Project Charter – Why do we need one, anyway?

I’m often asked why one needs a project charter. After all, if we’re working on the project (or if the project was our idea), we certainly know what needs to be done, don’t we? While organizations, individuals and project managers may very well know what needs to be done, the project charter is an essential tool that provides purpose and motivation for a team to do its work. The project charter serves three functions: it establishes focus for the project team, it motivates the team’s behavior, and it motivates emotion. In effect, the project charter helps teams get over project plateaus. It is the  “guiding hand” for the completion of the project.

There are six elements in a good project charter: business case, problem statement, project scope, goals and objectives, milestones, and roles and responsibilities. Project charters may have additional elements, but these six are key. Here is what these elements contribute to the project.

  1. The business case describes what the project does and how it impacts the strategic business objectives of the organization. The business case is typically used as a motivational tool to explain why the project is worth doing. For example: The planning department is experiencing increasing challenges in issuing building permits in a reasonable timeframe. This is directly contributing to decreased revenues for the organization.
  2. The problem statement identifies the problem that the project will address. The problem statement is specific and measurable, indicates how long the problem has existed and describes the gap between the current and desired states. For example: In the past five years, the number of building permits issued has decreased by 50 percent due to the high turnaround time for processing. Turnaround time for issuing building permits needs to be improved by 50 percent within the next year.
  3. Project scope defines the boundaries of the project work. It also helps avoid scope creep which is what occurs when work that is outside the scope starts to be done as part of the project. The project scope helps the team to avoid working on “boil the ocean” projects.  Continuing from our example above, the project scope might be: The project includes review of building permits issued by the planning department over the past five years and implementing processes to improve turnaround time for building permit issues. Not included in the scope – other types of permits issued by the organization.
  4. Goals and objectives in the project charter identify what will be accomplished and within what timeframe. For example: 1. Reduce turnaround time for permit issuing; 2. Improve planning department building permit issuing processes; 3. Review and recommend changes to forms used in building permit processes.
  5. Milestones are dates that are assigned to each goal. They help the team stay on track with the project and they are important for overall project completion.
  6. Roles and responsibilities are a key part of the project charter. In all instances, a Project Champion must be assigned. This person allocates resources, removes obstacles to the project and identifies the project team. In addition, a project manager (internal or external) as well as an internal team leader is required. And of course, the project team is essential, but keep the number of team members to eight or less for better manageability of the overall project.

Use the project charter to help you manage your project and meet deliverables. It is a living document for a living project and it could just save your “life” on the project!

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