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Project Charters = A Solid Foundation for Success

Improving our products and services should be considered daily work. By taking some time out of each day to improve a process or product is how we all contribute to a culture of continuous improvement. Sometimes these improvements are termed “Just Do Its,” meaning the improvement can be done by yourself or with a few others. These types of improvements don’t take a ton of time. And it is pretty easy to identify when they are successful.

Other improvements are more complicated and need to be managed as a project. These improvements tend to cross functional lines and will take longer than a few weeks to achieve success. For these types of improvements, I strongly recommend a clear and concise charter before you even begin.

Why? Charters will create a foundation for success in a variety of ways. They…

  • Get everyone on the same page and will keep them there over the life of the project
  • Clearly define the problem or opportunity
  • Reduce confusion from team members, sponsors, customers and stakeholders
  • Provide measurements that will tell us if the project is successful or not
  • Help us to avoid “scope creep”
  • Provide big picture reminders and help to refocus team members
  • Formalize the commitment of everyone involved

Ready to get started? The following elements ensure that the project has a solid foundation from which to grow.

Start with Why

Defining the purpose of the project is a great place to start. Why should the organization dedicate resources, time and energy to the problem or opportunity that the project will address? When explaining the key reasons for the project, keep it simple. Make sure that this is the actual problem and not a symptom of something else. To determine if you are truly focusing in on the root problem, use a tool to help you. A couple of tools that I have found useful are the ‘5 whys‘ or a fish-bone diagram.

Clear Roles & Responsibilities

By clearly defining the roles that people will fill, you are providing clear direction and understanding of who is responsible for what during the project.

Required Roles:

  • Executive Primary Sponsor: This person is accountable for the success of the project. They are the main driver and supporter of the project.
  • Sponsor Coalition: A group of people who will support the project. These people are usually higher in the organizational hierarchy. They are trusted and can help to build a coalition with others. This team of leaders will guide the project when questions or choices in direction come up.
  • Project Manager: The Project Manager is responsible for organizing, planning and managing the project through its lifecycle. They will manage all activities and resources and will ultimately deliver a successful project.
  • Process Owner: This person is responsible for implementing and sustaining the improvement after the project is closed. The results of the project will be integrated with this person’s duties. This person should also be a member of the project team.
  • Team Members: The project team members should be people who are involved in the process(es) that the project is improving. It is best practice to keep the number of team members to no more than 5-10 people, and it is a great idea to include a customer on the team if possible too.
  • Change Manager: This is a required role if the project will impact how people work. A Change Manager is responsible for integrating change management with the project plan. They will develop plans for sponsors, managers and supervisors, training, communications and resistance management.

Optional Roles:

  • Subject Matter Experts:  Experts bring expertise! Include a person who can help with specific information associated with the project. For example, I would add a SME in technology if the improvement I am chartering has a technology component.
  • Mentor: Having a mentor that can provide guidance and insights as issues arise is always a great idea. The mentor doesn’t need to be intimately involved in the project team activities, but they should be available for consultation as needed.
  • Fresh Eyes: If you feel that the team members may be highly invested in the current state, a set of fresh eyes, a.k.a. an objective perspective, may help to move the team through their own resistance to change.

Don’t Forget the Customers and Stakeholders:

  • Primary Customer: While not necessarily part of the project team, it is good to have the primary customer(s) clearly defined so that the team does not lose sight of those that are the primary beneficiary of the improvement.
  • Other Stakeholders: Again, these people or groups of people are not necessarily on the project team, but it helps to list those that have an investment in the future state.

Data

What data exists in the current state, that shows that there is a problem or opportunity. Data can be hard to find depending on the project. If you cannot find any data, conduct current-state surveys and plan to complete a post-improvement survey. The resulting data will show if the improvements were successful (see the metrics section below).

Objectives

Objectives are not what you plan to do, how you plan to do it or what you plan to produce. Objectives must define the desired benefits of the project. Keep the objectives simple and concise. What benefits will the organization experience when this project is successful? If you write good objectives, you will find that the project’s metrics will more than likely support the objectives.

