The Practicality of Project Reference Guides

Two people working together with laptops.

Managing web development projects at digital agencies involves a lot of moving parts. Projects change hands many times as they move from RFP to proposal, to development, to initial launch and ongoing maintenance. I look at this as part of a DevOps culture mindset; focusing on the smooth flow of information across silos in an organization. In this post, I share my template for Project Reference Guides, which makes it easy for teams to collect and share key project information across all stakeholders.

As a project manager, I have run projects of every size, with budgets ranging from $10 thousand to $1 million and more. Over the years, I’ve honed some simple techniques that I employ (and recommend to you!) no matter what kind of client project I’m working on. One of my key tools is the Project Reference Guide. Before we used them, we would attempt to store (and ultimately lose!) too much information within our mental RAM. We did this when we assumed things were “obvious” or common knowledge. And it’s these “little details”,  which often get overlooked, that are fundamental to good cross-team communication.

For the impatient (or if you heard about this in my DrupalCon Nashville presentation, Estimates, Expectations, and Evolution During a Project’s Journey from RFP to Release), download my Project Reference Guide template here!

What is a Project Reference Guide?

At DDEV, our mission is making web development simpler, better, and faster and we build tools to support that mission. We also know that a lot more goes into it than just software. When we get the chance, we like to share other parts of our experience in the agency and web project space. We hope that they’ll help you just as much as our software does! Project Reference Guides save time for new and existing team members by quickly and concisely communicating key details while linking out to more comprehensive project assets. They are living documents that should be shared and updated on an ongoing basis by all stakeholders as a project evolves. Use my starter template; modify it to fit your team’s needs and use cases.

WTF Is Up With Project X?

The following scenarios are based on real world, real project situations before and after mandating the use of Project Reference Guides for every client account. While they are specifically related to website projects, the lessons and insights could apply to different project types and industries.

Before using Project Reference Guides

Imagine you’re working with an organization and your manager tasks you with helping out with project X. Also imagine that you’ve heard rumors of project X being over budget, missing key milestones, and the team is both frazzled and overworked.

You take a deep breath and then …

  • You hop in the company Slack channel and begin poking around until you find #project-x. Bingo!
  • You look to see who is in the channel to see if you recognize anyone that would stand out as the project manager.
  • Kyle is a PM, so you @ message him immediately (regardless of if he’s heads down on something equally important and time sensitive) to see if he has a few minutes to catch up.
  • Kyle is busy at another meeting and finally responds an hour later to inform you that he’s no longer on the project, but he think’s Jenny is the last person to take over.
  • Jenny is not in the room, so you private message her.
  • Eventually, Jenny responds that she is, in fact, leading the project and is happy to give you an update by the end of the day.
  • You know your boss is looking for immediate answers, so you press for something sooner.
  • Jenny is not too happy that she’s been pressured into dropping everything this second, but she’s also happy to get additional help on the project.
  • She takes 10 minutes to type a quick overview and then she starts to forward you any and all client communications that occurred in the last month.
  • She mentions that these emails contain links to the website, Basecamp, JIRA, and a host of other places where other information might be…
  • You thank Jenny and begin to dive in, but you’re still missing the contract and spend two hours trying to hunt down the account manager to find out what was sold, for what amount, and at what price…

…Fast forward to the end of the day. Your boss is hounding you for an assessment, and you’re still getting up to speed.

After Using Project Reference Guides

Now, imagine the same scenario above, you’re going into the same situation, you take a deep breath and then… when you jump in things are different!

  • You hop in the company Slack channel and begin poking around until you find #project-x. Bingo!
  • You look at the room description to see “Project X Project Reference Guide” with a link to a google doc. You click in.
  • You read the first section to see that there are 4 members of your company assigned to this project with Jenny currently as the primary lead.
  • You skim down further to see a 1-paragraph overview of the project.
  • It’s essentially a company rebrand for the client’s 20-year anniversary.
  • You skim down to see this project kicked off 4 months ago with a 30K budget and a 3-month turnaround. Ouch, it’s late.
  • You click the JIRA report link to see the number of reported hours and see that there is still 10K budget left. Cool!
  • You start speculating that the biggest issue the client is facing is a timeline issue more than a budget issue.
  • You click into JIRA to see the issue queue and quickly determine how many tickets were completed and how many are open to confirm if the budget will be an issue or not.

… Within an hour, and without talking with anyone on the team, you have a reasonable assessment of where the project stands and what questions you need to ask Jenny to confirm where the problems are located and where you might be of assistance in righting the ship.

Why Reference Guides Are Worth The Time & Effort

Here are some of the ways Project Reference Guides can be extremely valuable:

  • Knowledge Transfer: Projects typically go through several stages. At each of these transition points, there is a handoff step to get new project members onboarded, as others leave the project. Each time this happens, it’s very easy for information to get lost. The Project Reference Guide makes handoffs easier.
  • Knowledge Centralization: Projects can contain dozens of assets and useful links (contracts, meeting notes, budget reports, etc). Push this information into a central location and it becomes a quick and easy process to find whatever it is you’re looking for.
  • Asynchronous Communication: Not everyone is available to address questions in real time. Make it easy for others to find answers to their questions without you, and more of your time is freed up.
  • Consistency and Auditing: As your company and teams grow, it becomes even more important to ensure you keep certain details (e.g., budget and timeline) and assets (e.g., contracts) documented and up to date.
  • Reference and Sign-off: Keep a record of all plans, goals, and agreements for consistency and sign-off between all stakeholders. Everyone on the project should have a clear sense of what was sold and the assets and deliverables against the contract.
  • Memories Fade: As time goes on, things are forgotten on all sides. Project reference guides can be useful months or years after a project is completed, especially when clients and team members have moved on and they are no longer available to answer questions.

Reference Guide Format

Here are the format and information details that make for the best Project Reference Guides in my experience. Your mileage may vary; modify to your liking and specific team or project needs. I’d be interested in your feedback on what works for you.

Key Details

  • People
    • Client Contacts and Roles
    • Team Contacts and Roles
  • Project Metrics
    • Budget
    • Timeline
    • Hours
    • Contract
  • References:
    • Links to any/all notes
    • Links to any/all project assets
    • Links to all 3rd party systems
  • Client Overview
    • 1-Paragraph overview of the client and project.
  • Key Success Factors
    • The 1-5 key objectives as defined by the client.

The Mechanics

It’s one thing to create a one-off project reference guide. Here are some additional tips to make this more valuable for your team or organization.

  • Template It: If you use Google Docs, create a branded version of this and make it known and accessible to all members of your team.
  • SOP It: If you don’t already have one, a project onboarding checklist as part of your standard operating procedures (SOPs) is incredibly valuable. Cloning and populating this template should be one of the very first steps for getting a new project set up.
  • Pin It: When completed, there should be a common place where people should know where to find and access this document. If you use Slack, pin it there. If you have a project wiki, add it there. If you use a Google Drive folder per client, store it there.
  • Update It: This is a living document that all stakeholders, include the team, the team lead, and the client maintain as changes happen. The more you keep it up to date, the more valuable a project reference guide is for your stakeholders.

Go Forth! Work better!

This article and linked template are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). We only ask that you provide attribution back to this source article so that others can understand the motivation and value behind it.

Download the Project Reference Guide template here!

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