Why A Project Manager Can Never Rely On Memory Alone
In the office the other day, I was asked a question about the status of a project put on hold over a year ago.
I had zero recollection of what they were referring to.
However, after a quick search on OneNote, I found detailed notes on the conversations we had and the strategy decided upon at the time.
Even after reading the notes, I still had zero recollection of the meeting.
This scenario got me thinking about a point made by Will Smith in his autobiography, which I have recently read. After Will learned that a childhood memory of his that led to him being afraid of water his whole life was false, he realised that you can not rely on your memory.
Bringing it back to work; among project managers, we like to think of ourselves as being intelligent, capable people.
This includes having good memories of project plans, technical details, and meaningful conversations.
In reality, however, a project manager’s memory is possibly one of the most unreliable and dangerous aspects of a project.
Our Memory Is Not What We Think It Is
There has been much research on the unreliability of human memory. The law relies much more on hard evidence than the memory of an eyewitness to convict criminals.
An average person is not likely to remember a complete conversation from start to finish — only the parts that stick. And worse, whatever the brain forgets tends to get filled in by your imagination, creating false memories.
Not something you want to risk when you’re involved in a multi-million-pound project.
Your Word Against Theirs
The problem with human memory is that everyone thinks theirs is excellent.
Even if there are multiple people in the room at the time of the conversation, if there is not a set of agreed minutes it is difficult to get to a single source of truth.
Unfortunately, these situations often end up escalating and having to go to mediation.
Relying on your memory is only going to end in confusion, particularly as the years roll on.
As with my example above, even when I found a complete set of notes, I couldn’t recall the event in my memory.
And this is for a meeting that I attended and took the effort to take notes.
Can you imagine how difficult it would be for someone else trying to filter through those notes?
We Are Not Mind Readers
So let’s pretend that you have an excellent memory and remember every single change the client wanted, right down to the nuts and bolts.
What happens when you get a promotion and change jobs? How will the team cope without the information that lives within your brain?
You need to document it all. Write down everything. Not just minutes of meetings, but phone calls and discussions in the corridors.
When delivering a project it is important to make sure to point out anything that is a potential change to project scope, costs, risks or outcomes. As mentioned, make sure they are saved somewhere that is easy to find by all relevant members of the team.
How Do You Do This
The answer to this question will always be different for each project.
However, several general commonalities can be followed to make sure your project is well documented.
Your project management plan will include what is to be documented, how these records will be managed, distributed and include a communications plan.
It is essential that the PMP is created promptly at the beginning and remains a live document throughout any project.
The PMP will make the process clear, but the real difference is the team’s discipline to not only implement record-making but to ensure they are working in the correct area of the system.
For additional consideration, with the increased usage of virtual meetings, we have even more ways to document meetings, such as keeping a recording of key meetings.
Whatever the medium, it is no use if people are saving meeting notes to their desktops. You need a common workspace in which all your documents can be saved and accessed by all key project personnel and stakeholders.
I prefer to take my notes during most meetings using OneNote — it’s easily accessible from a meeting invite.
To Sum Up
As part of my work, I’ve always been vigilant to keep on top of my notes. I’ll either keep the notes for myself as my paper brain, share them as an email, as they are after the meeting or use them to create formal minutes of meetings as required.
This has worked pretty well for me over recent years. The story from this last week is an excellent example.
Regardless of how you take your notes, the moral of the story is that your memories alone cannot be relied upon when successfully delivering a project. Document it.