Deliverables

Deliverables are tangible things that will enable the objectives to be achieved. Deliverables are outputs, not outcomes. Again, keep the list of deliverables simple and concise. Listing out the tangible outputs of the project will help you and others to focus on the things that are needed to achieve the benefits of the project.

Consequential Impacts

Consequential impacts are those things that could happen because the project is completed. Take a while to really think about the other systems, processes, products or people that may be impacted due to the project. Listing these out provides everyone involved a heads-up that other things may be impacted. These impacts could be good or bad.

Lead and Lag Measures (Metrics)

What gets measured gets done. Every project needs solid metrics. Why? Because this is how you and others will be able to identify if the project was successful or not. Do not start a project without metrics.

It also helps to create these metrics by using lead and lag measures. Why? Because by tracking the lead measures during the project, it will help to determine if the project is on track to meeting its lag measures or goals.

If you get confused on lead and lag measures, a simple analogy may help. Let’s say you want to lose 10 pounds in 4 weeks. When you step on the scale at the end of the 4 weeks that is the lag measure. The lead measures are those things that will help you reach the lag measure. Eating healthy food, watching serving sizes, exercising, drinking plenty of water, etc. are your lead measures. The idea is that by tracking the lead measures, you will easily reach the lag measure.

How you write the lag measures for the project is also important. Write lag measures in the form of “x to y by z.” For example, a recent charter I worked on had a lag measure that stated, “The pilot group’s vehicle miles traveled per week of 2,863 will decrease by 2% by January 2020”. The “x” represents the 2,863 miles the pilot group currently travels each week, the “y” is the reduction of this number by 2%, and the “z” is the date that it will be accomplished.

Scope

The scope should include exactly what the project will address and what it will not address. If the project is a process improvement, clearly define what is included in that process and what is not. Having a clear scope is vital to avoid the dreaded scope creep.

Cost

The cost of the project should include all labor, materials, travel, equipment and more. As ‘govies’ we sometimes avoid assimilating costs if they only include the cost of people’s time. Don’t do that. Time is money, and as stewards, we need to account for that cost as well.

High-Level Time Line

Nothing fancy here, but listing out a few dates of when key milestones will be completed will help to keep things on track. I also like to provide dates as to when the project will be initiated, when the planning will be completed, the date the project will be executed, and when we will finish the reinforcement phase and close the project.

Assessment of Risk (Project & People)

One thing I like to cover on a charter is a quick assessment of risks for the project. This will allow everyone involved to know that there are risks associated to the technical side of the project as well as the people side of the project.

Signatures

Last, as a project manager, I use the charter to kick off the sponsor coalition and the project team. Taking the original document to both meetings and having everyone sign that they have read, understand and will support the project is a way to ensure that everyone is on the same page. This creates a foundation for success.

Take the Time up Front

It does take some time to put together a good charter. But, the investment is well worth it. I find that I refer back to project charters all the time during the project lifecycle. As a project manager, I would not even attempt to undertake a project without one. I have seen the consequences of that and it often ends in more work, non-value-add outcomes or ultimately unsuccessful projects. By investing time upfront in a project, your projects will be more successful.

Here is a project charter that I use on my projects. Enjoy! If you want to learn more about managing projects, check out Ashley Cabral’s blog, Project Management 101: “Coles Notes”. Thanks for posting, Ashley!

Michelle Malloy is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She has been a devoted Colorado state employee for nearly 13 years. In that time, she has dedicated herself to being the best steward leader possible, ensuring that everyone and everything left in her care are nurtured and developed in order to provide the best value and service to the citizens of the state of Colorado today and into the future. Michelle’s expertise lies in strategy, program management, project management, change management, process improvement, facilitation and working with people. Michelle believes that people are the government’s #1 asset and the products and services we aim to provide and improve upon would not happen without them. You can read her posts here.

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