How a project ends has a lot to do with how it starts. Yet the true beginning can be traced back before the kickoff meeting—to the project charter. 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.
From what to include on a charter to how to properly execute it, project practitioners share insights on starting projects off on the right foot.
TAKE A BIRD’S-EYE VIEW
At its core, the project charter gives the rationale for the project. Executives rely on it to verify that the project is in line with strategic goals. Team members use it to understand whether a project has met the organization’s business need.
Because a charter carries so much import, it can be tempting to load it down with unnecessary detail—but
doing so muddles its purpose. “A big picture approach is definitely better—always,” says João Petrocelle, PMP, real estate PMO manager at VR Empreendimentos Imobiliários, a real estate developer in São Paulo, Brazil. “People need to have the objectives in mind all the time. If it is a simple, summarized document, people will tend to remember a good part of it.”
But organizations that lack solid project management practices can have more trouble creating simple charters.
“You tend to see big, bloated charters at organizations where there’s not a whole lot of trust, leading project managers to feel like they need a lot of charter verbiage to cover their bases,” says Pattie Vargas, portfolio program manager for enterprise information systems at Autodesk, a 3-D design software company in San Rafael, California, USA.
Instead, Ms. Vargas suggests, think of the charter as a mission statement: a one-page definition explaining what will be done, why the project is being undertaken and how team members will know they’ve succeeded. “If people can’t say the mission statement, they’re not going to stick to it,” she says. Simplicity becomes especially important when working with an agile approach, when you don’t want to spend a lot of time involving the
project team in developing heavy documentation, she adds.
COLLABORATE FROM THE VERY BEGINNING
The project sponsor’s role in drafting the charter is sometimes seen as perfunctory—but that’s a misstep. Involving the project sponsor early on can foster a sense of collaboration from the first days of a project and also help prevent any potential misunderstandings about the project’s goals or parameters. “Not having sponsor involvement at a project’s inception is setting the team up for failure,” says Reva Barendse, PMP, former senior project manager at Sasol, an oil and energy company in Rosebank, South Africa.
Mr. Petrocelle is overseeing the construction of an estimated six-year project budgeted at more than BRL100 million to build a 25-story office building in Brazil. To create the charter, he met with the board to learn the key product inputs from the sponsor’s perspective: cost per square meter for construction
and a time estimate once the concept design was ready.
“I used those key product inputs from the sponsor’s perspective to write the project charter, then I developed a broader definition of the objectives, scope, risks and responsibilities, and also detailed the time and cost objectives on larger tasks,” says Mr. Petrocelle.
Knowing which project elements would get the most attention from the sponsor helped Mr. Petrocelle realize which elements needed most of his attention—and merited mentions in the project charter.
HOME IN ON THE BUSINESS CASE
While a detailed budget and risk register will be worked out in the planning process, the project charter should include the business case: the time frame, overall cost and general financial assumptions and risks.
“The business case is the most important input for the project charter, because it shows what financial targets the project must achieve to be considered a success,” says Kailash Upadhyay, PMP, senior project manager, Tata Communications Ltd., Mumbai, India. Stakeholders need to understand how their conception of the project, as developed in the business case, will translate into the financial metrics included in the charter.
The business case, as well as other aspects of the project, should be defined in the charter in terms that are specific, measurable, assignable, realistic and timerelated, says Mr. Petrocelle.
Ms. Barendse says one common mistake she sees in developing the business case is rushing the information-gathering
phase. “Many idea sessions are only an hour long, which is insufficient to fully understand the requirements,” she says.
During the charter-writing phase of any project, she makes sure key stakeholders and subject matter experts are available and emphasizes to them that their time in this phase is crucial, because it will limit clarification sessions later. “The more brains in the room, the better the information one will be able to gather,” Ms. Barendse
says. She uses a mind-mapping tool to organize stakeholder input and direct the discussion, all of which adds clarity to the business case and strength to the project charter.
REVIEW AND REVISIT
The best charter is one that’s looked at even after it’s been approved, to keep team members focused on the project’s mission.
During a six-month project to re-engineer a call center’s software application, Ms. Vargas relied on the charter to keep well-meaning team members from introducing scope creep. The customer wanted the software to work faster but didn’t want its customer-service agents to have to learn new technology. “It was really hard for our engineers not to want to make it better, but that was not part of our charter at all,” she says.
In the charter, Ms. Vargas crafted a key statement: The call-center agent will be able to satisfy customers’ needs within 29 seconds. She then copied that line from the charter onto poster boards that she hung around the team’s
workspace. Any time an engineer proposed a task that didn’t relate to that statement, she pointed to the charter’s mission and said, “This is what success is going to look like.”
Months into a complex project, it can be easy to lose track of what a project sponsor hoped to accomplish in the first place. Drafting a clear charter at the outset allows project practitioners to communicate a shared vision, helping all team members find their way to the finish line. PM