The Project Charter

If you don't know where you are going, how can you expect to get there?   - Basil S. Walsh

If you have been with me since the beginning – a mere four posts ago – I would first like to thank you! I hope that what you are reading has been interesting and informative. And second, you should know by now how I got my start in project management, as well as the importance I put on asking questions and finding a good role model to shadow toward the beginning of your PM career.

So here you are, armed with an inquisitive mind, and perhaps someone to guide you if you are lucky. You find yourself assigned as the project manager for a new project. What do you do first?

The answer is not to start immediately planning. You do not have enough information to plan yet, and you may lead your team down the wrong path if you just dive right into it. Instead, you must first sit down with the project leader or project sponsor (we will cover these roles in another post) and ask them a lot of questions to really understand what you are trying to achieve. That is, what is the intent of the project and what are the expected outcomes?

A good tool to use is the project charter. A charter is tool that outlines the scope of a project and is used to communicate that scope to all people involved. Once everyone is on the same page in terms of the project objectives, then you can begin planning.

Typical items to include in a simple project charter are:

  • Problem / opportunity statement – Why should you focus on this particular issue or effort? What problem will you solve and/or what opportunity will you seize?
  • Goal statement – What are the outcomes you expect from this project? Make sure they are SMART goals – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound.
  • Roles – Who is the project sponsor? Is there a project leader? What subject matter experts are needed? Do you have a change manager and/or communications lead?
  • Scope – What is specifically in scope and out-of-scope? Possibilities could include employee or customer populations, technology changes, locations, products, etc.
  • High-level timeline – What are the 4-6 key milestones you need to hit, and what is the expected timing?

Seems like a good discussion to have with your senior leader and project team members to mobilize everyone toward a shared goal, right? Setting these expectations at the start, and then revisiting the charter to make sure you are not veering off course, are key factors to project success.

Now, some people on your team who may not have read this post may cringe when you ask them to sit down for 30 minutes and go through this information. Sounds funny, but it’s true! You need to build trust with your senior leaders and team members, and perhaps do a bit of convincing at the start – but then they will be on board once they go through the exercise and see the clarity it brings.

In some cases, you may not have the luxury of time to follow each and every step I will review, but developing a charter in some way, shape, or form is an important one. It will serve as the North Star that you will need to reference when the project starts going off-course. It will help you plan better because you and the rest of the team are clear on your goals. And it will help set up other activities like understanding who your project stakeholders are and developing a change management and communications plan to engage them.

So get out there and spend some time asking your project sponsor these questions. Your team will thank you for it.