Take the pain out of documenting your processes by applying structure, rigor and input from your team.

Defining and documenting business and project processes is typically one of the least favorite chores of project managers, BPM experts or anyone for that matter. This post deals with how to tackle documenting your processes in 5 steps, and how to minimize some of the pain and discomfort usually associated with this task.

Step One: Create a High Level Outline

This should take only about 10 to 15 minutes and should be a free-form exercise. You are thinking at a very high level here, the helicopter view from 10,000 feet – conceptualize the process and work out the most logical A-to-B connections, with B being your endpoint.

After this first pass, take a step back and see if your outline actually flows in a logical fashion. Check for any glaring omissions and try to see your outline from the perspective of a future reader of your finished document. Ask yourself questions should as, “What would a future reader want to know?”

Try moving major topics around and see how sub-topics evolve or are affected by inserting them as sub-heads. Add more detail as you see fit, but remember that at this stage we are still working at a high level.

You are by now, well on the way to your Table of Contents for your process documentation.

Step Two: Create a Rough Draft of the Process Document

Step two is to create a rough draft of the process document, starting to assemble what will become the final version. You will be adding much greater detail, but at the same time you should keep in mind a sense of design and accessibility.

Remember to keep asking yourself, “What will a future reader need from this document?” and how are they going to access and find the information they will be looking for. This acts as both a quality and sanity check as you proceed.

You can use a standard template to start with, and there are plenty of free, professional standard ones to choose from (just search Microsoft Word or Google them). You are not reinventing the wheel here, so save yourself time and energy by downloading one.

As you gain an understanding of how the final process documentation version will look, this will also help you to identify which questions you should be asking, such as do you want to create special callouts for definitions, or do you want a pop-up or sidebar for Additional Resources?

Step Three: Use a Spreadsheet

Open a spreadsheet and create the following columns as follows:

Column 1 – Step Number – this is the number of the specific step within the process you are documenting (it will also allow you to sort and order using the spreadsheet);
Column 2 – Category – a good idea here is to break the process down into around half-a-dozen major categories. This will let you group similar activities together and ease the creation of your explanation of them. For instance, Data Collection, Setup, Execution, Reporting and so on.
Column 3 – Description – describe the step – simple!
Column 4 – Notes – think of what the user will ask and insert guidance to help them, including recommendations or issues you may have already encountered.
Column 5 – Questions – this is for your rough working notes or aide memoires for additional research or outstanding issues you still need to cover (you don’t publish this).

Step Four: Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

Now you’re ready to meet the SMEs and start putting this together in a more rigorous form. Their brief will be to go through the process, in a very detailed fashion and from multiple perspectives, so you can start documenting the real meat of the process. Be clear in your expectations and do not allow skimming or going off topic: be the voice of the end user in this instance and impose discipline and determination to go through this exercise.

Complete the spreadsheet in a methodical fashion, and it should hold together in flowing, logical manner.

Run multiple sessions because you are very, very unlikely to get everything you need from one round.

Step Five: Create Your Process Documentation from the Working Spreadsheet

The spreadsheet you have created and completed with the SMEs, is now the raw material for drafting your process documentation. Go back to your original outline and make any amendments as you now deem necessary.

Following the spreadsheet, assemble the process documentation by going through each step identified and also adding further information and collateral you have collected. This could include screenshots, links to further resources and explanations of any methodology or terminology: in fact, anything which will assist the end user in understanding what you did and what they need to do themselves.

Now, you’re finished and will have documented your process in a rigorous fashion, ready for any end user dealing with what you have created.

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