Project Presentation & Approval

 Project Presentation & Approval Process

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

The project presentation& approval process varies from organization to organization. In some, it is a rational data-driven process of strategic and tactical planning. In others, it is a highly charged political game where project managers keep their backs to the wall to avoid a dagger from behind. Whatever the environment, there are two classic fantasies that executive sponsors play whenever the phrase “project presentation & approval” is mentioned. There is also a game project managers play to cope with the sponsors’ demands. Project Phases Main Page

Project Presentation: Executive Fantasy Land

Project sponsors and high-level stakeholders think that if their organization has good project managers, the project approval process will go like this:

The project manager strides confidently to the front of the Board Room. The long table before them is filled with corporate big shots. The PM makes one rock solid commitment after another. There is no whining about contingencies or risks. The PM listens politely to a question about budget and the completion date and then says, “We WILL complete the project for $3,123,876.56 and the last of our 1,347 tasks will end on March 9th, 2016 at 3:42 PM.”

As the executives applaud, the PM holds up a hand for silence and says, “That’s Eastern Standard Time,” and flashes a shy smile as the executives go wild with excitement and awe.

Executive sponsors who live in this fantasyland think that projects have no risk. Budgets and completion dates can be set in stone and any failure to hit them means that someone goofed off and didn’t do their duty to the organization.

In this project approval fantasyland, a project is a machine. The executives push buttons and twirl some dials and the project machine spits out any result they want within whatever duration and budget they set. Sponsors merely give project managers the budgets and completion dates and they all come true with a little hard work. If an executive wants a project result early, it is just a matter of tweeking the “due date dial.”

This project approval fantasy triggers a lot of destructive executive behavior:

  • They force change after change on a project and then feel personally betrayed when it is late or over budget.
  • They treat a project manager as a fool and a liar when the PM won’t give them a finish date commitment during the first planning meeting.
  • They sneer at requests for budget and duration extensions, considering them a sign of weakness and sloth.

Project Presentation: Used Car Lot

In other organizations, the roles and actions surrounding the project presentation resemble a sleazy used car lot. The executives are the innocent customers and the PM is a slick shyster in flashy clothes. Here the approval process goes like this:

The executives stroll onto the used car lot, looking for simple but effective transportation. No high-powered hot rods, no fancy wheel covers or custom interiors. Just a basic car to carry the executives where they want to go. The PM slithers out from under a rock and wraps an arm around all the executives. “I’ve got just the thing for sports like you,” the PM says in an oily voice.

“We are not ‘sports’,” the executives say. “We just want a basic car; something simple and cheap.”

“That’s what I was saying,” the PM says with a snicker. “Let me show you this beauty. I’ve been saving it for just the right customer.” The PM leads the executives toward a far corner of the lot.

On the way, one of the executives spots a simple economy model and says, “Wait, that’s what we want!”

The PM sneers, “Everyone will laugh at you if you drive that wreck. It’s outdated, antiquated and uses ’80s technology. You’ll be laughing-stocks and it will break down a lot.”

Scared at making a mistake, they follow the PM to a dark corner of the car lot. The PM pulls an enormous drop cloth off a vehicle, saying, “Here’s what you want!”

The executives peer into the gloom and see an enormous vehicle that will carry too many people. The interior is plush leather, there are 3 stereo systems, 12 speakers, a TV and a wet bar.

The executives protest, “This is too much, too big, too expensive. We want the little car back there!”

The PM starts to talk, waving complex charts and graphs and saying, “This is the latest technology, the best economy and the. . .”

The PM’s pitch mesmerizes and hypnotizes the executives. A few minutes later, they drive off in the big expensive monster.

This project approval approach also triggers a lot of destructive executive behavior:

  • Sponsors review project plans with a fine-toothed comb, searching for unwanted and unneeded features, options and fixtures.
  • They think every number a project manager presents is a lie. Cutting their duration and cost estimates is just getting rid of all the padding.
  • Project managers hide tasks in their projects to give their friends an easy time at work. They believe 33% of all the project tasks fall into this category and they can eliminate them with no consequences.

Project Presentation: The Eager Puppy Dog

Too many PMs play the eager puppy dog in project approval presentations to stay out of trouble. The approval discussion goes like this:

The sponsor says, “I think this budget looks just a tad fat. You can get it done for 20% less, can’t you?”

