Put it in Writing

Projects just don't start themselves. They don't walk into an organization with their own approval for the expenditure of funds, material resources and labor costs. Projects are not self-determining. They don't self-proscribe a mission and outcome. They don't set their own constraints, identify their own risks or establish their own authority and responsibilities for the project manager.   

It's the collaborative effort of the organization's leadership team along with the project manager, that set the proverbial commitment-anchor in the ground to recognize and authorize the existence of the project. The "Charter" allows the organization's leadership and managers can discuss how much it will cost and will the benefit out way those costs, and of course, how long will it take to turn this idea into something substantive.

Charter1Credit: Cory Stophlet, 2014

What's a Project Charter?

The Project Charter, what is it and why is it? This charter can be found in many forms throughout the various industries. Its purpose is to provide the organization and the designated Project Manager (PM), Project Sponsor, and other stakeholders, with the basic authority for moving forward in the project. Essentially, it forms a contract agreement between the executive leadership of the organization, the PM, and the general stakeholder population or others, as to what is to be achieved by the project in general terms the commitment of the organization towards providing needed resources for the project, and provides the PM's authority, responsibility, and project limitations as best known at this point.

Charter2Credit: Cory Stophlet, 2014

Elements of a Project Charter

Project Description or Vision Statement: What are we building, designing, and creating from a vision standpoint, not necessarily a detailed perspective? What is the "expected" outcome of the project from the executive leadership's standpoint? This portion can include a brief background statement as to why the project exists, such as to meet a new market challenge or to meet new regulatory guidelines. It can include known goals and or objectives pre-established for the project. Essentially, this statement(s) becomes the basis for the more detailed scope statement yet to be developed.

  1. Project Name and Number (Sometimes this is a budgetary cost code number): If there is a long project name, it's advisable to also show a short title as well. Acronyms or abbreviated names work well followed by an abbreviated project code.
  2. Project Manager (PM) Name: Name, number, location, email address, and phone.
  3. Project Sponsor (or sometimes called the Project Champion) Name: Name, number, location, email address, phone for the leadership person above the PM will serve to help the PM get past bumps in the road with other Line Managers and General Resource issues.
  4. PM's Responsibilities: General list of responsibilities communicating to everyone concerned why this person is doing what they are doing. Example: The PM is responsible for facilitating and leading the project team towards meeting all key milestones within the time, cost, and performance constraints of this project, while adhering to proper quality and control standards. Furthermore, the project manager must work closely with the line managers to ensure that all resources are used effectively and efficiently, and that the project is properly staffed. Additionally the project manager will be responsible for:
    • All formal communication between the customer and the project team.
    • Preparation of a project plan that is realistic and acceptable to both the customer and project team.
    • Preparation of all project data items.
    • Keeping executive management informed as to the project status through weekly detailed and monthly summary status reporting.
    • Ensuring that all functional managers and employees are kept informed as to their responsibilities on the project and all revisions imposed by the customer or parent organization.
    • Develop project-reporting requirements and submit to Project Sponsor.
    • Comparing actual to predicted schedule performance, and taking corrective action when necessary.
    • Maintaining a continuously tracking display of the project's schedule and work accomplished/performed as well as resource/work commitments made by the functional managers.
Charter3Credit: Cory Stophlet, 2014

PM's Authority: General list of what this person is allowed to do and act upon under the authority of the Executive Leadership. Example: To ensure that the project meets its objectives, the PM is authorized to manage the project and issue directives in accordance with the policies and procedures and best project management practices. Additional directives may be issued through the Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Information Officer, and Chief Financial Officer. The project manager's authority also includes:

  1. Direct access to the customer on all matters pertaining to the Project.
  2. Direct access to command management on all matters pertaining to the Project.
  3. To revise the project plan as needed.
  4. To revise and submit a project Budget At Completion prediction after completion of Project Design.
  5. To require periodic functional status reporting.
  6. To monitor the time, cost, and performance activities in the functional departments and ensure that all problems are promptly identified, reported, and solved.
  7. To oversee and manage the Project Change Control Process.
  8. To cut across all functional lines to interface with all levels of management as necessary to meet project requirements.
  9. To renegotiate with functional managers for changes in personnel assignments.
  10. Delegating responsibilities and authority to functional personnel, provided that the line manager is in approval that the employee can handle the authority/responsibility level.

