PM-Foundations – The Project Charter

Every project needs to start somewhere. Someone in the organization identifies a new idea, a problem to be solved, or a business need to be fulfilled, and initiates the project through some form of communication to the group that manages the project initiation process. Depending on the organization and the type of project request, the initial communication has different names – project charter, business case, enhancement request, service request, or investment proposal (to name a few).

In my experience, the project initiation process is a critical component of the overall project delivery process because the time lost “up-front” identifying and formalizing new projects is seldom recovered throughout the remainder of the project life cycle. No matter what you call the document that is used to initiate the project, the process and content utilized to capture and approve the project concept will have a significant impact on time to market and reduce the number of “false starts” associated with new project requests. Consistent and well-understood project initiation processes and deliverables makes it “easier to do business” with the project delivery organization.

For purposes of this blog, I refer to the project initiation deliverable as the Project Charter. This is the term most commonly utilized within the project management community, and is often adopted as the name of the project initiation deliverable within organizations’ project delivery processes / methodologies.

Project Charter Content

The information captured within the project charter is utilized to provide a high level description of the project concept (business need or problem to be solved), and answer some basic questions utilized to justify approving initiation of the next step in the project delivery process (project planning and execution).

  • Why? Describes the goals and benefits of completing the project. A good project charter will provide a description of tangible benefits to the organization, including quantification of the potential range of benefits (optimistic – realistic – pessimistic).
  • What? Describes the high level scope of the initiative, and the key requirements associated with the request (often in the form of critical success factors).
  • Who? Provides a list of the primary person/organization requesting the project (the project sponsor), and the key people/organizations impact by the project (stakeholders). It is helpful to describe how the people/organizations are impacted (e.g., suppliers, subject matter experts, end users, customers).
  • When? Highlights timing related requirements associated with fulfillment of the project request (e.g., window of opportunity). In some cases, how the project request will be fulfilled is known, and the project charter provides key project milestones and target dates.
  • How? Describes what is known about the project delivery process. In many cases the project is not starting from a “blank piece of paper”. The project may represent an enhancement to an existing product or system, or the implementation of a product / technology that has already been identified or purchased.
  • How much? Establishes funding available to complete the project request (e.g., amount budgeted in the organization’s budget), and/or cost related parameters associated with fulfilling the project need. In many cases, the project charter will define a rough order of magnitude type estimate for completing the project (e.g., +/- 50%).
  • What else? The charter will include any additional information that is relevant to approving the project request and initiating the next step in the project delivery process (e.g., project assumptions or constraints). The project charter may also include an assessment of risks and issues associated with the project request.

Listed below are elements commonly found in a project charter. Many project charters include a summary section that “scores” the request based upon the initial estimates of benefits, costs, timing, and resources. This score is utilized to help evaluate the relative value of the request (compared to other requests) within the project initiation process.

Elements of an Effective Project Charter:

  • Background / Description
  • Goals & Benefits
  • High Level Scope
  • Key Product Requirements
  • Critical Success Factors
  • Proposed Project Delivery Process
  • Project Sponsor & Key Stakeholders
  • Cost Estimates / Targets
  • Target Dates / Milestones
  • Assumptions & Constraints
  • Known Risk & Issues
  • Score / Ranking

Project Charters do not need to be lengthy documents that represent a long and arduous process to complete. The specific content within the project charter should be tailored based upon the type, size and complexity of the project request. The project charter should be viewed by the customer of the project initiation process as an “enabler” vs. a “blocker” to launching a new project.

Who is Responsible for the Project Charter?

Ultimately the person or group that has identified the business need or problem to be solved is responsible for the project charter. However, in my experience, many areas of the organization do not have the experience, knowledge, or skills required to create an effective project charter. Their “best attempt” frequently does not adequately describe the business need, high level scope, or the best approach to fulfill the need. These project charters are often “hung up” in the project initiation process, requiring significant rework and additional justification prior to approval. Again, delays during project initiation are seldom recovered in the remainder of the project delivery process.

To solve for this problem, I recommend assigning a member of the project office to help the project initiator with gathering and documenting the information required to create a strong project charter. If the person assigned is also the person that is anticipated to be the project manager for the initiative (assuming it is approved), assisting the project initiator with the project charter will streamline the project manager’s on-boarding and ramp-up during the official project launch and planning processes.

