This post was originally published on November 13, 2018, and updated most recently on March 18, 2021.
In a nutshell, a project charter is a summary of all the roles, goals, and boundaries (or scope) of your project. It gives project members, stakeholders, and any other interested parties an overview of a project, free from any distracting minutiae.
Beginning with a carefully penned charter is a great way to start your project off on the right foot. In fact, when done well, a project charter should achieve the following outcomes (or get you pretty darn close):
- Help everyone know what’s going on from the beginning
- Minimize miscommunication
- Make the project manager’s life easier
- Keep scope creep at bay
- Provide a concrete reference point to refer back to
- Help sponsors and stakeholders reach an agreement
- Speed up the approval process
- Keep everyone on-track
Of course, issues can still arise, but a project charter is a good way to nip these problems in the bud early on.
What does a project charter look like?
Project charters can take on any shape or form. They can be short and sweet at one page a pop or detailed and extensive, running for 30 pages or more.
However, bear in mind that shorter is better — we recommend limiting it to five or six pages, maximum. You, your team, and stakeholders will want to refer back to the charter from time to time, and no one wants to sift through a 50-page novella.
Essential information you need to include
At their most simplistic, a project charter consists of the project name and a brief description. In some ways, this part is the trickiest bit to write because you need to really communicate the essence of the project in as few words as possible.
Don’t overcook it, but similarly, don’t be afraid to draft up a few versions and run them past your colleagues to see which one resonates with them the most. After all, it needs to be something everyone can grasp quickly, without too much thought.
You’ll then need to list everyone involved, including the project managers, sponsors, and clients. For smaller projects, you might list each team member, as well as their specific involvement and the reporting structure.
It’s also important to include a business case (aka the project’s vision), which can be written out as SMART objectives. These should detail the project’s scope and overarching goals clearly and succinctly.
Project charters will also usually include the project background: its purpose and reason for existing, as well as budget information, key dates (indicating which are flexible and which are non-negotiable), a communication plan, and a short analysis of risks and constraints.
Of course, what’s included will ultimately be up to you. But here’s a checklist to get you started.
Project charter checklist:
- Project name
- Project description
This is your short project summary.
- Business case
List your 3-5 SMART objectives here, including any deliverables.
- Project background
Provide a little context for your project here, including its reason for existing.
- Project scope
List the boundaries of your project, including factors that could change or alter these.
- Main stakeholders, project members, and communication structure
Identify your project’s managers and stakeholders. Detail interested parties and their focus areas, as well as key project members and their responsibilities. Don’t forget to add a reporting structure between the different roles using a project organization chart, which presents all the information visually.
- Customers and end-users
Define your project customers, and list the people or organizations who will accept your project’s deliverables.
- Implementation plan
Set out your project’s life cycle, listing any key phases and milestones. Indicate your key dates, noting which are set in stone and which can be flexible (and by how much).
List all the labor and equipment you’ll need before you begin. You can then use this to help shape your budget.
- Constraints and risks
Note any current issues and identify future risks, including plans for addressing these.
- Budget and costs
Last but not least, provide a rough figure or range of figures relevant to your budget. You could also flag up influencing factors here.
What’s the best way to create a project charter?
There’s no right or wrong way to create one. You could use a simple word doc that incorporates diagrams and tables. Or you could add it as a wiki to your project management tool like we do in Backlog.
Whichever route you choose, make sure your software allows easy access permissions, editing, formatting, and diagram creation, so you and your team can focus on the task at hand.
Uses for a project charter
Keep your project on track. Your project charter serves as the master blueprint of your entire project. Everyone involved in the project should be able to easily refer back to the information that it lays out to make sure they’re staying the course of the original vision and keeping everyone involved.
Make sales. Making sales or gaining permission from higher-ups is much simpler when you have a document to easily share. In a matter of minutes, your prospectives can see the ins and outs of the project you’re working on.
Get your project authorized. Included with making sales to higher-ups, a lot of companies require a project charter to even get the project rolling. With one compiled document, you can share everything about your project and get it underway as quickly as possible.
We get it: No one likes paperwork or forms. You’ve already created a plan and budget spreadsheet, so why add another to-do to your list?
This little document really is worth more than the sum of its parts. If you stick to the short five-page recommendation, the time they take to create will be far less than the time it takes to fix miscommunication further down the line. And as you probably already know all too well, a communication breakdown isn’t just a pain in the butt, it can directly impact your bottom line.
A project charter is also a great sales tool. You can use it to persuade buy-in from stakeholders and maintain a feeling of confidence in the project as you tick off your milestones.
While your plan and budget doc will be more detailed, a project charter will provide everyone involved with an accessible reference point without any distracting details. It’s your sales pitch, roadmap, and project’s raison d’être, all rolled up into one neat bundle.