Using the Project Charter to Set Your Project Up for Success

One of the most fatal errors a project manager can make is not taking time to properly plan.  Often times, it takes a while to get funding figured out, resources aligned, and to get to the actual starting line for a new initiative.  It is not uncommon for a project to begin “already behind”.  When this happens, it is really tempting to just jump into execution.  I urge you – don’t do that.  Take the time to ensure stakeholders are aligned and that expectations are clear.  This article will give you some important steps to take (and pitfalls to avoid) when it comes to the planning phase of project management.

Step 1: Read your Statement of Work

Depending on your organization, and the type of project you are running, you may have a formal Statement of Work (SOW), which is typically a legal contract between a seller and a client.  The Statement of Work SHOULD clearly outline deliverables, activities, timeline, and assumptions for the project.  In theory, the SOW is the document you can reference back to when there are questions around scope and deliverables.  Having said that, the SOW is not always as specific as it should be.  Also, those who put together the SOW may not be the same people responsible for delivering, and so may not have been as comprehensive as you might like.  Given this, it is essential that you begin by reading the Statement of Work, and asking any clarifying questions.  When it comes to the SOW, ambiguity is bad.  If your customer interprets the deliverables one way, and you interpret another, you can end up in a big mess.  So what should you do?

  • Avoid ambiguity in your Statement of Work – if possible, be part of the SOW-creation process
  • Ask clarifying questions on any areas that are not specific enough
  • Translate the Statement of Work into an easy to digest Project Charter (see Step 1 below)

 Step 2: Create a (thorough)  Project Charter

I get it – no one wants to create documents for the sake of creating documents.  I wholeheartedly agree with that in most cases, but not in this one.  The Project Charter is one of the most important documents in project management, as this is the document that allows you to clearly articulate all of the important aspects of project delivery.  The Project Charter also serves as authorization to the project manager to start the project.

Many people ask why you may need a project charter if you already have a Statement of Work that is signed by the customer?  The project charter gives a thorough and organized summary of the project for the key stakeholder(s). While  the Statement of Work informs the Project Charter,  the Project Charter takes it to the next level of detail, incorporating in more pieces of key information, such as:

  • Project purpose and justification
  • Key objectives and success criteria
  • Deliverables/milestones
  • High-level schedule
  • High-level budget
  • Resource plan
  • Clearly defined roles and responsibilities
  • Known risks
  • Key assumptions

Creating the project charter documentation is not enough.  It is important to meet with your stakeholder(s) to walk through the project charter in detail.  This is your chance to articulate your understanding of the project and to ensure your stakeholders have the same understanding.  It is particularly important to align on objectives, deliverables/milestones, and success criteria.  If there are any differences of opinion, you should discuss until agreement is made, and amend the document as needed.

 Step 3: Get sign-off

Once you have validated the statement of work, created your charter and reviewed it with your stakeholders, and have come to agreement, the last step is easy – it’s time to get formal approval on your charter.  While I hate to say as a project manager you need to “CYA” it is the truth; if something comes into question later, without approved documentation, the default is to err on the side of the customer.  You don’t necessarily need a formal ink or even electronic signature; in a lot of cases, just an email from your customer stating they have reviewed the charter and agree to move forward baesd on the details in the charter,  that is typically good enough. (of course if your organization requires something more formal, obviously follow your organization’s guidance)

Step 4: Ongoing Stakeholder Communication

The official approval of the charter allows you to set up your project with confidence in terms of what needs to be delivered, when it needs to be delivered, and how it will be delivered.  It’s go time!  Having said that, be sure to continue ongoing conversations with your stakeholders.  Don’t stick your charter up on a shelf and forget it; the charter should be used as the basis for ongoing dialogue.  When scope screep becomes and issue (because it will) – pull out your charter.  Perhaps your customer will start focusing on a new objective or measuring you and your team on something not previously agreed to.  Pull out the charter – review the success criteria, and if needed amend it and adjust.  Having a charter that your customer has reviewed and agreed to makes difficult conversations easier and gives you credibility when you need to push back.  The charter in combination with the Statement of Work are the foundation of your project success.

In summary, don’t skip the Project Charter – it is one of the keys to project management success!  It is never worth it to cut corners on this important upfront work.  A thorough and quality project charter lays the groundwork for a sound, credible relationship with your stakeholders!

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