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Why You Need a Project Charter – and Why You Don’t
By Ben Snyder, CEO of Systemation

Here’s a riddle for you: If a project goes ahead without a project charter, does it really exist?

Before you answer, I should tell you, it’s a trick question.

A signed-off project charter formally recognizes the existence of a project. But that doesn’t mean every project needs one.

Don’t worry. This isn’t a philosophical dilemma. There are some easy ways to understand how and when to use a project charter and when to forge ahead without it.

A Great Planning Tool

A project charter’s primary purpose is for planning. They’re commonly used when you’re in the process of establishing initiatives and budget for the upcoming year or identifying various ad hoc projects. By giving you a “placeholder” for that moment in the year when the project will actually take place, they help you plan the year and get everyone on the same page about roles, responsibilities, and other key issues.

A good project charter template helps you think through all the necessary contingencies and ensure you’re involving everyone who needs to be involved. It will usually include:

  • Description
  • Justification
  • Objectives
  • High level requirements
  • High level risks
  • High level budget
  • High level milestones
  • Stakeholders

As you can see from what goes into the template, while the charter is a small document, it carries quite a punch. With the estimated scope, time, and cost, organizational leaders can sequence all of the projects they want to have completed within the next year without exceeding their resources. This results in projects being assigned start and finish dates throughout the year. When the charter is linked to a portfolio management process, the maximum benefit is realized.

When to Skip the Project Charter

But let’s say you’re going to execute on a project in a few weeks. In this case, you simply don’t need all the detail that a project charter template is going to require. Project charters are less useful on ad hoc projects because you’ll already be determining the requirements, risk, budget, and schedule in much more detail during the project planning phase.

In addition, the description, justification, objectives, and stakeholders are always reviewed at the start of the project planning phase. When the project is happening in the moment, it’s not necessary to do these activities as part of a project charter, too.

It’s not that the information in the charter is not important for these kinds of projects; it’s just that there is a lot of redundancy between the charter and the plan, with little time between their developments.

So there’s really no trick to this trick question. Project charters are an important part of effective project management, but they aren’t always needed.

Just remember: When you’re working on budget and resource planning, a project charter template is a great tool because it will lay out, at a high level, the scope, time, and cost of projects. If the project is going to start immediately after the charter is approved, you probably don’t need it.

Ben Snyder is the CEO of Systemation, (www.systemation.com), a project management, business analysis, and agile development training and consulting company that has been training professionals since 1959. Systemation is a results-driven training and consulting company that maximizes the project-related performance of individuals and organizations. Known for instilling highly practical, immediately usable processes and techniques, Systemation has proven to be an innovative agent of business transformation for many government entities and Fortune 2000 companies, including Verizon Wireless, Barclays Bank, Mattel, The Travelers Companies, Bridgestone, Amgen, Wellpoint and Whirlpool.

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