A project charter announces that a new project has begun. The purpose of the charter is to demonstrate management support for the project and the project manager. It is a simple, powerful tool.

In the early 1970s a television show began each episode with Jim Phelps, ably played by Peter Graves, accepting a dangerous, secret assignment for his team of espionage agents. Sometimes on an airplane, other times in a restaurant or at a newspaper stand, Phelps received a plain manila envelope containing photographs and a cassette tape. After describing the mission, the voice on the cassette always ended with the famous line, “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. ”

We knew the extent of their risk because week after week the message was consistent: Phelps and his agents were working alone and, if caught, would not be assisted or recognized by the government of the United States. Dangerous, mysterious, and always successful, Mission: Impossible brought a new cold war victory every week.

With his committed team and detailed plans, Jim Phelps is a study in successful project management, with one exception: The Mission: Impossible team required complete secrecy and anonymity. No one could know who they were or what they were doing.

Most corporate and government projects are exactly the opposite. Project managers don’t need secrecy, they need recognition.

Because projects are unique and temporary, a project manager’s position and authority are temporary. When a project begins, most of the people and organizations necessary for its success don’t even know it exists. Without formal recognition, the project manager operates much like Jim Phelps, mysteriously and without supervision, but with far less spectacular results. That’s why a project charter is so important; it brings the key players out into the open where everyone can see them.

Consider this example:

During a major software product release, Sam, the project manager responsible for training over 1,000 help desk workers, selected a printer to produce the custom training materials required for the project. This large printing order was worth over $500,000.

After authorizing the printing, he was challenged by a functional manager who asked, “Who are you to authorize these kinds of expenditures?” (Sam is not a functional manager.) Sam responded by simply producing a charter and the statement of work for his project, signed by the program manager responsible for the entire release of the new product. “Any other questions?” he asked. “No. Sorry to have bothered you, Sam. “

The charter clearly establishes the project manager’s right to make decisions and lead the project.

The Content and Audience of a Project Charter

A charter is powerful, but it is not necessarily complex. As an announcement, it can take the form of a memo, a letter, or, increasingly, an e-mail. It contains the name and purpose of the project, the project manager’s name, and a statement of support from the issuer. The charter is sent to everyone who may be associated with the project, reaching as wide an audience as practical because its intent is to give notice of the new project and new project manager.

Establishing Authority

From their positions of temporary authority, project managers rely on both expert authority and referent authority. Expert authority stems from their performance on the job; the better they perform their job and the more knowledge and ability they display, the greater authority they will be granted by the other stakeholders. Referent authority is the use of another person’s authority.

The project charter establishes referent authority. In the second of the preceding examples, Sam had referent authority from the program manager for his specific project. The charter said, in effect, “If you challenge Sam within the scope of this project, you are also challenging a powerful program manager.”

Project Managers Need Expert Authority

Don’t be misled by the power of the charter. Referent authority is important, but it is not sufficient. Project managers, like all leaders, lead best when they have established expert authority.

Getting the Right People to Sign the Charter

The charter establishes referent authority, so the more authority the signature has, the better, right? Not necessarily. If every project charter had the signature of the company president, it would soon become meaningless. The sponsor is the best person to sign the charter, because he or she is the one who will be actively supporting the project. The customer is another good choice for signing the charter. Every project manager would benefit greatly by a show of confidence from the sponsor and the customer.

“Project Charter” Can Have Two Meanings

There are two ways most firms use the term project charter. One is the way it is described here: as a formal recognition of authority. This is the way the Project Management Institute recognizes the term. The other refers to the project definition document described in this chapter as a statement of work. Both uses will probably continue to be widespread.

The Charter Comes First

This chapter describes three techniques that document the project rules:

  1. the statement of work
  2. the responsibility matrix
  3. the communication plan

All of these are agreements among the stakeholders. The charter, on the other hand, is an announcement, which makes it different in two ways. First, it should precede the other documents, because formal recognition of the project manager is necessary to get the agreements written.

Second, it is not meant to manage changes that occur later in the project. The charter is a one-time announcement. If a change occurs that is significant enough to make the charter out of date, a new charter should be issued, rather than amending the original.

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I am a Project Management practitioner with more than 5 years experience in hardware and software implementation projects. Also a bit of a geek and a great WordPress enthusiast. I hope you enjoy the content, and I encourage you to share your knowledge with the world.

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