The project charter – OPEN

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Topic 3.10: The project charter

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The document that authorises project planning is also known as the project charter.

The project charter establishes a partnership between the project manager and sponsor, and documents initial requirements.

Chartering a project also links stakeholder expectations of the project to the strategy and ongoing work of the organisation.

As the final output of the project initiation process, the project charter documents:

High-level requirements

The project's scope

Target milestones

The project's schedule

The expected budget

Within a ±20% (or organisationally acceptable) confidence interval

Project acceptance criteria

In other words, what constitutes project completion, who decides the project is complete, and who signs off on the project

Critical success factors

These might include any key assumptions, dependencies or risks that it is important for the project manager to know


The name and authority of the sponsor or other person(s) authorising the project

The charter is then assigned to a project manager, at which point their level of responsibility or authority is clearly defined.

This is also when the project governance group is convened and given terms of reference.

GO for project planning!

Depending on the size of a project and the relative risk it presents to the organisation, a project charter can be either a big, formal document, or something as simple as an email saying get on with it.

When the concept canvas authorises project planning (in low risk circumstances), it too is an example of a project charter.

The written business case is another example of a project charter, and we will look at it specifically in the next lesson.

Although the charter is often compared to a contract, as in many respects it has a similar intention, the charter should not be confused with an actual contract.

For even if a contract to deliver a project output does exist between a third party and the performing organisation, a charter is still required to internally direct resources (including a project manager) to the project.

After all, a contract will not provide the level of detail necessary to actually deliver the work.

Although a limited allocation of resources may be made in the charter for planning to be completed, approval of the project plan is the real green light to start spending time and money delivering project outputs.

It is not your money.

If the purpose of a business case is to persuade an organisation to invest in your project, then the purpose of the project charter is to authorise you to start spending their money.

Therefore, a defining attribute of the project charter is that it is a written agreement.

Although the opportunity may be pitched and even sold in an elevator, boardroom or to a tv studio audience; for the business case to be effective as a charter it should document the following:

The business case
  • Introduction

    To start with, you need to set the scene.


    Give a little background and describe the context of the work unit or organisation that you represent.


    Next you need to state the purpose of the report.


    Implicit in this is the notion that the project proposed by this business case will solve a problem presently faced by the organisation.


    You should also explain how the report will work.


    Describe briefly and logically the steps you will go through to address the issue.

  • Opportunity definition

    Updating the early thoughts of the project concept canvas, this next section is intended to change the way the business thinks about the situation.


    To do this, when you identify the problem you should contrast the current state of the business with an ideal future state.


    In other words, what organisational outcomes are we intending to deliver?


    You can also list the things that are out of scope; this is, outcomes your solution will not address (for budgetary or other reasons).


    You should finally explain why the problem matters, linking it to the objectives of the performing organisation.

  • Methodology

    To establish the authority for your business case, you should detail the primary and secondary sources consulted.


    Primary sources are stakeholders you consulted directly for information to develop the business case.


    Secondary sources come from your ‘desktop’ research – authoritative reports, cases, reviews of like projects et cetera that you drew on.


    By attaching the credibility of these sources to your report, you are in effect challenging your audience not to argue with your findings; in other words, you are stating that the recommendations of this report are more than just one person’s opinion.


    It is therefore important that you do not undermine your report by misquoting or otherwise misrepresenting these sources – you will be found out!


    It is also useful to list in this section any assumptions that might be present in your analysis, and the limitations or constraints placed on your study.


    Included here might be assumptions about (or constraints relating to) scope, schedule, cost, quality, risk, stakeholders (including stakeholders not consulted) and procurements.


    Consider, too, the implications if an assumption is wrong.

  • Options analysis

    Analysis of options is the whole purpose of the business case (a point you should probably make in the introduction).


    To convince someone to pay for your project, you need to show more than just one solution to the problem – you need to prove the best solution.


    Option Zero is always the null hypothesis: this is what will happen if we let things continue as they are.


    The next options – and you should really list no more than two to five options– should be presented in sufficient detail for decision-makers to tell the difference between them and their outcomes.


    In doing so you must describe the costs and impacts of each option, and assess the risks to the organisation of proceeding with them.


    Some introductory narrative around feasibility may also be appropriate for each option, even though this may not be an explicit criterion for final ranking.

  • Conclusion

    Your conclusion should be a clear statement of preference for one of the options.


    This preference should be ‘obvious’ from the analysis of alternatives presented.


    In other words, this is the place for your multi-criteria analysis.


    You might also like to highlight some of the factors that are critical for the realisation of this project, and some of the criteria that will enable stakeholders to judge project success.

  • Recommendations

    Your recommendations are a call to action for your decision-makers.


    You should organise your recommendations by priority or time sequence.


    For each recommendation you should have a bold, headline sentence (kind of like the headline on a newspaper article).


    The body of each recommendation should be:

    • Specific – specify the steps that need to be followed
    • Measurable – quantify what success will look like
    • Assignable – identify who will do it
    • Realistic – state what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources, and
    • Time-bound – specify when the result(s) can be achieved.


