beginning. It’s part of the scope management plan, a comprehensive document that explains the procedures and guidelines related to the project scope.

7. Project Budget

The project budget is a critical project management document. To create one, you’ll need to estimate your project costs, which include labor, materials, equipment and anything that’s needed to execute the project.

8. Project Schedule

At a basic level, the project schedule defines the timeline for the execution of all project tasks. It can also include more details such as the resources needed for each task, who’s responsible for it, the float or slack your project has and the critical path. ProjectManager’s Gantt chart is the perfect tool for creating a detailed project schedule.

9. Project Status Report

Project status reports are a must-have project management tool because they allow you to check the health of your project at any point in time and share data with stakeholders to keep them updated. Status reports are brief and include the most relevant information only.

10. Project Closure Template

It’s always necessary to create project documentation at the end of the project closure phase. That’s because project managers need to close contracts, create a lessons learned document and get formal approval from stakeholders among other important tasks. All of this must be documented so that nothing falls through the cracks.

What’s Worth Documenting

No matter your organization’s structure, the ability to record and document all aspects of a project is vital to being a successful project manager. Multiple reports, charts, graphs, documents, change requests and status updates need to be maintained throughout the project life cycle, and documentation works to stitch the disparate pieces of a project together and bring it to a successful finish.

However, your time is limited, and so is patience in most organizations for tedious paperwork. How can you maintain efficiency and effectively document the project as well? Consider the following to determine what’s worth documenting:

  • Client-Related Everything – Imagine this scenario: A client suddenly questions a decision that was made a couple of months ago. The client says that they chose one direction but your company decided to go down another path during implementation. Clear documentation on client meetings, including notes with dates, times and attendees helps everyone recall the decision and clear up any misunderstanding.
  • Legal Dictates – For certain projects, legal teams are required to review documentation during the project. For public projects, there might be oversight and review processes that analyze a project after its completion. Know the documentation requirements your legal team needs to have before your project begins as playing catch-up is risky in this kind of environment.
  • The Right Amount of Process – While you don’t want to get lost with documenting so much of the plan and process that you’re not actually processing, you do want some definition around the project plan and goals. Let your organizational structure guide how many processes you should document. Insisting on a layered structure within your resources plan in an agile company doesn’t make sense. Similarly, trying to operate process-free on a project that requires legal documentation will only get your project in trouble. When in doubt, the best approach is to document.
  • Changes to the Project – Ongoing project updates are essential to document especially as project goals shift due to internal factors such as product pivots or external impacts such as personnel changes or budget changes. Ideally, you’ll have a real-time online project management tool so your resources and task changes are scheduled live, and issues are captured as they occur. However, larger impacts to the overall project plan should be added to project documentation in a version controlled manner.

Project Documentation Best Practices

So what are the best strategies you should use to keep your documentation effective, efficient and timely? To align your documentation according to best practices you should:

  • Take the Time – Here’s a trick when it comes to developing robust documentation: use your calendar. Many people think that your calendar is only for scheduling meetings. It’s not. Use it to schedule 2-3 hour blocks of uninterrupted time to think through and assemble an essential document. You need to take the time to get in the zone of writing, and that often doesn’t happen when you’re taking calls, having conversations with your desk-mate or multi-tasking. You should book a room in your office, if available, shut the door and make sure to indicate your calendar status as “Busy.” With focused time and attention, you’ll be able to make significant progress. Likewise, schedule 10-15 minute blocks in your calendar each week to review and update documentation.
  • Have the Right Level of Detail – Putting documentation together for engineers is very different from documents you present to executives. Engineers need all the detail you can provide, and it still won’t be enough! Executives, on the other hand, don’t have the time to be bogged down with the details. They just want a few bullet points, the bottom line, and next steps. It’s up to you to determine the right level of documentation for the right audience to achieve the desired effect.
  • Use Smart Storage – Your documentation needs to be easy to locate and access. Documentation is useless if it’s buried under a rock where nobody can find it. This includes making sure that the infrastructure is in place to access the documentation online and that the folder structure and hierarchy are easy and intuitive to understand.
  • Share with Others – Most people hate putting documentation together but love it when it’s packaged up for them. You’ll also be pleasantly surprised that people actually read the documentation! Use your online project management software to store your documents online with the project, ideally in a collaborative yet secure environment.
  • Version Control and Up-to-Date – Keeping project documentation current and updated is the hardest thing to do. It’s easy to get to the point of the initial version, but it’s painful to go back and update documentation and maintain version control. Again, the biggest help is the document repository infrastructure you have in place. Automatic version control allows you to manage this process more easily and the consumers of your documentation will always trust that they have the latest version.

How ProjectManager Helps With Project Documentation

ProjectManager is work and project software that connects hybrid teams and fosters collaboration. All project documents can be stored on the tool and everyone who needs access to them can get it. You can create project plans and more making ProjectManager the only software you need for project success.

Make Project Plans on Interactive Gantt Charts

One of the most important project documents is your project plan. You can make and share this with our Gantt chart, which organizes all your tasks, links dependencies and plots milestones to help you stay on schedule. It even filters for the critical path. Our online Gantt charts deliver real-time data and are easy to share so everyone is always working from the most current data.

A screenshot of a gantt chart in ProjectManager

Monitor Your Project With Real-Time Dashboards

Your project documentation only sets the stage for the execution of your project. To keep to those plans, you need to have a way to monitor progress and performance in real time. Our live dashboard automatically collects, calculates and delivers real-time metrics for time, workload and more. Unlike other tools, there’s no setup necessary. You see what’s happening ass it happens.

ProjectManager’s dashboard view, which shows six key metrics on a project

Go Deeper Into the Data With One-Click Reporting

When a high-level view isn’t enough, you can generate project reports with a keystroke. Get more information on your costs, progress and more. All reports can be filtered to show only the data you want to see. Then you can share them easily with stakeholders to keep stakeholders updated with email attachments or even printouts for presentations.

A screenshot of the reporting page in ProjectManager

ProjectManager is a flexible tool that allows you to update your project documentation as needed as projects change. Everyone is updated to changes with email notifications or in-app alerts so there’s never any confusion about what’s expected. Use a tool that manages your project plan, resources, cost and team while storing all the project documentation you have to deliver success.

Sure, documentation can be the bane of your project, but you need it, and there are tools that can help you do it easier, better and faster. The online software suite from ProjectManager.com is a great collaborative tool to create and store your project documentation for easier access and document sharing with your team. Get started for free.

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