What is a Project Charter? The Complete Guide
Project charters provide a guiding light for any new initiative. So, whether you work as a project manager or operations professional, you’ll need to become a pro at writing these documents.
Besides providing you with the authorization to begin projects, project charters help you sell your project’s viability to stakeholders. This document will also help get your entire team on board with your plans and deadlines.
In this guide, we’ll explore everything you need to know about project charters. We’ll cover:
What is a project charter?
A project charter is a one- to two-page document containing key information that stakeholders need to see before they authorize an initiative. Project charters usually include project objectives, project scope, project risks, and more. Project management teams reference this document throughout a project’s lifecycle.
The Benefits of Creating Project Charters
“The project charter is such an important document that a project cannot be started without one,” says Rita Mulcahy, a renowned project manager, trainer, and author. This document can keep your team on track to achieve your project objectives on deadline.
Here are other benefits of creating a well-written project charter:
- You’ll decide on a project budget.
- You can define the project outcome.
- You’ll avoid scope creep and meet your deadlines.
- You can get stakeholders’ buy-in for your project.
- You can set the expected start and end dates of the project.
- You can clearly explain how your project goals align with organizational objectives.
Next, we’ll explore best practices for writing a project charter.
How to Write a Project Charter
When writing your project management charter, it’s important to get it right from the onset. “You shouldn’t change a project charter after its approval,” says Mary Beth Imbarrato, author of The Project Roadmap. Last-minute changes can make stakeholders question the project’s feasibility.
This step-by-step guide will help you write a great project charter from the get-go.
1. Gather insights from your project team.
Talking to your team members is essential when creating project charters. Your colleagues can help you set realistic project timelines. They can also help you uncover the goals, scope, and risk mitigation plans for the project.
“You should set aside time for your team members to discuss the project, how they want to approach it, and what’s their current bandwidth,” says Will Yang, Head of Growth at Instrumentl. “Doing this ensures your project team is on the same page.”
2. Store the charter in a central location.
To foster collaboration, store your project charter in a central hub so team members can comment on and edit it.
This gives everyone a sense of ownership of the project. Programs like Google Drive and Dropbox offer co-editing capabilities.
3. Keep the project charter brief.
You may be tempted to capture every detail in your project charter. But remember: You should go in-depth in your project planning document, not in the project charter.
“Stakeholders won’t have the time to read a verbose 15 pages charter because they have other priorities,” advises Konstandinos Christofakis, head of marketing at ULTATEL. “That’s why charters should be a high-level overview of projects, remain short enough to be useful, and long enough to be valuable.”
If information is digestible, the chances of project approval rise, according to Christofakis.
4. Add visuals to your charter.
Using images or design elements can help improve the readability of your project charter and keep your document brief.
For instance, if you want to outline a lengthy communication plan or milestone in your charter, a Gantt chart can help. These charts also stand out in the project charter, allowing team members to reference them easily.
5. Create a project charter template.
Have you written a project charter in the past? Or perhaps the document you just completed is a masterpiece. Turn these documents into templates that you can use in the future.
Having a template for your project management charter helps you save time and maintain consistency in the future. This approach to project charters also ensures you don’t skip important elements in your document.
Pro tip: If you don’t already have a template, you can browse options online. HubSpot offers a free project charter template that you can download at any time.
Now that you know the basics of creating project management charters, let’s go over the anatomy of a project charter.
The Anatomy of a Project Management Charter
After developing a project charter, project managers send them to the project sponsor to get approval. A sponsor may include the government, individual financier, or top management of the organization executing the project.
Here are the elements your project charter needs to get approval from sponsors.
1. Project Objective
The project objective is the high-level reason for undertaking the project. Tying objectives to your company goals is a brilliant way to pique stakeholders’ interest in your project.
Pro tip: Use the SMART framework to make your goals Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound.
2. Project Overview
Your project overview goes into greater detail about the timeline and ownership of a project. This section outlines details like the project name, project sponsor, project Manager, expected start and completion dates, and estimated budget.
