In the ever-complex world of projects and programs, a decision by leadership isn’t just a single moment in time. It can be the turning point that defines the success or failure of an entire endeavor. We help organizations start incredibly complex programs off the ground, in multi-year efforts. It’s not easy. As leaders and teams are out there, learning the ropes, grinding on projects and programs, unless otherwise introduced, it’s all too common to avoid, forget, and forgo documenting the critical decisions. You know what that leads to? Chaos, confusion, and lost opportunities. Let's break this down, real talk.
When You Skip Documenting Decisions – The Chaos Unfolds
Each and every turn, each decision can add, mitigate, or eliminate risk, and/or create new opportunities. If you’re not documenting what happens, who decided what, let me tell you what happens:
1. You're Driving Without a Map
Imagine driving in a new city without GPS or a map. You’re seeing fields and hills when you should be seeing skyscrapers and office buildings. That's what happens when you skip documenting decisions. You lose track of where you've been, where you're headed, and why you took that turn in the first place. You are lost at a time when you need to be tearing up the road on the right path.
2. Accountability is gone
If you can’t remember where you’ve been, where you headed, or who decided to make the turns, accountability is gone. At the end, or at a quarterly or annual review, every stakeholder or leader suddenly develops amnesia when it comes to accounting for their inputs and the impact on the program and project, and they will find the nearest person downhill to hold accountable:
Things typically forgotten include:
- Invitations to provide feedback, participate and lead the effort. Not participating doesn’t get leaders off the hook. Every opportunity to participate is a call to arms, a call FOR help, and a call FOR support the effort. Every unanswered call is a decision not to engage or support the effort. Sometimes it’s okay, but avoiding every opportunity to get read-in and guide the effort shows a clear pattern.
- Decisions to under-allocate resources to support the program or projects (especially early on for arbitrary reasons). If the reasons weren’t documented, you can probably safely presume they were arbitrary in nature. “Whoops. I don’t remember that. The team should still be able to deliver across the board as if it were fully funded”
- Diverting resources into other projects or efforts that suck up program resources and time. You know, the money pit projects – that were trending at the big conference, the one’s team had to execute to appease a particular stakeholder.
“Does anyone remember who asked the team to spend 3 months rolling that out let alone why?”
How did that impact program performance? If there’s no documentation or project management discipline, there’s probably no record – which is convenient if you made bad calls.
- Canceling cost-saving activities – For example, did you know that regularly posting funny, quirky social media posts, and asking your audience questions drives more “likes” and engagements, increasing the organic reach of your messaging, and decreasing your paid costs? But if the orders come down from on high, to stop posting content that way, and then organic reach goes down to zero, is that critical decision point captured in the story of the effort. It’s absolutely critical.
3. Missed Opportunities for Learning
Every decision is a lesson. When it's not documented, you're leaving wisdom on the table. Don't waste those nuggets! The odds are if you omitted documentation discipline, there’s probably an equal lack of appetite for regular project and program review efforts. This means you’re missing out on opportunities to improve your efforts at more frequent intervals. Also, absent documentation and review processes, you risk being uninformed and making the wrong decisions for arbitrary reasons.
How does this happen?
It's not uncommon for those new to project and program management to devalue or dismiss the critical discipline of documenting and analyzing leadership decisions. Here's why:
1. Short-Term Focus – Expectation Mismatch
If you are new to managing a program either directly as a project manager or indirectly as a stakeholder, it is important to remember the constraints and design of your program. Is it designed to deliver in the short term? Or is it a longer term play? If you’re leading a long-term program with short-term expectations, there’s a fundamental mismatch to address. Be sure to update your strategic plans so everyone is on the same page.
A short-term focus tends to skip right over development, infrastructure and discipline, and instead has a natural inclination for a ready, fire aim approach. That might work, the same way that winning the lottery might happen. Eventually, if you have enough skin in the game, you learn to do the things the right way, that allows your organization to develop, mature, and rise in capability, capacity, and execution.
2. The Unspoken Preference For Avoidance of Culpability
Very few people like being gluttons for punishment. If decisions are not documented, it can create a lack of clarity regarding responsibility. This might seem attractive to some as it provides an escape from accountability if things go wrong. And if you’re new to your program efforts, things will go wrong. If your organization may find no short supply of fall guys, interns, or managers, at the end of the day, if you’re a part of the leadership team, you’re responsible and accountable. All the avoidance tactics do is delay the development, improvement of your organization and achievement of your goals.
3. Lack of Understanding
Without experience or proper training, the nuances of why and how to document leadership decisions might not be apparent. Education in project management principles can bridge this gap. If your leadership team is not familiar with project management principles, then you’re missing out on essential skills to make data-driven decisions.
Course Correction: Check Your Compass – Documentation Points the Way
Every project or program carries inherent risks. Documenting decisions related to risk helps in identifying trends, learning from mistakes, and making informed risk mitigation strategies.
Resource Allocation and Direction
A well-documented decision-making process aids in understanding how resources were allocated and the direction set for the project. It provides valuable insights for future projects.
Assessing Overall Success or Failure
Having a historical record of decisions allows leaders and teams to analyze what went right or wrong. It's a learning tool that can be used to guide future successes.
Documenting decisions and their potential and actual impacts on your efforts IS NOT mere administrative work; it's a strategic imperative. From ensuring accountability to optimizing resource allocation, from managing risk to learning from both success and failure, it acts as the compass that helps navigate the complex waters of project management.
By identifying and tracking the right leadership KPIs, organizations not only gauge the effectiveness of decisions but create a culture of continuous improvement.
For those new to project management, it's vital to recognize that this discipline is not an optional extra, but the backbone of effective project leadership. Avoiding it doesn’t just evade culpability; it undermines success.
In the final analysis, a decision is not merely something that's made; it's something that's lived, learned from, and leveraged. The ink with which it's documented is the ink of progress, purpose, and potential. It's the mark of leadership that looks not just to the next task but to the next triumph.
Pro Tips for Documentation
- Start a MASTER Program Directory Google Doc.
This is THE one-stop-shop for the program. This sounds so simple, but it’s so rarely done. Make sure all of your strategic planning documents are there.
- Learn basic project management discipline and use software.
Again, this is in fact, basic, but you’d be surprised at the number of organizations trying to get by without this basic level of organization and management. There are many tools to choose from. Lately, I’m partial to Notion, Coda, AirTable and some of the other no-code, highly customizable workspace tools. Track the work, the risks, the decisions, status, etc. Customize it for your organization, culture, and program and project needs.