The following is adapted from The Irreverent Guide to Project Management.
Some organizations believe that developing a charter is a waste of time and would rather begin by developing a work plan. This is a terrible idea! Skipping the charter and jumping straight to a work plan will put the project definition in the hands of the team members, and they will only be basing their work off what they assume the project owner and executive stakeholders want.
Remember that a charter is the foundation for your project. It defines the parameters, empowers the Project Manager to plan the project according to the right criteria, and provides a firm footing for a work plan suited to the task.
Of course, not all charters are created equal, and it’s important to have one that will guide every subsequent step of the project. Here are my tips for building a rock-solid charter. I promise that the time you spend in this stage of project development will pay off down the line!
Align Everyone’s Interests
In my experience, the Project Owner and Executive Stakeholders are almost never clear or aligned on what needs to be done to complete a project at the beginning of the process. The exercise of defining the project and developing a Charter requires critical thinking and decision-making that wasn’t necessary when the need for the project was realized. If the Project Owner and Executive Stakeholders aren’t clear, it is impossible for the project team to know what needs to be done!
A charter is the perfect place to make sure that everyone’s interests are aligned for the project. If you can find a consensus on the definition of the project, then it is much more likely that you can come up with a work plan and a set of goals that will deliver exactly what is expected.
Often, when a Project Manager is required to develop a Work Plan without first defining the project, the result is almost always a plan that is rejected by the Project Owner and Executive Stakeholders. The time and expense to develop the rejected plan is lost, and the project winds up back on the proverbial drawing board.
Feel Out Your Clients
It isn’t unusual for Executive Stakeholders to indicate approval of something that they truly do not support. A ton of project failures occur because the Project Manager did not ensure true Executive buy-in during the project definition. This commonly results in lack of support from those Executives during the project, poor adoption of project outcomes, and lack of project benefit realization.
It is critical to encourage Executives to share and work through their differences and concerns at the outset of the project, to avoid the obstacles that a lack of Executive Stakeholder support would otherwise create throughout the project lifecycle. It is much better to do this during the development of the Charter than during the early phases (or even middle or late phases!) of the project itself.
During introductory meetings, the Project Manager needs to be aware of body language, tone of voice, and the lack of an Executive’s feedback or comments. Each may be an indication that the Executive is not feeling comfortable or disagrees with some aspect of the project definition.
Effective active listening while facilitating these sessions will also establish the Project Manager as a leader in the eyes of the Project Owner and Executive Stakeholders rather than merely a note-taker, and because everyone required in the approval/acceptance process has directly contributed to the development of the Charter, the approval and acceptance process will run smoothly, dramatically reducing the time required to establish the Charter.
Don’t Go Overboard
Nobody likes to read project documentation! Nobody! Our clients let us put it together because it is the only way for them to assess what we know about their vision for the project. It’s also the most effective way to communicate their vision to the other project stakeholders. And they hate reading it! Reading is time-consuming, and our clients have 1,000 other competing priorities.
So, as you complete the Charter, remember that project documentation should be barely sufficient. It needs to contain just enough words to achieve its purpose and no more! Also, focus every word on their vision—people like to read about their ideas. Do not include anything that sounds like project management methodology mumbo jumbo. Do not describe methodology, phase gates, or try to incorporate your MBA jibber jabber! Keep it focused on the vision in their mind, use as few words as possible, make friends with bullet points, and ensure the final document is barely sufficient.
A Successful Charter Has Three Areas of Focus
When you’re defining a project, the most important things that everyone needs to agree on are: the purpose of the project, the objectives, and the benefits.
The purpose explains what overall business objective this project will fulfill, and it should ideally be tied to one of the organization’s current strategic objectives or their overall mission. This will help stakeholders see that the project is connected to something much larger and more meaningful than the daily tasks at hand.
The objectives will certainly be meaningful to executives, but also pay attention that in hashing out the objectives, you will learn a lot about the desires of the executives, and they will start developing a common understanding of the critical project outcomes. The journey is sometimes more important than the final list.
The benefits should address the specific positive outcomes that are expected to result from completing the project. All listed benefits must be unambiguous, measurable, and realized by project closure.
An Ounce of Planning Now Will Make the Future Easier
In his twenty-five years of work, James P. Lewis has trained more than 300,000 project management professionals. During this time, he found that each hour allotted to project planning results in a three-hour decrease in the time it takes to successfully execute the project.
That’s a significant amount of time saved! Not to mention all the headaches, grumbles, confusion, and problems that arise when a team doesn’t have a clear orientation. It might seem like a good idea to skip the charter and get cracking, but in the long run, you will be well served by crafting a coherent, cohesive vision for the future.
For more advice on project charters, you can find The Irreverent Guide to Project Management on Amazon.
From the start of his career spent jumping out of helicopters as a rescue swimmer in the United States Navy, J. Scott has a long history of leadership, servanthood, and bearing witness to the transformative power of getting shit done. Since starting 120VC he's personally overseen the global transformational efforts within organizations such as DirecTV, Trader Joe's, Blizzard Entertainment, Sony Pictures, Mattel, and others. His team's unique, irreverent approach to change has generated breakthrough results and created meaningful jobs. In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, J. Scott is a devoted husband and father and author of "It's Never Just Business: It's About People," and "The Irreverent Guide to Project Management," both available on Amazon.com.