Charter4Credit: Cory Stophlet, 2014

Constraints (initial limitations) will include the initial planning budget assigned along with performance requirements including project schedule variance and cost variance limits.

Risks (initial): These are usually major risk considerations that are already on the horizon and may impact the project good or bad. They can be the type of business or organizational risk issues that could signal the death or suspending of a project, or even major business changes that could rewrite the projects' scope. Example: Volatile market conditions, potential business merger, business or department closing, or product and services cuts, concerns regarding ROI, international events, threats, government or law changes, etc.

Assumptions (initial): This sometimes relates to or is counterbalanced by the initial "Risk" items. For example, executive focus and vision remain the same during the merger and market flux; funding remains locked in throughout the merger, market conditions are maintained and the project's product output is still a viable based on original ROI.[1]

Executive Level Authority (Name, Date, Signature): Who at or near the top is serving as the power behind the project, authorizing the expenditure of funds and other resources? This person is especially important for the PM when fighting for competing resources.

What if the Boss doesn't want a Charter?

This just might happen, and often does, when the project is relatively limited in scope, budget, and time. However, all projects need some sort of document establishing the authority for expending business resources. The business may forego a specified format and process for a simple email and reply. For very small projects run internal to the organization, a brief statement describing the project's purpose and outcome may all you get, if even that. There are times when management does not want to formalize the project through a charter or other like type document. Sometimes management feels that the project is too small in scope for such documentation efforts. Sometimes management does not want to have any documentation of such as described here, in fear that it is confining their flexibility to make major alterations in scope as the project progresses. Some managers don't want a document in place that makes it difficult for them to dissolve or make a project disappear for whatever reason that might exist. In spite of all this, documenting the project charter, even if done for the sake of the project manager, it is a protection tool to help the PM establish an ending point for the project initiation or origination process and a clear beginning point for the design and planning processes.

No Sign-Off, Yet Still Must Move Forward

If you are sure that you'd never get a sponsor or executive sign-off on the charter, at least send them the document as a formatted summary of what you "believe" are the charter information and ask for a concurrence signature or email response reply. This gives your senior management an opportunity to buy-in, buy-out, or modifies the project information. All large-scale projects requiring significant resources to include people, materials, equipment, and money most assuredly need to be well documented right from the start. Otherwise it's too easy for the PM to become the fall-person (fall-guy) for a project that is no longer meeting the organizations needs due to various managers changing or extending the scope without limitations. Additionally, as stated earlier, the Charter forms the bases for both scope related documents and for measuring the project's performance and output against the original vision. Something needs to exist giving you the authority to move ahead and expend resources; rarely is the PM also a senior executive of the organization with direct funding and resource authority. As the PM, it's in your best interest to establish this product as a clearly defined starting point for detailing and executing the project.

Charter Formatting

Formatting this document is an organizations choice. Many project-oriented businesses have some sort of Charter format. It might be called by a different names and it may be created with different tools such as Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Adobe, or even an automated form on the businesses' intranet providing an establish template that can be used universally throughout the organization. In organizations that exchange and communicate through web-based applications, an on-line charter format may be the best way to ensure that all projects are properly chartered and communicated to all stakeholders. At a minimum, a simple email covering the essential items, forwarded to the appropriate parties is sufficient to communicate the message and solicit responses and approvals for the required leadership.

More Info and Perspectives on the Charter

Final Word

Charter5Credit: Cory Stophlet, 2014

The purpose of developing and documenting a formal or informal project charter serves to establish the authority for this project to exist and expend organizational resources. It is not meant as an academic exercise. A well prepared detailed Project Charter establishes the commitment of an organization towards the successful completion of the project and to help establish the initial ground rules or constraints of the project; furthermore, it also helps to clearly establish the role of the project manager in helping that organization achieve its vision, goals and objectives. The project charter serves as a major process deliverable at the conclusion of the conception and initiation of a project's life cycle and serves as the kick-off document for the project manager and the project team towards beginning the detailing of the scope and of the project planning effort.