Project Charter

The project charter documents the project’s scope, objectives, resources, risks, assumptions, change control and the project manager’s authority. It should let the project manager identify problems and conflicts early so they can be resolved before the project work starts. It should help the project manager cope with the executive’s expectations about the project and how the PM will manage them. Project Phases Main Page

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Project Charter: Common Problems

When problems arise mid-project, their impact is twice as severe as it would have been if you had dealt with them early.  The project charter is not just paperwork.  It’s a chance to avoid common problems that arise from the following:

  • Inadequate project manager authority
  • Misunderstandings about what the scope includes and doesn’t include
  • Unclear change control processes
  • Resources that don’t show up for project work
  • Risks that could have been prevented.

The project charter lays out the project’s high level scope, risks, constraints and resources.  It is the framework for the detailed planning and should be approved before planning begins. Right after the scope is defined and major deliverables are identified, the project manager has the sponsor’s and stakeholders’ attention.  It’s the best time to talk about what’s needed to produce the project’s deliverables. You have to be aware of the executives’ expectations, but they often don’t discuss them.

Bad Project Charter – What People Are Really Thinking

project charter

Let’s review a typical session where a project manager talks with an executive about the charter components. You’ll hear the words they say and then learn what they’re really thinking.

 Project Charter: PM Authority

Project Manager’s words: “I will need the authority to coordinate the activities of the entire project team and integrate their efforts so we can achieve outstanding results.  This authority must cross functional and departmental lines because the project does. I also need your support in securing resources, problem solving and change control processes.”

Project Manager’s thoughts: I don’t want a repeat of that last project where most of the team ignored their assignments.  I spent hours each week begging and pleading with them to get their tasks done. This project is bigger and I’ll need executive support when there are problems.

Project Executive’s words: “Of course, you have my full support. My door will always be open if you have any problems getting things done.  Now, exactly when are we going to finish and what will this cost?”

Project Executive’s thoughts: “Geez another project manager who wants to boss everyone around and have everyone in the company on the project team.”

Project Charter: Risks and Assumptions

Project Manager’s words: “I’m sure you’ve carefully read pages 46 to 77 of the project charter where I detailed the project’s risks. These are challenges that we must work together to resolve.”

Project Manager’s thoughts: I was up half the night thinking through everything that could possibly go wrong with this project and I think I got them all listed. So if any of those things happen, they can’t blame me. 

Project Executive’s words: “That’s a very careful assessment of the risks.  You certainly seem to have this project plan well thought out. I am in your corner.”

Project Executive’s thoughts: “Does this yahoo think this long list of excuses means that we won’t blame him? What a dope. If this project is late, the first thing I’ll do is end this clown’s career.”

Project Charter: Change Control

Project Manager’s words: “We need to freeze the project plan you’ve approved today.  We all know the devastating effect changes have on our ability to finish on time and within budget.”

Project Manager’s thoughts: These executives always want to add new stuff to the project whenever they wish. But they won’t change the due date and budget. That’s why we never finish on time and why no one’s ever happy with project results. That has to stop.

Project Executive’s’ words: Well, there is a need for flexibility but I certainly agree that we want to keep this project on course.” 

Project Executive’s thoughts: This is my project and I will add whatever I want to the plan. And this PM will salute every time I do.”

Project Charter Failure: No Problems Avoided or Expectations Changed

Here is a project that’s ripe for failure. The executive has negative expectations about the PM and their project management abilities. The project manager’s technique let the executive gloss over the problems instead of dealing with them. No one made difficult decisions or commitments.  The issues of the PM’s authority, risk management and change control were left to smolder; for now. Those smoldering embers will burst into flames in mid-project, when they will do the most harm.

There is a better way to present a charter. But it does not result in everyone leaving the meeting smiling and laughing. Why? Because problems and issues must be resolved now. Issues about borrowing people across functional lines, risks and making changes must be resolved before we start work.  Let’s see how a strong project charter does this.

Project Charter: Project Manager Authority & Resource Specifics

If you’re going to have problems getting resources when you need them, you must make an explicit request in the project charter. Don’t just ask for support. That means nothing. It’s best to find out now about issues with making assignments across departmental boundaries.  You should communicate about your project management authority in your project charter with words like this:

Project Manager’s words: “This project requires approximately  two hours a day from each of the following first-line supervisors during the month of June (List of specific names and titles).  As project manager, I will “own” those two hours every day.  During that time period, I’ll be able to directly assign work to those people from the approved project plan and schedule.”

Are those words likely to inflame existing issues about cross-functional or matrix authority? Yes they are and that’s the point.  By being very direct and crystal clear about the resources and the kind of authority you need to get the project done, you inflame the issues early. That gives you the opportunity to resolve them.  Now is the time to do it. You can link the resource issues to the project budget and completion date. Those things are currently at the front of the executives’ minds.  You can persuade them to approve your request by presenting the efficiency  and benefits of these requirements. You should state the delays and postponements that will result if we don’t get them.

Project Charter: Project Risks & Assumptions

You also throw gasoline on the project risk discussion by being direct about them.  Identifying every possible risk and assumption does not insulate you from blame. The fact that a PM listed 157 bad things that might happen in the project charter has never in the history of project management protected a PM from being blamed for a failed project.

Rather than list everything you can think of and have no one read it, you should identify 2-4 significant risks that will cause the project to fail. You present these risks in the project charter
with an estimate of the likelihood and magnitude of the impact.  You also offer at least one risk response for each.  Next you engage the executives in a discussion of the ways to mitigate the risks. This includes specific things they can do.  Then the executives can make a decision about what risks they want to run and what risks they want to try and mitigate. The project charter might identify a few risks like the following:

Project Manager’s words: “Ace Consulting has a long-term contract for engineering services based on charging hourly rates on a time and materials basis. They have many friends in the organization but they have a history of budget overruns and late finishes. This has happened on 16 of the 18 projects where we used them. Delays could cripple this project and cause us to finish months later than planned.  I would like the authority to issue a competitive bid on the engineering services.”

Once again, the direct approach in the project charter may seem a little pushy. However, it’s usually preferable to suffering problems with this “politically connected” vendor after they cause delays in the project.

Project Charter: Change Control Rules & Process

The last fire you want to inflame is change control.  Project managers who leave change control as an informal, casual process rarely have consistent success.  They and their team members are routinely caught between wanting a satisfied client/user and containing the scope of the project. The project charter must address this issue.

The cure is to set precise rules about who can approve what kind of changes to the project plan. The project charter might ask for project manager change control authority like this:

Project Manager’s words: “I recommend a rule that no change of budget, schedule or  deliverable can be made without my analysis of the impact on scope, cost, schedule, risk, quality and resources. And the changes must be  approved by an accountable executive.”

By being direct in the project charter, you can solve potential problems early

Project Charter Summary 

The project charter documents the project’s scope, objectives, resources, risks, assumptions, change control and the project manager’s authority. It is the framework for the detailed planning and should be approved by the sponsor before planning actually begins.

To learn more about implementing these project charter elements, consider our project management courses. You learn with an expert project manager as your coach. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on