6 Attributes of a Good Project Charter

1. Written – Although the initial idea may be communicated and vetted verbally, project initiation requires some form of written documentation to efficiently approve the request and launch the project planning effort. In addition, documenting the project charter enables collaboration of key stakeholders, and improvement of the end deliverable.

2. Objective – The project charter should fairly represent the perspectives of all key parties involved and impacted by the project request. Although the project charter is not intended to be a legally binding document, it is expected to be a reasonable representation of the anticipated benefits, as well as the estimated effort required to fulfill the request.

3. Explicit – A project charter should clearly and concisely communicate each of the key elements of the request – goals/benefits, timing, costs, risks/issues. Based upon the information known at the time the project charter is created, these elements should be described in detail, and quantified if possible. In many cases, the use of project assumptions enables quantification of benefits, costs, and timing. Project charters that contain ambiguous elements are often the source of contention and change during the project planning and execution processes.

4. Available – The project charter should be maintained in a location that is available to all stakeholders. Collaboration on the project charter improves the quality of the end deliverable. In addition, the project charter represents a deliverable that will continue to be referenced throughout the project life cycle, particularly during the project planning process.

5. Consistent – Establish a template for the content and organization of the project charter. Within the template describe how the content can be tailored based upon the size, complexity, and type of request. Best practices and lessons learned from previous projects are used to continue to enhance the project charter template.

6. Approved – As defined by the organization’s project initiation process, the project charter should be approved by the appropriate parties (including sign-off) prior to launching the project planning process. All project charters (in process, approved, and rejected) should be maintained in the project office’s project archives.

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PM-Foundations – What Does a Project Manager Do?

One of my favorite questions to ask potential project management candidates is, “When you were managing the project what did you actually do throughout the project delivery process?” It is amazing how vague and ambiguous the responses can be.

“I managed the project deliverables.”

“I led the team.”

“I guided the project.”

“I managed customer relationships.”

“I facilitated project planning.” (this one is a little better)

None of these examples very effectively describe what the project manager actually “does” to ensure the project is planned, executed, and closed in a manner that delivers on customer expectations. The other response that I frequently get to this question is a “deep dive” into the content of what was delivered. For some reason candidates think describing what was delivered articulates their contributions to the project outcomes.

The reason I think it is so important for candidates to be able to clearly describe what they do as a project manager is that it helps identify whether or not they consistently do the right things at the right time during the project delivery process. Focusing on the key elements of what a project manager does is also helpful to identify improvement areas and professional development opportunities when coaching and mentoring project managers. Below are 9 of the project management activities that I focus on when working with project managers. I thought about ranking these in order of importance, but honestly I believe these represent the handful of things that are all important for a project manager effectively and efficiently perform to consistently drive positive project outcomes (therefore these are in no particular order).

Top 9 Things a PM Does throughout the Project Life Cycle

1. Create and Manage the Project Schedule – Without a good schedule that directly supports the project objectives (scope, time, and cost), the project manager will struggle to effectively deliver on customer expectations. The project manager has direct responsibility for creating the project schedule, including defining the work breakdown structure (WBS), performing activity definition and sequencing, loading and leveling resources, and performing schedule analysis. During project execution the project manager updates the project schedule in a consistent and timely manner. These updates ensure that the project schedule always provides an accurate picture of work completed, and work remaining to be completed.

2. Create and Manage the Project Budget – The project manager creates the project budget by efficiently leveraging the planning assets created to that point in the process. The project manager performs analysis to develop a project budget that will be understood and approved by the client/stakeholders, and just as importantly can be managed throughout the project life cycle. Creating the project budget includes developing a project staffing plan that details planned resource utilization (in hours), identifying other project costs (e.g., software licenses, infrastructure investments, and travel & expenses), and complying with the organization’s financial processes (e.g., capitalization, investment approval, project budgeting vs. funding). During project execution the project manager updates the project budget with actual hours reported by project resources and other actual costs incurred (e.g., from vendor invoices). The project manager forecasts cost variances based upon costs incurred and estimated cost to complete the project, and identifies / implements corrective actions required to deliver the project within budget.

3. Create the Project Plan – The project management plan represents the key deliverable created during the planning phase of the project that connects the project management activities throughout the project life cycle. The project management plan describes the elements of the baseline project plan (scope, timeline, costs and resources), as well as the approach, processes and tools that will be utilized to manage each component of the project (e.g., cost management, schedule management, change management risk management, roles & responsibilities, project communications). The project manager ensures that a strong project management plan is efficiently created (the project manager generally authors a large portion of the project management plan), and is proactively utilized throughout the project life cycle to successfully deliver on the project objectives.

