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Meet Your New Best Friend: The Project Charter

~ By Cameron Watson

Manager passing a document to a colleague

The project charter has been around for as long as the concept of work.

The Egyptians used project charters to create the Pyramids. So did the Greeks to erect the Parthenon. Even the Romans used a project charter to create the Coliseum. Little Johnny used a project charter to construct his miniature house made of Lego blocks.

As different as the times and methods used to create these structures were, one common thread exists, success was based on the creation, maintenance and oversight of a project charter. The Egyptians may have created theirs with hieroglyphics in the sand, the Greeks may have chiseled theirs in Mount Olympus, the Romans may have penned theirs in Latin, and little Johnny may have used Crayola on the kitchen table. The point is not how complex or sophisticated the project charter was, but rather, that one was required, prepared and relied upon to act as a foundation to create all of these structures.

While academia can spend days crafting a definition of the complexities, informational requirements, and internal dynamics of a project charter, anyone can grasp the concept using six simple words: "what are we trying to do?"

Though the term project charter is routinely applied and recognised within the Information Technology (IT) industry, the concept of project charter is as applicable to organisational strategic planning, corporate budgeting and operational oversight. It is difficult to fathom a corporate president or CEO performing their roles without defining and documenting "what are we trying to do?" or a CFO maintaining fiscal control without defining and documenting "what are we trying to do?" The concept of "what are we trying to do?" permeates every facet of every organisation. Suffice it to say, the tenure of a CEO would not be very long if they were unable to articulate and gain approval of "what are we trying to do?" from the shareholders.

On the surface, addressing the project charter "what are we trying to do?" question appears to be a simple exercise, be it a CEO, CFO or an IT Project Manager. In reality, it can become a very trying and taxing exercise. The amount of definition and explanation required in a project charter depends upon the magnitude and complexity of the "what are we trying to do?" question. A project charter used to document how one person should dig a hole in the ground could be documented on half a sheet of paper, while a project charter used to document how to send a space craft to the moon and back would span many pages.

The utilisation of a project charter is as varied as the number of organisations that create and apply them. In some cases the project charter is the project's cornerstone and is relied upon throughout the project. In others cases, the project charter is a project title and a brief project description. The project charter has been adapted and customised by organisations to address a myriad of needs. Here are a few contexts where the project charter is used.

Corporate: Project Definition

As an initial project document, the project charter establishes the goal posts from which the project will be initiated, planned, pursued and completed. The project's definition will reflect its size and complexity. It can include the following:

  • The purpose of the project
  • The scope
  • The objectives
  • The resources (HR and otherwise) to be utilised on the project
  • The plan
  • The cost estimate
  • Project hierarchy and organisation
  • Risks and impacts the project will have on the organisation

The project charter is not a stagnate document, it evolves and is maintained to reflect the changing circumstances and conditions associated with the project. The project charter acts to establish the project context and boundaries to ensure all project team stakeholders and resources have a common point of reference and understanding of the project throughout its duration.

Corporate: Project Authorisation

The project charter gives organisational stakeholders the ability to review and evaluate priorities. Utilising the project charter to obtain formal authorisation ensures there is a correlation between the corporate strategy, planning and budgeting exercises and the organisational resources allocated to complete a project. This ensures organisational resources will remained focused on the authorised projects.

Corporate: Project Scope Management

After establishing the project context and boundaries and receiving formal authorisation, the project charter can be used to monitor and evaluate the scope of the project from beginning to end. Project stakeholders are able to reference the project charter to monitor the project progress and direction in relation to the original context and boundaries they had originally approved. This affords project stakeholders the flexibility to stop, defer or accelerate IT project team priorities to better reflect organisational business needs. It also enables IT project team resources the ability to re-calibrate their efforts based on decisions and approvals of organisational stakeholders.

Corporate: Formal Deliverable

The project charter establishes an operational premise to promote structure and formal documentation. This is very important to the efficiency of IT delivery and support. This concept of structure and documentation can be leveraged by the organisation to introduce quality assurance and to improve the maintenance and support of applications.

Project: Planning and Oversight Benchmark

Once authorised, the project charter can act as the basis for a project planning exercise. The Project Manager is able to reference the original definitions established and authorised in the project charter to provide greater clarity and detail on how the project will be executed. Project plans, project schedules, project resources, project budget allocations are derived from the authorised project charter.

Project: Team Communication

The authorised project charter provides the mechanism the project team will rely on throughout the life of the project. It acts as the basis for the deliverables and wok products identified in the project plan and project schedule. Having formal documentation prepared provides several benefits. Project development teams will have access to the necessary information to ensure project team communication is consistent and based on formal approvals, all project development team members can rely on the authorised deliverables to ensure they are working off the same page. Application support and maintenance teams have a common point of reference they can leverage to effectively maintain and incorporate new functionality into the applications.

Wrap Up

Although the concept and need to create a project charter has meant different things in different environments for different audiences at different times, its primary purpose has and always will remain the same. Be it the Egyptians or Little Johnny, as long as the concept of work exists, success will always be reliant on the need to ask, answer, and deliver according to the "what are we trying to do?" question.

Cameron Watson is the President of QAIassist. QAIassist helps organisations increase and optimise their IT delivery and support efficiency. QAIassist's Integrated Methodology incorporates the disciplines and deliverables required for organisations to consistently deliver quality applications on time and within budget. Visit QAIassist's website or email Cameron for more information.


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