038 – Charter? Huh! What is it good for? (absolutely every project)

038 – Charter? Huh! What is it good for? (absolutely every project)

“What are we even doing in this project?”

If you’ve ever asked yourself (or been asked) this question, go back to your Project Charter right now! The Project Charter is a keystone project artifact, authorizing the very existing and base assumptions and structure of your project. It can be called many things – a statement of work, a project initiation document – but whatever, if you don’t have some kind of document that authorizes your project, you may be in trouble!

In this episode we talk about charters, what they are, what should be in them – and what doesn’t need to be in there.


Members can log in and go to https://pmhappyhour.com/resources/ to download our Project Charter templates! We have a long format and a short format template. The long format comes with instructions and example text to get you started.


The course for this podcast includes a special 20+ minute extended walk-through of our charter templates to make sure you get your charter off on the right foot.


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Check out this episode!

Show Notes

What is a Project Charter? [5:03]

Project Charter can be called a number of things – Project Initiation Document or PID. It should be the first real document of the project describing what the project is using the first 5 questions. It is like a contract or an agreement between the requesting and the performing organization authorizing the work. Does every project have to have a charter? It does. It doesn’t need to be called a Charter, but you should have some kind of document that outlines what you are doing and gives you permission to burn resources on that project. It is a more professional version of the email that documents everything that has been discussed in a meeting.

Whose document is it? [7:11]

Ultimately, the project sponsor is responsible for “chartering” a project – not the PM. The PM can help, but the Sponsor needs to define what it is you’re doing and needs to somehow give you, the PM, authorization to go forth and bring upon the work.

How big a deal is it? [8:00]

This thing doesn’t need to be a novel. The charter should be as long as it needs to be. It can be a two-pager, or it can be 20 pages long. If this is the first document in the project, then you probably don’t know enough to add more than that. So don’t sweat about being super detailed if you’re helping create a charter – it’s only meant to get the basic assumptions and goals down on paper, and shouldn’t take months and months and hundreds of pages to describe. Some organizations will attempt to go high-level by using Powerpoint to create and present a charter. But there’s something about using Powerpoint as official documentation that doesn’t seem quite right, unless it is for communication in the context of brief status reports.

So don’t get hung up on having a document that is named “charter” – be pragmatic about it, and just make sure you’ve got something documented and agreed to that says what you are doing, why, and who’s authorizing it.

What’s in it? [11:10]

For this, let’s choose a project to design and build self-contained portable life support system which includes prosthetic limbs, an armored helmet, and a big black cape.

Here are the 12 things that PMI tells us should be on your charter.

1. Project Purpose or Justification – I need a self-contained life support system to keep the pilot alive because he sustained lava-based injuries. This is the greatest sith lord ever to exist, and it’s important that we preserve his remaining life organs.
2. Measurable project objectives and related success criteria
3. High-level requirements
4. Assumptions and constraints
5. High-level project description and boundaries
6. High-level risks
7. Summary milestone schedule
8. Summary budget
9. Stakeholder list
10. Project approval requirements (what is success, who signs off)
11. Assigned PM, responsibility and authority
12. Name and authority of the sponsor or others authorizing the Charter

What it isn’t? [26:21]

An important thing to note here is that this is all high level. Don’t feel like you need to document every single detail – that will just make it a longer process altogether. It is better to spend that time working with your stakeholders to communicate and get alignment on the charter, rather than trying to make a 100 point plan.

How does it get made? [27:50]

Officially, the charter is issued by the Sponsor or Steering board. But a lot of times they don’t know to do that, or they don’t know how to do that, and as a PM you get this project when none of this stuff is figured out. Is it ok to go back and create a charter? Definitely yes! Executive management 101: do things and make 90% of a decision and bring it to them for that last 10%.
But, if your sponsor changes in your project, or the fundamental assumptions or goals of the project change, then you should definitely go back to square one and re-verify the charter. The more uncertain the situation is in project delivery, the more important it is to have a charter document.

SOW [32:40]

If you are working as an external contractor or a vendor, is your Statement of Work a Charter? It depends on your perspective. From the contractor perspective, your chartering document has to answer the first five questions, and it should authorize you to perform the work. In that sense, a statement of work can be considered a chartering document. You may use the charter to manage your scope of work. However, the statement of work of the contractor provides the most critical component, which is authorizing the expenditures and resources, and this should help define the scope. You need to define scope a little bit more, and you’re going to need a stakeholder list for this. Hence, as a supplier-vendor, you’ll need an additional document. If you feel that you need to document and get more information around your project so you can better control it, then you should be free to do that, but it doesn’t have to be called a charter. You can probably call it a Project Initiation Document. If it needs to be 12 documents or more, try to break the information into discussion points and schedule a meeting for these as the project goes on.

Other Uses [36:57]

A charter isn’t just for projects. A few years back, Kim was asked to work within an organization to build and run a pan-European PMO. The sponsors knew they needed it, they knew it was important, but that was it. So, his first step was to ask the first five questions, then write a charter based on these. He wrote the charter, socialized it, and got a buy-in before he took it any further so he could understand exactly what he was being asked to do and how much authority and responsibility he was given to do so.

Take Aways
Key Probing Questions

● Do I have a charter?
● Is my chartering document still valid and aligned?

You may be in trouble if…

● You don’t have a charter

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    Kim Essendrup

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