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What Is a Project Charter in Project Management

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Even if you’re brand new to the world of Project Management, you’ve more than likely heard of a project charter. But what exactly is it? 

Think of the project charter as the official birth certificate of the project! A signed charter signifies the beginning of a new initiative, and that’s important. In the role of project manager, you likely feel that you are at the helm of just about everything. It’s up to you to provide a timeline to the customer that includes dates and goals. You need to share budget information with the customer, plus team details and potential setbacks and predictable risks. 

All of this begins with the project charter. To put it simply, the project charter is a document that summarizes many aspects of the project so that your sponsors and team members can visualize the project path that lies in front of them. Plus, the project charter represents power, authority, and credibility – when signed by the sponsor, the project charter gives your initiative life! 

Maybe that’s a little vague. If you’re here reading this, we assume you want the fine details! We love that, and at Velociteach our passion is sharing our experience as a team of professional Project Managers with anyone interested in listening. 

So let’s talk in-depth about what a project charter is, and how to put one together with enough detail to set your project up for success. 

First Things First: Know Your Stuff

A project charter captures a lot of information regarding your project. The point is this: the charter isn’t something that you can whip up the day before you need to present it. 

As project manager, start to develop the project charter by researching several topics, such as:

  • What outcomes should this initiative produce?
  • Which goals are most important to the client?
  • What milestones or delivery dates are known?
  • What is your budget?
  • Which constraints and assumptions should be discussed up front?
  • What limitations or setbacks might come up along the way?

It’s your job to gather this information, and the project charter is your way of presenting all of it to your team and clients so that they feel confident and aware of what’s to come. 

Alright, let’s say that you’ve done your homework, and you know everything there is to know about your project at this early point. Now, what exactly goes into the project charter?

What Goes Into the Project Charter

You won’t find too many details in the project charter regarding low-level requirements, specs, or budget estimates. Those come later in the planning phases of the project. However, there are essential topics to cover in the project charter. 

Purpose

Why? Why are we performing this project? The opening of your project charter should answer the question, “Why?” 

Why is this project happening? What need will the project address? What is the goal of the client and the team?  Are we developing a new software dev tool? Are we upgrading an existing product? Is the goal of the project to bring our practices in compliance with new regulations? Are we creating a new product for the client because their current inventory isn’t sparking interest in a specific customer demographic? 

Defining the vision of the project upfront creates team alignment and puts the whole team on the same page. State the purpose of the project in a few, succinct sentences. One paragraph will do.

Objectives

Your next section aims to be a response to the call of your purpose. You’ve established why your project is happening, now the question is how do you get there. Think of these as the project objectives or requirements of the project. We plan to accomplish A by doing B, and we can measure that with C.

What are the requirements that your team can point to at the end and say, “We did it!” 

Later in the project, the team will break the objectives down into smaller, more-detailed requirements or work packages. In the charter, we focus on the big picture. We describe the high-level objectives, how we’ll create or achieve them, and we can even mention how we’ll measure success.

Timeline

It is too early to create a detailed version of a schedule, but marking major milestones or anticipated deliveries will help your team visualize the progress and effort this project will entail. 

List the start and end dates of your project here. Essentially, you’re sharing a summary schedule that acts like bookends given what you know about the project today. The team will develop specific deadlines once the detailed planning gets going. 

Budget

Another major constraint on project work and scope is the budget. Include a summary budget in your project charter. First, make sure the project sponsor is comfortable sharing those numbers and details – always smart to check first!

Risks

A major role of a project manager is risk management

Will the team use proven technology on this project? How much experience does the team have with this product or service? Are vital components of the project being produced by third-party firms? What is their track record?

Think about resources. How likely is it that you’ll run into resource limitations? Perhaps you know in advance that certain team members will be unavailable during portions of the project. 

Right from the start, the project manager and key stakeholders should think about what could go wrong during the project. Include that preliminary risk assessment in the project charter. Again, don’t get carried away with PIM Scores, graphs, probabilities… that’s too much detail for the charter!  Just address the overall risk assessment for the project in the charter. Only a few sentences are necessary. 

