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The Multiple Definitions of the Project Charter
By Gilbert Babin

The PMBOK states “A project charter is a document that formally authorizes a project.” It also adds “It provides the project manager with the authority to apply organizational resources to project activities.”.

The Project Charter acknowledges that the project should begin. It announces that the project has received approval and has been endorsed by Senior Management. The project charter identifies a project manager and describes the authority and resources he has in carrying out the project. And more importantly of all it is a statement that all the stakeholders agree to abide by.

This announcement that a project exists is very important and so is the clarification of the authority. As you already suspect, many projects lack this important process.

Based on the above definition, the Project Charter can take the form of a memo, a letter, e-mail. It announces the new project and the new project manager.

When working for a external client the contract often acts as the project charter document.

Sounds pretty simple. So where is the problem?

Do a search on “Project Charter” and compare the various definitions you get.

The problems come from the fact that the term Project Charter is often used to describe more widely scoped documents such as the Statement of Work, the Responsibility Matrix, the Communication Plan or even the Project Plan or Contract.

The term is very “loosely used”. If someone asks you to prepare a project charter we strongly recommend that you ask what he means or provide a suggested table of contents for approval before starting.

From my experience it is not a good idea to bundle too many functionalities under one document. I have seen project charters that detail the work to be done but do not address the issue of the project manager’s authority.

As a project manager, if you start feeling you are begging the line managers to get things done, it is probably a sign that the “Chartering Process” was not done properly. As a project manager you must be able to negociate but there must also be the organizational structures in place to occasionally exercise authority.

This brings us “Process Thinking”. There must be a process by which we come to an agreement on a projects goals, the must be a process by which we designate a project manager, the must be a process by which we give the project manager the proper authority.

For the fun of it do a search on “Project Charter” and you will quickly see how there is not a consensus on the purpose, signoffs, management or content required.

Gilbert Babin is a Software Engineer in Ontario, Canada. Gilbert runs a Project Management blog, The Productivity Tree.

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