When the Real World Collides with the Need for a Project Charter
Maybe I’m just not pushy or demanding enough, but in my real world, getting a project charter is sometimes impossible. It could be one of many things:
- A client just refuses.
- I wasn’t brought in with a high enough authority level.
- My company doesn’t value them.
But everywhere I turn, whether it’s in my project management training courses or in what I read on the subject, there is a consistent theme on the need for a project charter.
It initiates the project and before you have one, you shouldn’t be spending dollars trying to move the project along. I’ve written a few blogs on the best ways to approach the project charter. Check out the nine project charter essentials or how to supercharge your project.
But what should you do if you can’t get one? In this blog, I’ll outline some ideas. While I don’t want to suggest that project charters are unimportant, sometimes we just need a plan when the real world collides with the goal.
Build bridges with the project sponsor
In a perfect world, the project sponsor would know something about project management and be able to intercede and obtain that coveted project charter. But we don’t live in the perfect world very often. And our need for a project charter doesn’t evaporate when the project sponsor doesn’t appreciate the importance of the charter.
What you can do is to build bridges with your sponsor. Meet regularly for lunch, or a drink after work if you prefer. Just talk and get to know your sponsor. Endear yourself. People will go out of their way for people they genuinely like. So build those bridges and down the road, that relationship may reap rewards.
Create a compelling project vision and keep it alive
My last blog outlined three ways to create a vision statement and I was pretty clear that I believe this is one of the one most important things you can do in launching a new project. Once you have created that statement, you must keep it alive. People will forget it if you don’t remind them quite frequently.
As long as we are talking about the real world, there are two things to remember. People have short memories for things that are unimportant to them and your job as the project manager is to make the project you are managing important to your team. Hence my recommendation that you use “why?” statements and tell stories.
The other thing to remember is that project managers often lack authority. If the client you are working for, or the sponsor you are working with, doesn’t want to do something, it’s hard to make them do it. And if the people on your team are getting paid to work on other objectives, they will be loyal to the boss who is submitting their payroll records.
So do everything you can to create that compelling vision that will engage your team and keep that vision front and center.
Focus on any negative unintended consequences that your project creates
If you just can’t get a charter document, it may be counterproductive to keep singing that song. It’s likely to antagonize people around you. Look instead to see how you can add real value.
What is the problem you are trying to solve? Make sure you have clearly and accurately defined the problem(s). As you begin to craft project solutions, look at the unintended consequences of what you plan to do in your project. I’m stunned at the number of projects that I’ve seen that were created to solve one problem and instead, created another problem.
This is where some awareness of the interconnectedness in the organization and a little systems thinking helps. If you are interested in exploring that, I can recommend Leyla Acaroglu‘s writings on systems thinking; perhaps “Problem Solving Desperately Needs Systems Thinking” is a good place to start. It’s time to realize that as our problems and organizations become more complex, recognizing the interconnectedness becomes critical. This is why I reject the linear approach to managing projects.
Seize every learning opportunity but pick your battles wisely
Project charters vary considerably from the basic ones that simply announce the project to a more complete document that address success and failure criteria, risks, and a host of other details.
If, despite your need for a project charter, you just can’t get one, you can still work on uncovering the details that would go in a well-developed charter.
Seize opportunities to learn all you can about risks, what’s most important (costs, schedule, scope, etc.), success and failure criteria, and other project details that executives think are important. Listen carefully to what is said and what is not said. And ask good questions.
But pick your battles wisely. You may not be the insider at executive discussions. Coming to those meetings like you are the queen bee likely won’t work.
Document, document, document
This should go without saying. But it’s hard to stop and write things down when you are fully engaged in a meeting. I’ve been known to record meetings (with permission) when I thought it might help.
The challenge can be in knowing where to document your understandings. If the information on risks is simply documented in the meeting notes and co-mingled with information on scope and technical details, how will you find it weeks, or months later, when you need it.
Sooner or later, an AI solution will emerge, but it won’t be cheap and usable for the average company for a long while.
In the meantime, you need a framework within which to document the information. I’ve spent years trying to develop a framework that works on any kind of project, and I keep revising that framework. And it’s not yet perfect. If you would like a copy of my latest, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what you are struggling with and how I can help.