John Weathington, President & CEO of Excellent Management Systems, Inc.
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First Management

How to Build a Project Charter

In philosophy, the concept of first philosophy is not a reference to chronological discovery, it’s a fundamental belief of how to approach philosophical discovery—that is, what are the first questions we should contemplate? Similarly, when you approach any sort of management, especially program or project management, there are some fundamental concepts and beliefs you should embrace, before considering anything else. The project charter is a vital component of what I call first management, in deference to the early philosophers who changed our lives by asking these questions.

Whenever I'm in a discussion with a soon-to-be stakeholder about an upcoming project initiative, one of the first questions out of my mouth is, "Do you have a Project Charter?" The vast majority of the time, the answer is, "Huh?" (translation -- "No!"). And, when they actually do have a project charter, it's usually filled with useless fluff rendering the document completely worthless.

This always alarms me. Your project charter is the most important and useful document to have on any project. It will take some thought to create, but it can usually be constructed in a day or two (at least the initial draft). If properly done, the charter will crystallize your project focus, thereby giving your team a much better chance of success.

Once complete, your project charter should be able to fit on one page, and be very easy to digest. You should be able to give your charter to anybody, and with a brief scan, they should know exactly what you're trying to do.

A project charter has 6 sections; let me walk you through each one.

Business Case

This should state how your project ties into the higher level strategy. In Six Sigma terms, it's called the "Big Y." If your company has a known and published executive strategy, start there and work down. If the different management levels between you and the top also have published strategies, be sure to include them. There should be, what I call, discernible strategic lineage, that maps your program or project to the corporate strategy. This forms the primary purpose of the project, and should definitively answer any question of why its objective is necessary.

The 6 Sections of a Project Charter:
  • Business Case: Why are you doing this?
  • Opportunity Statement: What is the pain?
  • Project Objective: What will you accomplish?
  • Project Scope: What are the outcomes?
  • Project Plan: How do we get there?
  • Team Members: Who's involved?

Opportunity Statement

The Opportunity Statement usually includes the "pain" that the company is experiencing right now. It should explain what will happen if you don't do this project, or don't do it right now. It should highlight any costs of doing nothing, and how narrow the window of opportunity is, if that’s the situation. Try to make your opportunity statement as specific as possible, using hard dollar amounts and percentages.

Project Objective

The Project Objective should contain, in specific terms, the goal of the compliance project. In Six Sigma terms, it's called the "Little Y." Use the SMART acronym when building your project objective: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, Time-Bound. As with the opportunity statement, try to make your project objective as specific as possible. Under the category of “Time-Bound,” make sure your project objective has a target date of completion, and reference the conditions that drive the target date, which should be mentioned in the Opportunity Statement.

Project Scope

The Project Scope details what is in scope and what is out of scope. The project manager or key stakeholder can do this individually, however it's better to do in a group setting with all stakeholders. It’s important to explicitly state what’s out of scope. To consider what should be highlighted in this section, consider grey areas of scope that may not be readily apparent. It’s not necessary to detail anything that’s obviously out of scope, but anticipate questions about your project’s scope, and clarify them upfront in this section.

Project Plan

The Project Plan is the projected milestone chart for the project. I nice touch is to do this in Gantt style, highlighting the duration of the major phases or deliveries. It should include the project start date, project end date, and at least 3 or 4 milestone dates.

Team Members

This is a list of all the team members for the program or project. Be sure to include the Executive Sponsor, Program Leader/Manager, Project Manager, and all the people that will be on the project team. If the team hasn't been formed yet, you can use placeholders (TBD) or put a general statement that the rest of the team will be formed at a later date (specify the date ).

A project charter is a simple but critical document for any project, so there's no excuse for not having one. It should fit on one page and contain 6 sections; Business Case, Opportunity Statement, Project Objective, Project Scope, Project Plan, and Team Members. Anyone should know what your project is about, with a simple read of this document.