The PM nods like an eager puppy and hurries off to slash the budget by 20%. The easiest way to do that is to reduce the work and time in each task by 20%. The PM is able to return with the lower budget and, as a bonus, a shorter duration. This convinces the sponsor that the PM is not a slick shyster and that the project will run like a well-oiled machine.

When the project approval session ends, both the sponsor and the PM have learned a lesson. The sponsor has learned that the PM’s plans have a lot of fat built in. So next time the cut will be 30%, not just 20%. The lesson the PM has learned is that next time he’ll pad the plan by 25%. Then arbitrary changes won’t cripple the effort before it even starts.

Project Presentation: Rebel Without a Clue

Still other project managers prepare to go into project presentation approval meetings ready for battle. Holding a clenched fist into the air, these rebel PMs tell the team members, “I will fight for our plan! Those nitwits in suits will not change one bit of the brilliant plan we have put together.”

The rebel then heads for the meeting room for the planning session with his boss, his boss’s boss and the executive whose signature is on his paycheck. The discussion goes like this:

The executive asks, “What will it take to finish a month earlier? We have two other competitive initiatives and I would like all three to hit the market at the same time.”

The PM says, “Finishing earlier is impossible! There is no way we can finish any earlier than June 30th. Even that date will require so much overtime that the team members’ family lives will be horribly disrupted. There’s no way. We can’t do it!”

The controller says, “I’d like to see a little less use of consultants and lower fees. Don’t we have internal people who could do some of this work? Maybe they can work with the consultants.”

The rebel PM answers, “Impossible, we need their expertise and I have negotiated their fees down to a fraction of what they charge other companies.”

These executives huddle for moment as the PM waits behind the podium.

Then the most senior executive says, “We approve the project with a completion date of April 30th and a budget that is $25,000 less than your plan. We’re also more than willing to find another PM if you can’t hit those targets.”

The rebel explains the executives’ treachery to the team members and no one learns any project presentation lessons.


The key to successful project approval meetings is for PMs to be ready with options and alternatives for finishing earlier, spending less money and using alternative resources. Good project managers are happy to change the plan to fit the executives’ requirements if the scope, budget and duration are feasible.

More on Decision Making Data

Learn how to use our proven project approval process and create trade-offs between scope, budget and duration in our online courses with your personal instructor. We can also design a customized seminar for your organization and deliver it online or at your site.

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Project Charter Template

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

Use this project charter template to create the charter at the end of the project initiation process. This is after you have the scope information, the statement of work (SOW) from the sponsor and before the detailed planning begins. It includes the following:

  • scope
  • major deliverables
  • assumptions
  • constraints
  • risks
  • required resources and
  • change control.

 Starting work is still a ways off and this is the best time to discuss potential risks and problems with the project sponsor. You should also discuss your authority to assign work to borrowed team members and the availability of those resources. You need to be sure the project team will show up to do the work when they’re scheduled.

Other issues you should address are the scope’s underlying risks and assumptions. You can use the project charter template to identify those assumptions and risks. Then talk with the sponsor and stakeholders about how you can avoid or mitigate the risks. You should do this before the detailed planning begins. It’s easier and cheaper to include responses to the risks now than it will be later on. The project charter template should also include a process for making changes to the project plan. Everyone needs to understand that there is a process that includes an evaluation and approval before the plan can be modified. Project Phases Main Page

Project Charter Template: Cross-functional Authority

The project charter template should also address cross-functional authority issues. But that issue often gets lost among the assumptions and “mission statement” narrative. Even when PMs generate a concise decision-making document, they are vague about the authority they need to successfully manage the project. They want to avoid conflict over this touchy subject. But if you are a savvy PM, you know this conflict is inevitable. It is better to have the debate on authority now than to wait until the project is late and over-budget. It looks like you’re shifting blame if you explain slippage by finger-pointing at cross-functional resources. You need to specify in the  project charter how you will assign work to people from across functional or organizational borders. You should design an achievement network that maps the lines of accountability and shows the sponsor and stakeholders where you need authority. You must make crystal-clear assignments to the team members that are measurable achievements.

You can’t expect to have dedicated resources you can manage as subordinates for all the project project charter templateassignments. So you have to make careful choices. You should ask for direct authority for assignments that are:

  • on the critical path
  • are high risk
  • have a long duration
  • require rare skills.

You can live with indirect authority and even settle for “in the hopper” authority on shorter, less critical assignments. This means your request for resources goes “in the hopper” with all other demands for resources. If you ask for too many dedicated resources, it will backfire. You’ll be stuck with “in the hopper” authority for every assignment on your project.

