james a h murray author of the oxford dictionary surrounded by paper

James A. H. Murray, the first editor of one of the world’s most comprehensive reference books, the Oxford English Dictionary, dealt with an unbelievable amount of documentation. To prepare the dictionary, volunteers from all over the world sent him quotations, each on its own separate slip of paper. In the end, Murray’s scriptorium held five million slips. [1]

Unless you are creating a definitive dictionary, no project requires that level of documentation. Collecting too much information hurts productivity and draws time and energy away from the actual project. When it becomes obvious that such documentation is hard to maintain, it is usually abandoned. On the other hand, incomplete documentation is misleading and can paint an inaccurate picture of what happened.

Instead of being exhaustive, document only as necessary. Early in the planning process, identify what documentation can feasibly be maintained and include the updating of that documentation in the flow of the project plan. This ensures that at the end of the project, you will have an up-to-date, accurate account.

Key Takeaways

  • Identify the essential elements of what needs to be documented.
  • Remember that overcommitting to documentation can be counterproductive.
  • Only document to the extent you can maintain it.
  • Build the updating of documents into the flow of the project plan.


[1] Murray, K. M. E. (2001). Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary. Yale University Press.

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