What everyone needs to know about project management

The role of paper in project management

Does your organization assume that the paper (or electronic) documentation is the plan? Is it possible to have a plan that is not written down? Does the plan reside in the paper or is paper merely an aid to the plan?

Consider this: if the plan is only on paper and not in the people's brains can the project be successful? On the other hand, if the plan is in the brains of the people -- each person knows what he or she needs to do and when it needs to be done -- and not on paper can the project be successful?

In other words where does the project plan need to reside? The correct answer is: in the brains of the people. Whether it exists on paper or not, it must exist in the brains of the people.

If that is true, as it most certainly is, why do so many organizations treat the paper as if it were the plan? Why do so many successful project managers sheepishly confess that they haven't planned something when they know exactly what they are going to do? Why are so many managers ready to ask the project manager for some paper to prove that planning has been done instead of probing to make sure that the plan is in the brains of the people? (Sometimes I think it is because they don't know what questions to ask.)

Certainly some planning activities will produce a paper trail. Common ones are meeting notes, memos to confirm agreements, and diagrams from scheduling tools. These documents can be useful to make sure that the plan gets into everyone's brain, but the paper isn't the plan.

What is the role of paper? Paper just is a tool. It is costly to create documents. It takes time to draft, edit, polish, and publish. It makes sense that we would only want to incur the expense if it yields a benefit. And what are the likely benefits from documentation? The most important is that documentation can help us to get the plan into the heads of the people where the plan needs to be if it is going to be effective.

But what if the plan is already in the brains of the people? Then it may not make sense to incur the expense of creating the documentation. A better use of our time would be follow the plan.

Can we really have a plan that isn't all on paper? Yes. We really can. And often do. At some level we know this and put off creating documentation that we "should" create, but know we really don't need or have time to do.

Are there times when we should insist that parts of the plan be put on paper? Certainly. The Simple Project Management book explains several important reasons for creating documentation. But don't be fooled. The paper isn't the plan. The best project managers create documentation only where the benefits of the effort are more than worth the cost. They don't squander the organization's resources on activities that don't give results.