Why All Project Plans Should Begin with a Charter

Last month, we did an overview of project management in our first blog in this series, titled, “ Project Management 101: The Four Components of Project Management.” This is the second blog in the series and will build on the content of the previous blog.  

It’s hard to address project management without first talking about the Charter.  Most projects are not started with a Charter, which can lead to some disastrous results, including “scope creep” and resource mismanagement. This is why it is important to discuss what a Charter is and why every project needs one.  The Project Management Institute, in its Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, defines a project Charter as “a document issued by senior management that provides the project manager with the authority to apply organizational resources to project activities.”

A Charter is more than just a piece of paper that outlines a project. It can help your project be successful, which is why every Project Manager should take the time to create one! In the last blog, we discussed how and why many projects fail, including the causes of those failures.  As we know, in terms of overall project success, communication across the organization from the executives down to the team members is vital. Along these lines, one of the critical pieces of a Charter is the spelling out of the approved components of a project.  “When properly constructed, a project Charter can serve as a compass, steering team members toward shared goals and nudging them back on track when a project begins to drift into unexpected territory(Merrick, A., 56–61).

Project Charters can be 50 pages long, or a single page document.  While the length of a Charter doesn’t indicate whether it is good or bad, keeping it short can mean that it provides the right level of guidance to those on the project.  

At a minimum, a project Charter provides the following benefits:

  1. Formally recognizes and authorizes the project. A project should never begin without approval from the executive level. In some rare cases, the Charter is given to the Project Manager and outlines for them the vision and goals for the project.  In reality, however, the Project Manager will often craft the document after gathering the necessary information and validating it with the executives.
  2. Gives the project manager authority to spend money and commit resources. The Project Manager has no authority to spend money or gather resources to work on a project until the Charter has been approved by leadership.  The Charter serves as the official document that allows the Project Manager to allocate resources toward the work.
  3. Provides the high-level requirements for the project. In the Charter, the term, “requirements” is very broad and covers everything from identifying the scope of the project, people resources needed, vendor requirements, quality outcomes required, and more.  When writing a Charter, I like to define what we are going to do, when we are going to do it and even what we are not going to do.  As the project progresses, the scope of the project is important to understand so that the work intended gets done and nothing more.  This helps to avoid what we like to call “scope creep,” keeping the project on track and not going off on tangents that stakeholders would like added to the project.  This piece alone can derail a project if not clearly defined.
  4. Links the project to the ongoing work of the organization. Typically the people resources on a project are part-time and work either their “regular jobs” or other projects simultaneously.  Linking the project to other projects at the organization or ongoing work helps everyone to understand resource availability for your project.  Resources also include budgeting dollars for the project and you may need to understand when money can be spent throughout the length of the project.

The Charter sets the tone and structure for the project, outlining the vision for the project, authority to start the project, defining what is to be accomplished, scope, risks, and resources.  Constructing the Charter at the very beginning of the project prevents missteps and confusion, and can smooth the way to a positive outcome. Stay tuned for the next two blogs in this series, which will address Risk Management and Change Management. See Jacobus Consulting’s project management solutions here or contact us.

 

Resources

Knutson, J. (1997). Developing a team charter. PM Network, 11(8), 15–16. 

Merrick, A. (2014). And away we go. PM Network, 28(7), 56–61.