James Murray at Work in His Scriptorium

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.

Unless you are working on the creation of a history-making dictionary, no project requires that level of documentation. The problem is that 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 documents are misleading and can paint an inaccurate picture of what happened.

Instead of aspiring to be exhaustive, document only what is absolutely necessary. Early in the planning process, identify the data that can feasibly be maintained and include the updating of that documentation in the flow of the project plan so that when your team comes to the end, you will have an account that’s up-to-date and provides an accurate picture of the project.

Key Takeaways

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