How to Create an Effective Project Charter

Micah Alles and I recently attended a Certified Scrum Product Owner training course with Mike Cohn. In addition to the excellent Scrum-process-focused learning, this course was a reminder of how important it is to maintain a fresh, relevant project goal that aligns and motivates the team.

Mike shared his practice of creating project charters (easy-to-read descriptions of a project’s near-term purpose and goals) and walked us through a few exercises he uses to create these charters with his teams. I found the format of the charters and the practice of creating them together a very compelling way to align a team to a shared purpose.

Following are some reflections on our discussions about project charters.

Choose a Medium that Resonates with Your Team & Product

There are many ways to write a project charter. During the training, Mike shared a few different mediums that work well for shaping project charters:

  • Product box: Design a box for your product.
  • App store reviews: Write more than one, from different user perspectives.
  • Magazine review: Pick a relevant publication, and write the review you’d love to read.
  • Press release: Write for an internal or external audience.

I’d like to add to his list with one of the innovation games we run with clients:

  • Remember the Future: Pretend you’re in the future, and describe the memories you would have if you achieve your goals.

Choose the medium that resonates with your team and works for your product. I’d love to hear other creative mediums for creating an effective project charter, so feel free to share your ideas in the comments after reading this post.

Hit the Highs and the Lows

It’s not enough to focus only on the awesome parts; that’s only half the story. Every project makes tradeoffs to achieve its goals, and your project charter should reflect that.

Here are a few questions that will prompt the team to consider the whole picture:

  • What expectations will you meet?
  • Where will you fall short?
  • What will really wow your users?
  • Where will you outshine competitors?
  • Where will your competitors have a leg up on you?
  • What will stay the same?

Build an Achievable, Aspirational Target

Setting an obviously unachievable goal is a sure way to demotivate your team. A good project charter is both achievable and aspirational. It should give the team confident wins to target, as well as a handful of stretch targets to inspire them.

The charter should also have a realistic, near-term timeframe for success. Mike Cohn recommended approximately three months; that sounds reasonable to me.

Make It Visible

A good project charter is only useful when team members keep it in mind. Like many of our other design and project artifacts, this is a great thing to hang on the wall.

I like to keep artifacts like this around as a prompt. They help team members zoom out—to extract themselves from the depths of a problem or blocker, consider the goal that we really care about, and search for alternatives to achieve that goal.

In addition, it’s helpful to revisit the project charter during backlog grooming. The backlog should reflect the goals and tradeoffs in the charter.

Keep It Fresh

After you’ve set a reasonable timeframe for the project charter, remember to refresh it when the timeframe expires. Mike’s recommendation was to refresh approximately quarterly.

What approaches have been successful for your team? You can share your best tips in the comments.