The First Tool: Elements of the Project Charter

In the last two articles I described the idea behind becoming a very highly valued five-tools project manager and supplied an overview of the first tool, the project charter. Now let’s look at the elements of a project charter.

The Business Problem

What does the client need to achieve?

Corporate clients rarely have legal problems; they have business problems. (Yes, occasionally it is a true legal problem, but as doctors say, when you hear hoofbeats, think horses rather than zebras.)

What is blocking or imperiling their business? What business goal are they trying to achieve? The more you share an understanding of their business needs, the better able you will be to deliver the results they are looking for.

If they try to “pre-digest” it for you as a legal issue, do what your doctor would do if you said to her, “Doc, I have the flu.” She’ll take your declaration as a data point, but she’ll still take your temperature, investigate your symptoms, and so on.

The Client Vision

What will the world look like when the client has achieved the goals of this project? Keep it very high level.

And I know vision seems both “fluffy” and unimportant. I’ll grant that it sounds a bit “West Coast” – but think of it as a very high level six- or eight-word overview of what you’re trying to achieve. It pays off whenever the project starts to wander and threatens to expand. “Does this help us achieve the vision?” Visions help inoculate the project against scope creep.

And a vision is not a “vision statement.” The latter is HR- and consultant-speak. The former is informal, and you should waste no time trying to be clever or to wordsmith it.


If the vision is high-level, “Done” is specific. What three things must you achieve for the client to call the project successful? Not fourteen, but three. (Okay, maybe four, but seriously, not six!) When you need to make trade-offs, trade against the other stuff, not the “Done.” Likewise, if a task doesn’t help you get to “Done,” ask hard questions about why you’re doing or assigning it.

Out of Scope

What are you not going to do?

If you list everything you plan to do and omit something, it all too often goes unnoticed… until later. On the other hand, if you list something as a don’t-do and the clients think otherwise, they’ll let you know immediately, while you can still get it right without wasting time or effort or money.

Dates and Deadlines

Don’t include a whole court calendar, for example, but pick three or four critical dates. These dates can include internal dates, such as a major client (or team) vacation.


If you don’t have an agreement on budget, then you don’t have a meeting of the minds.

I know sometimes talking budget isn’t fun. But it’s necessary to achieve a full understanding of the work in question. And clients, as well, need to know how much of their budget to reserve. What they spend with you, they cannot spend on other projects they’re expected to accomplish. (And over-reserving for you amounts to the same thing – they can’t spend it on other projects.)

Staffing and Resources

Who are the key people you’ll need to staff this project? Better make sure now you can establish their availability.


Who – particularly on the client side – is a stakeholder? The business group for whom you’re doing the work, of course, but who else? For example, if a matter may hit the press, someone in corporate marketing or positioning is a probably stakeholder.

Watch out especially for hidden stakeholders. They’re like crocodiles lurking mostly below the surface. Remain on lookout for those eyes just breaking the surface, waiting until a tasty morsel (you) comes within range.

Project Risks

What can throw the project off track? What can go wrong? How can you prepare? Minimize? Mitigate?

Summing Up

Remember, all projects have a charter. If you don’t explicitly agree on a conscious charter, however, your project team will drift – or blunder – into making it up as needed. Chances are good they will neither make it up uniformly, or in the same way as if you’d developed a real charter up front.

Finally, keep it short, under two pages.

And circulate it among the stakeholders to be sure you’ve gotten it right – and to flush out issues now, up front, rather than after you’ve wasted your time and client money chasing after the wrong items.

(This article is adapted from Steven B. Levy’s new book: Legal Project Management Field Guide: Five Tools for Busy Professionals. The book covers the elements of the project charter in considerable detail.)

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