Project charters: The secret weapon of project management

Project charters: The secret weapon of project management

Tamar Freundlich

Project charters get a bad rap in many organizations. 

It’s just another obstacle in the bureaucratic approval process  – right?

Wrong. Many might think it’s merely an overlooked deliverable in the project management cycle, but we’re here to tell you that project charters are one of the most underrated tools in a project manager’s toolbox – you just need to know how to use it. 

If you’ve ever managed a project that got so out of control you had a hard time remembering how it all started – read on because it’s clear you need project charters in your life.

What exactly is a project charter?

So glad you asked. Before we jump into the project charter in all of its glorious potential, here’s a cut and dry definition:

A project charter, or a team charter,  is a preliminary statement of the scope, objectives, and participants for a given project.  It includes the delineation of responsibilities, identifies the main stakeholders, outlines the key goals, and – most importantly –  defines the authority of the project manager.

Project charter template

How do you write a *good* project charter

Consider your project charter a kick-off meeting in document format. It should answer any question you would ask in that meeting.

Starting off with the very reason this project is necessary, defining the goals and KPIs, delegating responsibilities to stakeholders, drawing a timeline, including phases if necessary, and electing a lead, aka the project manager.

Key project charter metrics:

project charter metrics

  • Project name – Not as obvious as you might think. Try to get as specific and recognizable as possible to avoid confusion. For example, “Mobile Initiative” is a no-go.
  • Purpose and goals – What are the pain points that triggered this project? How do you plan on addressing them? And maybe the most critical question – how will you measure the successor of this project?
  • Budget – While you’ll have a separate detailed budget document, this section should include the overall budget and resources that will be allocated to this project.
  • Deliverables – What product, service, or result will be delivered in order to conclude this project and consider it a success?
  • Scope – What is the scope of this project? How far does it extend, and what is the scope of your authority as a project manager?
  • Risks – What are the known risks associated with this project? What resources are available to mitigate these risks?
  • Roles and responsibilities – Break down the areas of responsibility and list the individuals and teams responsible for each.
  • Timeline and milestones – How is the schedule broken down, and what do you expect to accomplish at each stage of the project?

Depending on the project at hand, there might be other crucial elements you should incorporate into your process.

Why is a project charter so important?

Consider your project charter as a project contract

This document, in whatever format it may be, is your project’s north star.  It’s there to authorize the project and act as a contract within your organization. 

This is not to say that there won’t be changes along the way. As every seasoned project manager knows, nothing ever goes exactly as planned. But that’s the very reason a project charter is necessary.

There are a few things that shouldn’t change. The reasoning behind the project shouldn’t change. The goals shouldn’t change. The essence of the project should not change.

If (or better yet – when) you have to move a deadline or alternate between stakeholders – that’s fine. It will happen, and nothing is set in stone. 

But with all the unexpected obstacles and forced pivots that occur when managing a project, it’s easy to forget why you’re doing what you’re doing in the first place. The project charter is the very tool that will bring you back to solid ground and keep you on the right path.

It’s the baseline that holds everyone involved accountable.

Also – consider your project charter as the last evaluation before you take the plunge

The charter determines if the project at hand is worth pursuing at all. 

While the investment in this project is still low, the charter gives you the perspective to understand if it’s not truly aligned with organizational strategy. 

The project charter will help you ask critical questions, and is your best chance of stopping an inevitable failure before resources are wasted.

Who is responsible for writing the project charter?

Excellent question.

Most automatically assume that the answer is the project manager, and unfortunately, many times, that ends up being the case. But it’s not ideal.

The best person to write is the sponsor. Who initiated the project? Who requested it? Who authorized it? That’s the person who should create the initial project document and pass it over to the project manager.

While this is too often not the way that things play out, it does not mean that the project managers should stop pushing for it.

It’s true that execs and VPs often don’t have the time or might not see the importance of project charters, and that’s precisely why it’s up to the project manager to request an adequate charter before starting the process.

What usually happens – and is perfectly fine – is that the project manager will write an outline or even the charter itself, and ask the sponsor to review it. 

Remember, a project charter is a contract, and you need both sides to sign off on it before you get started. 

It’s no easy task to get your organization on board with a new initiative. But if you do it right and start showing real results, you’ll find it becomes infinitely easier.

Project charter templates 

Luckily,  you’re not the first to create a project charter. While every organization is different and every project has its own unique needs, there are still plenty of templates out there you can learn and build from.

We recommend you get started with this one and customize it according to your projects.

Get the project charter template now!

Project management is not an easy job, but if you’re reading this article, you already know what. Fortunately, we can learn from others and use all the tools and resources at our disposal to make the process easier, and even more important – to show better results.

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