Pro tip: Add a table to your project overview. This makes information skimmable and easy to find.
3. Project Deliverables
This is a list of the services or products the project team will provide to stakeholders. Be clear on what your team is delivering to avoid any disagreements that’ll make you extend your deadline.
4. Project Scope
The project scope explains the boundaries of the project. While PMs typically write detailed project scopes, keeping it brief in the project charter is a best practice. Why? You can create a detailed scope statement in the project planning phase.
5. Project Stakeholders
This is a list of the names and responsibilities of the parties involved with a project. Stating who’s responsible for different tasks holds your team members accountable.
6. Project Risks
Outlining the risks to a project will help you identify blockers to the success of your project and their potential impact. Doing this enables you to devise risk mitigation strategies.
Pro tip: Create a table of potential risks. Be sure to explain why the risk poses a threat to your project and the mitigation strategies you plan to enact.
7. Project Resources
Always create a list of resources your project will need. And that’s not just money. Your resources should include team members, facilities, equipment, and other essential items which are critical to the success of your project. This helps you account for everything you need to take the project to the finish line.
Project Charter Examples
1. Project Management Charter for Lean Six Sigma
This sample project charter follows the Lean Six Sigma format, one methodology for project management. Teams that already use this framework may opt to structure their project charter in this way.
What we like: The Lean Six Sigma project charter offers a clear scope of work. Project goals also follow the SMART framework, making how the project will benefit the company extremely clear.
Project charter limitations: While this charter outlines key information, including the project goal and problem statement, some key information is missing. The process owner didn’t state the project costs or risks. If you emulate this format, be sure to include this information.
2. Project Management Charter for Website Redesign
In this project charter, the University of Guelph explores exactly what its web team must do to redesign the school’s library website. That includes all of the necessary stakeholders and who’s owning the project.
What we like: This project has a well-defined scope and timeline. Sponsors know exactly who is working on what and when.
Project charter limitations: While this project explores the risks associated with the project, mitigation plans would improve this section of the document.
Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Project Management Charters
1. Missing a Clear Purpose Statement
Every project should have a clear goal and purpose. But sometimes, the primary objective becomes unclear. To combat this, apply the illusory truth effect, which states the use of repeated information increases understanding.
Lauren Carter, principal consultant at Lauren Ashley Consulting, says she uses this strategy to help her team remember the purpose of projects. In Lauren’s words:
“Project members often lose the ‘North Star’ in the thick of the work. One effective way I prevent this is by having a clear purpose statement in the charter, which I repeat in several ways throughout the project’s lifecycle.”
“This can be as a header on project documents, putting it at the top of timelines or charts, or using it as a metric against which you evaluate planned and unplanned activities that arise.”
2. Creating a Charter Mid-project
Project charters should kick off your initiative. Writing this document halfway through can lead to scope creep, ill-defined responsibilities, and confusion.
“Changing the project charter after initiation and planning means you’ll have to review any work you’ve completed and even rework some completed tasks,” says Mary Beth Imbarrato, a 25-year veteran in the project management industry.
She adds, “This can lead to delays, elevated costs, and create more project risks.”
Mary Beth also says changes to the charter may impact how team members view a project. The result? Reduced commitment and engagement.
The bottom line: Creating the charter before starting the project will help you avoid scope creep, prevent wasted time by redoing work, and keep extra risks to your project at bay.
3. Ignoring Your Company’s Project Charter Template
Using existing project charters as templates can save you time and ensure consistency.
Instead of creating new charters from scratch, request a sample of a completed charter document the company liked and use it as your template. This template will help you understand how your organization prefers to present ideas, allowing you to follow suit and begin projects on the right foot.
Start New Project Without Missteps
A well-thought-out charter is a roadmap for achieving your project objectives in record time.
Get started by gathering input from your team and creating a project charter that will get the green light from stakeholders.