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 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:
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.
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.