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Happy New Year! To celebrate new beginnings, all of my January blogs are devoted to the idea of getting started. A smart start begins with a well-written project charter. Here are five essentials to ensure that your project charter works.

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A project charter is a written document, issued by senior management that authorizes a new project to begin. Different organizations have different policies and procedures for the creation of project charters and many underestimate the importance of a charter.

Most seasoned project managers would agree that developing a strong charter is one of the most important steps you will take to ensure project success. Even in organizations that create very basic charters, there are a number of important criteria that should be quickly outlined in writing. So, what are the basics of a strong project charter?

The best gift you can give your team is a motivating vision statement.

The vision statement is a brief statement that describes what you are trying to accomplish and why. For businesses, the statement should outline the business need for the project. When the statement is created to be motivational, it will help propel your team through rough patches. Here are some examples:

  • We are holding this event to raise money to help children with cystic fibrosis.
  • We are moving our offices to a new location to provide more space for staff and better parking for our clients.
  • We are upgrading our computer systems to provide better and faster customer service, an improved user experience, or to reduce server downtime.
  • We are litigating this case to help our client recover damages from a fire.

Don’t waste time on promises that you can never deliver.

Document a preliminary budget range and a target completion date in your charter. At the beginning of any project or client engagement, when scope is not clearly defined, no one can accurately estimate a budget or develop a timeline. But understanding your budget range will help you know whether you are building a sophisticated playground to serve 50, or putting up three tire swings in a mulched square. And knowing your target completion date can help you plan an achievable scope of work and estimate a reliable finish date.

Don’t be caught off guard by unknown constraints and assumptions.

Project constraints are the limitations on the project or the team. During early project planning, project constraints should be evaluated and if they cannot be removed, they may need to be set up as project risks and managed during the life of the project. A project assumption is anything taken to be true or false, which may not be so.

Validate what is most important to management (and clients).

Is scope, cost, schedule, quality or risk most important? Since resources are always limited, at some point, teams will have to choose between scope, cost, quality, risk or schedule. Management (and clients) will try to tell you that everything is important, but there will be trade-offs. So, determine management’s most critical factor.

Avoid heartbreaking failures by understanding success and failure criteria.

Understanding what will make your project a success is essential. Define one or more measurable factors that will define your project as a success and work towards accomplishing those objectives. Know what constitutes failure.

A strong project charter covers these essentials and authorizes the project manager to begin work, and to spend company resources on the project. It is not a scope of work document. That comes next. The project charter is a broad document that doesn’t change as the profit changes. The size of an organization will dictate the distribution list for a charter, but at a minimum, it is distributed to the people who need to know about the project. This can be a pretty substantial group.

Email me if you want early access to an invaluable cheat-sheet with a one-page, printable outline of the most important details in a project charter.

Photo Credit: Launch of the Assembly’s Youth Engagement Charter; License 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0);