What is a project charter and why do I need one?

Do you really need a project charter? Learn what a project charter is for, why it matters, and how to write one that people actually want to read.

What is a project charter in project management?

A project charter is a short document that sets out the core details of the project’s purpose and aims. It’s created in line with the business case for the project as described by the project sponsor (i.e. the person who’s responsible for the project’s existence in the first place), and it’s a crucial part of the initiation process at the start of the project.

Ultimately, your project charter documents the goals, objectives, and business case for the work.

Once created, the project charter serves as a sort of contract between the project sponsor and the project manager, giving a top-level overview of the expectations and authorizing the project manager to mobilize resources to achieve the right outcomes.

Whoa, does that sound overly complex? Don’t worry — we’ve got you.

A really simple project charter definition

A really simple project charter definition

A project charter is a formal document that outlines the business objective of your project and, once approved, initiates the project.

What is the purpose of a project charter in project management?

As mentioned above, your project charter serves three main functions:

1. It defines the goals, objectives, and basic purpose of the work (all of which will ultimately feed into your project plan).

2. It creates a shared understanding of the project’s goals, objectives, and resourcing requirements, before you start scoping these out further and in more depth.

3. It allows you to present all of the above to the project stakeholders in order to get buy-in, investment, and authorization to go ahead.

But it’s not just used in the initiation phase: your project charter is something you can return to throughout the lifecycle of your project to make sure your work is aligning with the key goals and objectives you set out to accomplish in agreement with the project sponsor and/or key stakeholders.

Why is a project charter important?

As well as fulfilling those main functions, there are a few other benefits to having a project charter.

It makes the project’s purpose crystal clear?

Because a project charter explicitly lays out the business case for the project, it means that everyone knows how the project contributes to the company’s big picture strategic goals. It ensures that your project isn’t just ticking arbitrary boxes, but is actually doing something that will impact the business’s overall objectives.

It helps you to identify your stakeholders

The project charter plays a really important role in formulating your project management plan overall, but one of the areas where it’s especially useful is in helping you to identify key project stakeholders — early.

As soon as your project charter has been completed, you can start to do your stakeholder analysis, which means that you can start to involve key stakeholders in tandem with creating your project plan.

It bestows authority to the project manager

Okay, okay, “bestowing” anything can start to sound a little medieval. But whether you bestow, bequeath, endow, or grant it, your project charter officially gives your project manager authority over the project. This means that they have the power to plan and control the project, and it establishes their role to the rest of the project team and stakeholders.

It’s your north star

Okay, we kind of alluded to this already, but it’s worth repeating. While your project plan is great for seeing if you’re on track with tasks and timings, sometimes all those minute details can be more of a distraction.

Your project charter, on the other hand, is the absolute essence of your project. So if you’re ever unsure whether something is steering you in the right direction or taking you off track, your project charter helps you and your team to cut through the noise and reevaluate whether the work you’re doing aligns with your ultimate objectives.

What is included in a project charter?

What is included in a project charter?

So what actually goes into the project charter?

Your project charter is a high-level overview, but it can still cover a lot of ground. Here are some project charter elements you should consider including in your project charter document:

Your project’s purpose. Why are you doing it? What are the aims and objectives? Try to sum it up in one concise goal statement. And make it specific! Compare the following:

  • A bad goal statement: “We want this project to increase revenue.”
  • A better goal statement: “This project aims to deliver a new product to X market in Y time to increase our revenue by Z% within 2 years.”

Make sure you’re clear about what you’re doing and why, because the right goal statement can set the tone for everything else. (No pressure!)

What success looks like. What are you hoping to achieve with this project? This is a good time to start thinking about measurable KPIs so you can create a project plan that tangibly delivers on your success criteria.

The key players. You might not know every single person who’s involved yet, but you should know enough to get you started: project sponsor, project manager, and any other key stakeholders. This is a good time to list them out, as well as their specific roles within the project.

Risks you’ve identified. Again, you’ll discover more of these as you flesh out your project plan, but this is a good place to acknowledge any top-level risks that you already know about from the outset.

Key deliverables. What is it that you actually need to deliver as part of this project?

High-level overview of resources (budget and people power). If there are already any pre-approved resources allocated to this project, make a note of them in your project charter so you know what you’re working with.

A top-level summary schedule. You can delve into the nitty-gritty later, but it’s useful to outline a basic timeframe for your project, as well as plot out any key milestones along the way. (This can be in the abstract for the project charter, e.g. Month 1, Month 2, and can get more specific when it comes to the project plan.)

Remember, the goal here isn’t to go deep on any of the above; you can do that in the project plan. Instead, your aim is to cover enough ground to align all key stakeholders and get everyone onto the same page about the purpose, scope, and breadth of the project, so they can embark on the project with confidence.

How do you write a project charter?

How do you write a project charter?

Now for the actual writing of the project charter. Regardless of which elements you decide to include or exclude from the above list, here are some general tips to bear in mind as you write it

Get familiar with how your organization does it

Make the most of any existing organizational process assets that you have at your disposal. Are there previous project charter examples you can draw on? Does your department have a project charter template?

Examples and templates can really help you to get a sense of how things are done — and what’s important to your organization — so you can follow suit and start off on the right foot.

Write it in basic, easy-to-understand language

When you’re writing your project charter and making a case for the importance of your project, it can be tempting to use fancy words and complicated terminology to make things sound more impressive. But really, the simpler the language, the better — especially when it comes to your project charter.

Brush off the fluff. Cut the wild claims that don’t really mean anything or apply to your project. (“This project will increase synergy and allow us to leverage it for maximum impact”… sorry, what?) Say it like it is, without jargon, so that anyone can read your project charter, understand the project’s aim, and know why it matters. This has the added benefit of removing ambiguity and leaving no room for interpretation, which is especially important in project management where good, clear communication is paramount.

If you can’t do that? Keep working and paring things down until you can. It’s harder than it seems, but it forces you to distil what you’re actually trying to do down to its purest — and most powerful — essence.

Keep your project plan close, and your project charter closer

Okay, maybe not closer. But for your project charter to really work, it can’t just be shoved in a metaphorical drawer. You need to keep it somewhere central where you, your project sponsors, and your project team can all consult it when you need to.

That’s where a content collaboration workspace like Teamwork Spaces comes in handy. It allows you to keep your important documents — like your project charter — in a shared, centralized workspace, so everyone knows where to find the information they need.

You can also use features and formatting such as info panels, image galleries and status chips to make your documentation more engaging, and mark the critical ones as Required Reading so you can be sure your stakeholders never miss an important update.

And for your project charter, the integration between Teamwork Spaces and Teamwork is especially useful, allowing you to link your core project documentation in Teamwork Spaces with your day-to-day project plan in Teamwork.

(Learn more about using Teamwork Spaces for the ideation and initiation phase in our ebook!)

A good project charter can set the stage for your whole project, so take the time to get it right.

And once you’ve done that? It’s time to turn it into a project management plan that means business.

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