Assess the materials on hand early on

This is Part 5 of our The Life of a Project Series.

The difference between a MAJOR project and a minor one is often what currently exists. Before you can calculate whether deadlines are realistic or you’ve got another one of those impossible documentation mountains to climb, you need to assess the materials on hand. The earlier you do this, the better the estimate will be and the less time wasted.

In this series, I’m trying to combine general rules and lessons with a specific project we just completed. The project was finished on time (if you count on time to mean close to the last possible minute) and very successfully. The company is giving us rave review, sending us emails of thanks and congratulations, and considers it an honor to offer themselves as future references. A great project – but it could have and should have been better.

This stage was one example. We asked for existing materials at the initial meeting. The main engineer took our flash drive and added many documents – a similar project they had done in the past, their latest style guide, the current working document, and the detailed requirements guide (in PDF and in a badly converted .doc version).

One mistake I think we all made was in not sitting down to review, section by section, the requirements document. In general, we prefer to “hit the ground running.” I’ve heard of other companies that charge many hours of what they bill as “preparation time.” In one case, a shocked client called me up after being presented with a preparation bill of 79 hours (the whole project took us 86 hours).  I explained that though I was happy to receive the business, I couldn’t explain or answer for another company’s billing. The documentation manager went back to try to figure out what to do, while I went about documenting that and hundreds of hours of future technical writing work.

Most projects require an understanding of what is to be documented. Beyond that, you can also make the learning period productive. You can learn while you are writing! This approach, while beneficial for the client in most cases, might have actually damaged this project.

The reason, I think, is because in most cases, the client already knows what he needs. It is the technical writing company that needs to learn. So, writing according to the guidelines of the client WHILE learning is cost-effective. In this case, the project was massive and the client’s engineers and sales team – while incredibly knowledgeable about their product and the industry – didn’t really fully understand the requirements document.

Had we sat in that first meeting and gone question by question, requirement by requirement, we would have gotten a lot more material early on. Instead, as their engineers produced responses and we worked on editing, writing, and formatting, a huge black void loomed ahead of us all. Only as we approached later sections did we realize how much more information was required.

Assessing the materials on hand is a critical step in calculating how long a project will take, and as we learned in this project, it could also help you assess the project itself. Don’t skip or skimp this important step!

For the continuation of this series, see Determine the flow of responsibilities.