Project Charter Template: Project Sizes

The project charter template requires some information gathering.  You have choices about which elements to include.  You also have to decide how much detail to give on the elements. As we said earlier, everything flows from the Statement of Work (SOW) that the sponsor  issues to get the project started. Let’s look at initiating a project, the project charter template document, and how you’ll complete the pieces for projects of varying sizes:

Tier 1: Small Projects – Done within an organizational unit. Your manager or your boss is the sponsor

Tier 2: Medium Projects – Projects that affect multiple departments or are done for customers/clients

Tier 3: Strategic Projects – Organization-wide projects with long-term effects on all departments.

Project Charter Template: Identify Stakeholders

Tier 1: Small Projects: This step is not necessary on an in-department project where the department manager is the primary stakeholder.

Tier 2: Medium Projects: You must make an effort to identify the stakeholders in multiple departments. This avoids getting surprised by late arriving requirements that must be added.

Tier 3: Strategic Projects: This step is a process of surveys and interviews to identify internal and external stakeholders who may be affected by the project. Their requirements must be considered.

Project Charter Template: Business Case

Tier 1: Small Projects: This step is not necessary because formal project approval is not required.

Tier 2: Medium Projects: Organizations with sound project management processes require a business case to justify a project’s priority versus other projects in the portfolio.

Tier 3: Strategic Projects: The level of financial and human resources requires detailed documentation and justification of the strategic impact of the project.

Project Charter Template: Scope, Deliverables  and Risks

Tier 1: Small Projects: A 1-page overview of the plan that includes the scope, deliverables, risks, resources and PM authority.

Tier 2: Medium Projects: The project charter document addresses the project acceptance criteria, business justification and rough estimates of the resource requirements (human and financial).

Tier 3: Strategic Projects: The size of the investment in these projects usually requires extensive documentation of risks, benefits, impacts on other strategic initiatives and on the total organization.

Project Charter Template Summary

Depending on your environment, the project charter template can include many components. The charter usually has a statement about the scope or statement of work (SOW) and the principal risks and assumptions that underlie the project plan. It should also include the processes for identifying and approving changes to the project scope. In addition, the project charter template should specify what resources the project plan requires and the project manager’s authority to manage those resources. You can learn how to prepare and present your project charter in our Project Management Basics course. You’ll work privately with your instructor and have as many e-mails, phone calls and live video conferences as you need.

You learn all of those skills in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager. You control the schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish.  More information on the lean project methodology

Take a look at the courses in your specialty. At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

More on Decision Making Data,

Small Projects Are An Art Form

Small Projects Projects Don’t Need a Plan… We Can Wing it

Managing small projects with consistent success is an art form.  Everyone from sponsor to PM to Team gets sloppy because they think “small projects are easy.  They are not. Scope creep is a disease that everyone ignores so are variances on a small project, “Hell, its only 6 days!” But the project duration is only 10 days so its not a small matter.  Having 5 small projects running simultaneously is much more difficult than having one big one.  Some project managers think that writing a plan for their small projects is not important and just consumes time.project plan Best to just start work.  I disagree with the idea that “the plan is not important.” Start fast on a small project and before you can take a breath, you have a 40% duration overrun. You need a project plan for any size project because it is identifying the four dimensions of any project scope, duration, budget and risk.
However, I agree with the idea that “writing a big project plan consumes the time and there is no need for it on a small project.” During project initiation, the project manager is exchanging the project’s requirements, scope, duration, and tasks with team members, executives, and vendors through email, or printed documents. All this communication contains the raw materials for the plan. It contains the agreed scope, the duration needed to finalize each task, accountabilities, resource commitments, budget, and identifying uncertain situations which may affect the project with their planned responses. As a result, the project manager will just reassemble the parts which are distributed among the email messages and documents, make it in one document, distribute it to all stakeholders, and then get their approval. At the end, the project manager will have a good documented plan for his/her small project without consuming much time.
For additional information on project plans, you might wish to consult our articles on the project charter. They include defining the project scope with the sponsor, identifying major deliverables and assessing the major risks and assumptions which the project faces. All this information can fit on a single page of paper ensuring that people read it and that it is a useful decision-making device.

At the beginning, when you and Dick talk to design your program and what you want to learn, you will select case studies that fit the kind of projects you want to manage. Chose you course and then select the which specialty case study from business, or marketing,  or construction, or healthcare, or consulting.  That way your case studies and project plans, schedules and presentations will fit your desired specialty.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

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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