Ultimate Guide to the Five Primary Documents of Any Project

  • 07 August, 2020

Projects are document intensive. Project documentation serves a myriad of purposes including project selection, design, engineering, management, implementation, and control to name a few. One indicator of the density of project documentation is the 1,600-plus hits returned when the latest edition of The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) is searched using "document" as the keyword. That number tells the story of how interrelated and interwoven documents are in the many actions and activities of a project. No matter the use or need, project documents have one thing in common. At their core, documents are communications tools. Their purpose is to transfer project understanding and knowledge.

Project documentation is divided into two groups: "primary" and "secondary." Primary documentation contains information not previously created or used before. Primary documents are the original and "first-source" of the information they contain. Secondary documents are derivatives of primary documents. Secondary documents are often a combination of two or more primary ones. Primary documents are indispensable and considered "essential" for any project. In order of their development:

  1. Strategic traceability document. A project is never "just a project." A project is always a part of a larger organization and always undertaken to achieve one or more organizational goal. In that sense, projects are really "instruments of strategy." We know this is true because projects can either enhance or diminish a firm's competitive advantage. Knowing how a project fits into an organization and contributes to its strategy is key to understanding the role and importance of the project. A strategic traceability document is an effective method to do that.

    To create it, you will need to identify the following strategic elements: An organization's strategic vision, its strategic goals or objectives, any legal mandates, as well as the goals of the project itself. With those in hand, show and explain their relative alignment. In other words, "trace" how each element contributes to the achievement of the next higher element. Applications like "Smart Art" do a nice job of documenting strategic traceability. Once created, the strategic traceability document is tantamount to the "north star" of the project. Never lose sight of it.

  2. Project scope statement including a Work-Breakdown Structure (WBS). The scope statement is the most important document of a project. Without scope, there is nothing to "project manage." Ideally, this document is a detailed description that paints the best possible picture of the intended result and outcome of the project. Part and parcel to the scope statement is a WBS. The WBS compliments the scope statement by providing structure and logic. The WBS serves as a framework for the scope statement and is critical to explaining it. As Albert Einstein famously said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." A well-prepared scope statement and WBS will ensure you can do the former, while helping others with the later. Using an "organization chart" as a template does an effective job creating a basic WBS. A scope statement is only as good as its WBS.

  3. Schedule. The schedule document follows the scope statement and WBS. A project schedule is a two-dimensional representation which depicts units of work on the Y-axis and units of future-time on the X-axis. Ideally, the units of work are correlated with the WBS. Carrying the WBS structure into the schedule document significantly enhances the schedule's communications value. The most common displays of a schedule are the Gantt, PERT, or GERT formats.

    As an aside, an important thing to know about any project schedule is the existence of the "time-monster." He is invisible, yet very real. He also has an insatiable appetite... and delights in eating any flavor of project whether in minutes, hours, and days. If you have ever uttered the words, "where has the time gone?" now you know.

  4. Cost estimate. Created next is the cost estimate document. Coming after schedule (which comes after scope) makes sense. Logically, the cost of something cannot be known without first identifying what it is (from the scope), and second, identifying when you will need it (from the schedule). When this sequence changes, warning alarms should sound.

    One often-overlooked component of any professional cost estimate is the basis of estimate, or "BoE." The BoE is often much longer and richer than the numerical estimate itself. Like the relationship of the WBS to the scope statement, the BoE is the indispensable explanation of the cost estimate. The BoE details everything that factors in or influences the estimate including assumptions, constraints, sources of cost information, contributors, and any other important details not otherwise shown in the numbers. A cost estimate without a BoE is only half an estimate. The undisputed king of applications used to create a cost estimate is Microsoft Excel.

  5. Communications plan. Ending on the same note as we began, communications is the heart of all project documentation. The communications plan is therefore essential as it is the very "plan" to make sure that all documents, primary, and secondary are doing their job. The communications plan is the pumping heart of a project. Too little information and the project becomes faint, too much information and the project can seize, and if the information stops altogether the project dies. An effective communication plan makes firm commitments to every action or activity related to communications including all routine project meetings; executive briefings; client presentations; all scope, schedule, or cost updates; all social media announcements and marketing updates; and anything else that communicates project information. Never leave the dates for these items "TBD." Commit to them and include them in the schedule for best results.

While there are many more documents that are important in a project, without these it is unlikely a project will ever start or finish. They are the "essential documents." While a project may get by without others, it will not get far without these.

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