    This is the SMART principle for writing goals or objectives.

  • Appendices

    Appendices are attachments to your main report.


    Any appendices that you include must be relevant and not just for padding.


    An appendix will provide detail on any contestable evidence or statements of ‘fact’ that are introduced in the body of the report.


    A complete feasibility study is an example of a document that might become an appendix to a business case; other appendices might include:

    • A glossary of acronyms
    • Definitions / business rules applied
    • Detailed cost breakdowns
    • Financial spreadsheets
    • SWOT / PESTLE analyses
    • Detailed data tables
    • Technical specifications
    • Legal / regulatory requirements
    • Supplier quotes / expressions of interest
    • Relevant correspondence
    • Useful contacts
    • Configuration history
  • Executive summary

    The executive summary sits at the front of the report.


    It is the single most important element of the business case, if for no other reason than 90 per cent of users will never read anything else.


    An executive summary is not an introduction or a movie trailer, teasing audiences with what is to come.


    An executive summary contains a summary of all the vital information from the report, including your top three recommendations.


    As a rule, the executive summary should be no longer than two or three pages, or 10% of the word count of the business case.


    Critically, you absolutely cannot write the executive summary until the rest of the report is complete.

You should be aware that in many instances the requesting organisation or client may independently initiate the project – as the project manager you might only inherit and have no prior say on the project effectively chartered for you.

This is especially frustrating when you are handed poorly developed treatments or ones with unrealistic expectations.

If that is the case, you should raise your concerns with the project sponsor as soon as it is practical to do so, and by no later than the end of the project planning process.

Be prepared though to fully evidence your arguments, even if this means deconstructing the existing project logic line-by-line.

After all, by this point the key stakeholders, including the sponsor, have probably invested a lot of effort and ego into the project.

In some circumstances, you can skip the initiation process and go straight to chartering the project.

On small or low risk projects, following the full initiation process is a redundant use of resources and the concept canvas may be sufficient to initiate the project.

Other projects simply must be done – for example, if a client orders a specific output from you under contract, the business case for it can be assumed (or at least validated as part of the contracting process).

And in some cases, the risk of not proceeding is obviously greater than the impact of doing nothing, such as when a change in legislation necessitates updating a process.

As we saw earlier, you should always run each opportunity canvassed through your risk profile tool. If accepted:

  • Low risk opportunities can be chartered on the spot
  • Medium risk opportunities should be allocated the resources to prepare a simple business case, and
  • High risk opportunities should demand a detailed business case

This point in time is known as decision gate zero.

A decision gate allows the sponsoring organisation to formally decide whether to proceed with, send back a step or terminate a project.

The next go/no-go point in a project’s life is at the end of the initiation process – gate one – when project planning is authorised or refused.

We will introduce the remaining decision gates as we proceed through the project lifecycle and this course.

A project manager may go their entire career and never prepare a business case or even be involved in project initiation

Unfortunately, many organisations feel they successfully deliver projects without formally going through these steps, going straight to project planning or even delivery.

We often hear executives say, look – there really is only one option, we don’t need to do anything else… let’s just get on with the project.

And they’re probably right – about five percent of the time.

Don't worry, dear. I know what's best.

For even if you have only one standout option, you can almost guarantee there are options within it that are worthy of more detailed consideration.

For example, what if we fast-track delivery by 20%? What do we lose? What do we gain? What if we add a few more features?

Or, more critically, have we under-represented or even missed the input of a certain key stakeholder? Have we assumed they will think one way, without asking?

So what are the benefits of properly initiating a project?

The process of project initiation gives the project context.

Done well, it significantly reduces ambiguity for both the project manager and stakeholders, which – as we know – reduces the need for and cost of change in project delivery.

To the project manager’s benefit, the process further details and documents:

  • What options have been considered – what is in and (by implication) out of scope?
  • What assumptions were made (for example, about time and cost)?
  • How important and/or risky is this project to the organisation?

As you will see, making the organisation’s decision-logic transparent in this way makes change management so much easier once project planning and delivery commence.


The concept canvas and business case are the assets that provide context to the project team.

Another important legacy of the initiation process is the stakeholder register.

The project manager who inherits this asset enjoys a significant head start in one of their key functional roles; that is, liaising with stakeholders and managing their expectations.

The stakeholder register also insures the project against imperfect stakeholder memories of whether or not they were given adequate opportunity or scope to engage with the original idea.

When things go right or wrong, the outputs of the initiation process – the concept canvas, stakeholder register and business case / project charter – are critically important inputs into project closure and review.

They provide another window not just into the project itself, but the justification for and decision-making process that led to the project being initiated in the first place.

After all, a perfectly executed project is pointless if it was never the right project in the first place.

Following the initiation process should always be the default; the burden of proof should be on skipping this step.

It is far better to explore all options and make relevant discoveries now than when it is too expensive or just too late further down the track.

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