Interested in expanding your knowledge and skills in risk management even further? We have courses just for you. 

Our Risk Management Fundamentals course is 1 of 4 risk courses available online and is designed for any and all project managers looking to learn more about risk management from professionals with years of experience.  And our instructor-led Applied Risk Management course is great for groups looking to learn the principles and methodologies of risk management. We also have a few Manage This podcast episodes dealing with Risk Management.

Team Members and Clients

Towards the end of your project charter, it’s good to include the names of those filling major roles in the project. For instance, the sponsor, the project manager, the product owner, the technical lead, the architect, etc.  

On larger projects, the contact information for the project team and other stakeholders is best kept in a separate document… or documents. But, naming the major players on the project in the project charter is a smart start. 

Authorization

The signed project charter makes things official – it gives the project manager authority. Not only does the project charter act as an overview and roadmap for your project, but it also sends a clear message to department leaders, management, and other stakeholders. 

The charter is usually written by the sponsor or customer with help from the project manager. Then, it is signed by that sponsor or senior management indicating that the project manager now has authority to recruit team members, acquire resources, and get things done. 

This acts as a contract between you, your team, and the client. The project charter summarizes what the sponsor wants, what the team will create, and how the team plans to do it. 

Whether it’s digitally signed or in-person, this copy of the project charter is important to keep in case any questions relating to goals, budgets or the timeline arise. 

Tips And Tricks For Your Project Charter

So we’ve covered everything that goes into a project charter, and you’re all set, right? 

Don’t worry we won’t just leave you there – we really mean it when we say our goal is to share knowledge and experience with you, not just instructions.

Here are some pieces of advice that will help optimize your project charter. 

Keep It Short And Sweet

While everything we talked about may seem like a lot, it shouldn’t take up that much room on the paper. 

Remember that the charter is an overview that communicates the big picture to your team, other departments, and key stakeholders. They don’t need lengthy paragraphs; they just need the summary information. 

Bullet points and lists are your friends here, don’t worry about drawn-out explanations. Those will come later. 

Ask For Input

This tip is big, and can (and should be) applied throughout the entire project: Ask for help! 

Your team members are experts in what they do and will have valuable insight in helping describe requirements, project unknowns (risks), and constraints and assumptions.

If you have team members assigned to the project or you know who they are likely to be, ask them for their input as you develop the charter. That action helps you in two ways… your charter will be richer and more complete, and you will foster trust and buy-in by involving the team as early as possible in these plans. 

Reference Your Previous Experience

Depending on the types of projects you manage, you might start to notice a pattern in your charters. 

The numbers, dates, risks, and objectives will be different. But, the structure in which you present them might not. 

Using your past charters as a reference template will help save valuable time, and they’ll get better as you make small enhancements over time. 

In Conclusion

The project charter is the first document that brings your team together. It is the cornerstone of your project, connecting tangible ideas today with the optimistic goals of tomorrow. 

That might sound corny, but it’s true! Your project charter is shaped by what kind of project manager you are, and at the same time shapes the way your project begins and moves forward. 

Crafting a succinct and well-informed charter not only explains to your team what they’ll be doing and why, but it also serves as the first road map they see. When well-executed, your project charter will be seen by your team members and clients and make them say, “Alright, this makes sense. Let’s do it.”

Interested in learning more about project charters and how to be a successful Project Manager? At Velociteach we offer a wide variety of instructor-led courses, online courses, and self-study materials to expand your management skills. We pride ourselves on our in-depth and high-quality curriculum that is designed for everyone at all levels of project experience. 

Learn more about project charters as well as the many other aspects of managing projects in our 2-day instructor-led Project Management Fundamentals course.  If you prefer to study at your own pace, check out our online course Introduction to Project Management Fundamentals.  Whether you’re studying to take the PMP exam or you are a project manager with a few years under your belt, we’ve got something for you. 

References:
  1. What is Risk Management and Why is it Important?
  2. How Digital Signatures Work
  3. The Right Way to Ask for Help at Work

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