Project Initiation: How to Develop Project Charters

Having problems getting everyone on the same page in the beginning of your projects? In this article, we will look at how to engage stakeholders, develop project charters, and what to include.

So, your projects are running like an old dilapidated jalopy, eh?

I've been there and's no fun!

a picture of an old jalopy

And what's worse, we don't always know why it's happening.

It's not like you plan for things to go wrong. You genuinely care about the project and your project team.

You're probably working long hours. You feel an increasing sense of anxiety.

What are you doing wrong?

Nobody has the power to correct all the issues we face in our projects, but I can at least offer a tool that will help you build a better foundation for your projects.

Develop Project Charter

Unfortunately, many people think of the project charter as an administrative hoop they must jump through to get their project approved. Therefore, many charters are written hastily with little thought.

The value of the charter process is engaging stakeholders, discussing the issues, resolving conflicts, and getting agreement as you initiate the project. The stakeholder interest is considered and aligned, resulting in less likelihood of costly changes later in the project.

The charter provides a picture of where you are going, why you are going there, who will be impacted, top risks, and who is going to help you.

The sponsor submits the charter to a body such as a project management office (PMO) or project selection committee for approval.

Is the Charter Process a Time Vortex?

Some project managers spend too little time on the charter; others spend too much time. Keep in mind; the charter is a broad, high-level initiation document, usually not more than two pages. It is not a requirements document or a detailed project plan.

The required time should be commensurate with the size and complexity of the project. For small projects, the charter may be completed in thirty minutes or less. For a multi-year program, the charter process may take several weeks.

The Charter Resistance

People resist charters for various reasons. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • Don't see the value (thinks the charter process is an administrative exercise)
  • Don't want to deal with the known conflicts
  • Don't know how to write a charter
  • Busy with more urgent matters (such as putting out fires from existing projects with poorly defined charters)
  • This is an agile project

Under the Hood

Project charters provide many benefits, some not so obvious:

  • Allows an organization to formally recognize the need for a project
  • Establishes the authority of the project manager and project sponsor
  • Helps to ensure projects are approved based on the business case rather than subjective opinions
  • Helps to ensure a better return on investment
  • Allows the project selection committee to consider whether the project aligns with the company's strategic plan
  • Provides information needed to orient team members in the project kick-off meeting
  • Provides a constitution when team members are confused about the purpose of the project
  • Provides the project manager with a way to bring new team members up to speed when members are added initially as well as later in the project
  • Helps nonprofits with grant proposals

Putting a Stake in the Ground

Involving important stakeholders in the charter process is not only helpful but critical, particularly for large, complex projects.

Before the project kick-off meeting, I schedule a meeting (sometimes a series of meetings) with stakeholders, including the sponsor, to discuss the project. I update the project charter for the sponsor review and then distribute to the stakeholders for their review.


Tired of confusion and rework due to a lack of early stakeholder engagement and agreement? Join me in my online course—What, Why, & How of Powerful Project Charters. Just want the RiskNotes? Grab a copy of my eBook—Start Writing Your Project Charter Today.

How to Write a Project Charter

The project sponsor should be the primary author. The project manager to be involved in the charter development. However, the ultimate voice should be the sponsor.

The project manager may meet with the project sponsor, discuss the content, create the charter, and submit the charter to the sponsor for review. Writing a project charter is an iterative process and typically requires a few versions before getting it right.

Not Once ‘n Done

Writing is an iterative process: Draft the charter. Come back to the charter later and tweak it. After meeting with the stakeholders, update the charter again. This process continues until the charter is mature and ready for approval.

If appropriate stakeholders are engaged in the process, the project manager will not likely need to change the charter during the project.

What to Include in the Project Charter

Project Leadership

  • Sponsor name and authority
  • Project manager name and authority level

Business Case

In the business case, you are answering one primary question: Why should we do this project now? There are always competing projects. Why should this project take priority?

You may wish to include some combination of the following information:

  • Background information or history
  • Trends
  • How the project connects and supports the company’s strategy
  • Market demand
  • Consequences of not doing the project now
  • Financial, operational, and customer benefits
  • Cost savings and avoidance
  • Legal requirements or government regulation

Business Problem Definition

Too often, people take action without first defining the problems. Therefore, project members may misunderstand the problems and waste time and money focusing on the wrong things.

Make the problems crystal clear. What is wrong? Where are the problems occurring? What are the magnitudes of the problems? Make the problems as specific and measurable as possible.


What do you wish to accomplish by when? Write SMART goals. Make sure the goals are specific and measurable and don’t make these goal mistakes.


What product, service, or result do you expect from this project? Provide a high-level description of the deliverables.


The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines a constraint as “a limiting factor that affects the execution of a project, program, or process.” For example, list budget and schedule constraints.


The PMBOK defines an assumption as “a factor in the planning process that is considered to be true, real, or certain, without proof or demonstration.” What are stakeholders assuming to be true?

High-Level Risks

Risk management starts day one of the project. As you walk through the charter process, ask the stakeholders about risks (i.e., threats and opportunities). Capture the most significant things that may hinder or advance the cause of the project.


Stakeholders include an individual, group, or organization who may be affected by the project. If you do not know an individual’s name, list the title of the stakeholder, their title, and organization.

Team Members

If you know who will serve as team members, capture each team member’s name and department. If you do not know, list the title of the required position and department.

Video lesson from my online course:The What, Why, & How of Powerful Project Charters

Online Course: The What, Why, & How of Powerful Project Charters

One of the best ways to reduce communication risks early in your projects is by writing project charters. This is not a documentation exercise! The aim is to ensure that the project sponsor, project manager, and the key stakeholders are on the same page. In this course, you will discover the 16 powerful elements of a project charter, how to use a project charter after initiation, the four project charter checkpoints, the secret sauce of writing clear goals, and how to right-size your project charters.