4. Identify and Manage Risks / Issues – Throughout the project life cycle the project manager facilitated the investigation of project related uncertainties to identify potential risks of things that may occur that would impact the project (scope, cost, or timing). The project manager is responsible for capturing and tracking risks and issues in a manner that minimizes their impact on the project. The project manager ensures that key risks and issues are reviewed on a regular basis, and the appropriate actions are completed to close issues or reduce the impact / probability of risks.

5. Manage Team Meetings – The two most important team meetings that the project manager has responsibility for are the core team and steering committee meetings. Effective planning, facilitation and follow-up for these meeting by the project manager is a key to ensuring that the core team members and project sponsors are well-informed, focused on the right things, and resolving issues in a timely manner. The project manager creates the agenda, organizes information to be presented, facilitates the meeting, communicates meeting outcomes, and initiates / tracks the follow-up actions from the meeting.

6. Manage Change – Change is an inevitable component of managing a project – nothing works out exactly as planned. The project manager manages change by maintaining the appropriate balance between control and discipline to manage to the baseline plan, and flexibility to adapt the plans to meet customer expectations. The project manager establishes the change control process for the project, ensures that potential changes are captured and assessed in a timely manner, implements approved changes by making the appropriate adjustments to the baseline plans, and tracks / communicates the impact of change on the project.

7. Measure and Manage Project Performance – The project manager updates progress against plans (budget and schedule), performs analysis required to accurately interpret the key project performance metrics, and recommends / implements corrective actions. This process is performed in a consistent and timely manner to ensure that problems are identified early on, and the appropriate actions are taken to keep the project on-track.

8. Facilitate Stakeholder Communications – The project manager communicates with key stakeholders in a regular and consistent manner, targeting the messages to specific stakeholder groups using the appropriate communications channels / vehicles (e.g., project update meetings, status reporting).

9. Close the Project – Project closure represents an activity that is often minimized or entirely overlooked by the project manager. At the end of a project, many project managers are hurriedly preparing for their next project or client, and miss a prime opportunity to leave a lasting impact on the client organization. Project closure starts with effectively shutting down project activities, validating all product deliverables are complete & key product issues closed, and smoothly transitioning resources to new roles (onto new projects, or within operational functions). The second component of closing the project is gathering customer input about the project, and summarizing the project results in the form of the final project report (also known as the project closeout report). This component of closing the project includes facilitating the lessons learned process to identify improvement opportunities (things done well, or areas for improvement), and to initiate actionable next steps to improve future projects and upgrade the capabilities of the project office.

How do you know if you are doing the right things?

This represents a long list of things to do on a regular basis – how do you make sure you are focused on the right things? Part of the answer to this question depends on where you are in the project life cycle. During the planning phase your focus is on creating the planning deliverables – the schedule, budget, and project management plan. During the execution phase of the project your focus shifts to updating the schedule and budget, tracking risks and issues, managing change, communicating with key stakeholders, and measuring / managing project performance.

The other element of answering this question relates to establishing a personal organization system that the consistently helps you understand and focus on activities that will have the greatest impact on driving positive project outcomes. Neal Whitten, in one of my favorite project management books, “No-Nonsense Advice for Successful Projects”, talks about ensuring that the project manager is managing the top 3 problems. Neal states, “The No. 1 reason projects run into trouble is that the project manager and other project members lose sight of the problems that need the most attention – the top three problems. The top three problems become the top priorities.” I think this concept relates directly to the everyday life of a project manager. What are the top 3 things that need to be performed / resolved to keep the project moving in the right direction? There are many personal organization techniques that you can use as a project manager to ensure you are focused on the right things. I utilize a project planning pad (see below) to record and prioritize my activities at the beginning of the week. This tool personally helps me maintain focus on the “right things” throughout the week, and summarize accomplishments and open issues at the end of the week. The same organization system does not work for everyone, but my personal opinion is that effective project managers consistently utilize personal organization processes / tools of some shape or form.

 

On a Personal Note: I got the idea to write this blog when I was talking to a good friend of mine the other day, Mark Ducharme, about what people do (at work). He said I know that you are a project manager, but I have no idea what that means in terms of what you actually do when you go to work each day. Thanks for asking Mark!