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Author: Patti Gilchrist

The Importance of Having a Project Charter

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines a project charter as a document that formally authorizes a project.

The project charter is not created by the Project Manager. Instead, it is issued by the sponsor to empower the Project Manager with the authority to begin the project and obtain resources for project activities. The project charter should include at a minimum the following:

  • business need for the project which links the project to the organization’s overall strategy
  • stakeholders and their initial requirements
  • objectives or quantifiable criteria that must be met for the project to be considered successful
  • definition of what is in scope (at least at a high level), as well as out of scope for the project
  • constraints and assumptions

All of that sounds important enough, but is it really necessary to have one? And what would happen if you didn’t have a project charter?  

I’ll share an experience from my career. “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.” Oscar Wilde

It was my first week on the job, and my new manager informed me that I was assigned to a very high-profile, critical project. I asked if there was a project charter. I was told no, and summarily instructed to “Just go ahead and get started. Just go get it done.” Being new to the company, I was determined to make a good impression and decided to move forward without one. And as you can imagine, I did make an impression.

As I walked out of the first meeting with the project team, my business partner took me aside and said, “Interesting meeting, In fact a very good meeting. But I have to ask you. Who the heck are you?”

After thinking about it further, I realized his real question was “What gives you the authority to tell anyone what to do?” (Or, in other words, who died and made you the boss?)

This is a tricky situation to maneuver. And your answer may diminish any chances you will have for success or your ability to “win over” and get buy in from the team. So it’s best to circumvent such sticky situations before they happen.

Not having a project charter hinders the Project Manager from being successful in the role, thus impacting the overall success of the project. Thus, projects should not begin without one.

And if you find yourself in the situation where you don’t have one, you should ask yourself then why are we even doing the project? If the project is important to the organization, then the time and effort should be put into creating this document to define the scope and overall priority of the project. It additionally empowers you as the Project Manager in your role and formally authorizes you to begin the project activities and obtain the resources to support and work on the project’s activities

A lesson learned. Make sure a project charter exists. Otherwise, you run the risk of people not knowing who you are or what your role is.

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Don’t Be Confused by Quality

What is quality? There are many different definitions of quality thus the term may cause confusion for project managers.

For the Project Management Professional (PMP) exam, you need to understand that quality is defined as conformance to requirements. The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines quality as “the degree to which a set of inherent characteristics fulfill requirements.”

Quality management involves ensuring the project meets defined needs. The PMBOK states that quality management “ensures that the project will satisfy the needs for which it was undertaken.”

With quality defined in these terms, you can begin to appreciate and more readily understand that clearly stated requirements are essential. Requirements should define project scope, describe what is considered to be acceptable quality, and indicate how quality will be measured. This is critical to understand for the exam.
Many project managers do not understand quality in these terms. There is a tendency to think that quality means the best material, the best equipment, and absolute perfection (zero defects). As a result, many project teams deliver additional scope based on impressions of what the customer might like or assumptions that these extras will be acceptable to the customer. This is referred to as gold plating.

PattiJuly5th1As an example, let’s consider the Classic Italian sports car — the Lamborghini.

While you can’t deny that the Lamborghini is an elite and stylishly impressive car, don’t confuse discriminating taste or personal preferences for what will satisfy the project needs or objectives. Perhaps it is too costly. Perhaps it is not practical. Perhaps it is overkill for what is needed, etc.

In most cases, the customer does not expect, and cannot afford, a perfect solution. And although the Lamborghini may be on the customer’s wish list, it may not offer a practical or financially feasible solution.

Gold plating, or giving the customer extras, is not recommended practice as per the PMBOK. From this example, you can see how such extra efforts can be futile and even detrimental to the project. Gold plating can lead to failed customer experience, cost and schedule overruns, project delays, or even project failure.

Instead you need to understand the voice of the customer (VOC), which refers to the stated and unstated needs of the customer. Before you begin designing any product or service, you must know and understand VOC.

Quality must be defined based on objective criteria. CTQs (Critical to Quality) are a product, service, or process where performance standards or specification limits must be met to satisfy a customer requirement. CTQs define what is perceived to be important to the customer. Thus, CTQs ensure you are delivering value to the customer.

CTQs link customer needs gathered from VOC data with specific, measurable characteristics.

So don’t get confused by quality. Don’t let personal preferences and assumptions cloud your judgment. Instead, focus on delivering what the customer needs and establishes as important, and not what you think will impress them.

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Conflict Management

Many of the questions on the PMI Professional Project Management (PMP) exam will be situational and will deal with handling conflict because this is such an important and challenging topic.

Most of the time, conflicts on projects occur over the following issues:        

  • Schedules
  • Priorities
  • Manpower
  • Technical issues
  • Administration
  • Personality conflict
  • Cost

Many perceive conflict as negative and believe that it should be avoided or eliminated whenever possible. While conflict may be unpleasant, it is inevitable. And not all conflict is bad.

Conflict presents opportunities for improvement and as such must be dealt with. According to Amy Ohlendorf in her article entitled Conflict Resolution in Project Management (2001), “Conflict can be constructive and healthy for an organization. It can aid in developing individuals and improving the organization by building on the individual assets of its members. Conflict can bring about underlying issues. It can force people to confront possible defects in a solution and choose a better one.”

Conflict is best resolved by those involved in the conflict as illustrated by Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver and Violet Rutherford in the Black Eye episode of “Leave It to Beaver” which aired in 1957.

June27thPatti1 You wanna be ‘gressive?”   “‘Gressive?”

” ‘Cause if you wanna be ‘gressive, I can be just as ‘gressive as you can.  “I don’t know how to play. What’s ‘gressive?”

“That means do you wanna fight?” “No. I don’t wanna fight.”

“Okay. what else do you wanna do?” “I don’t know. Let’s go spit off the bridge.”

“Uh-uh. I did that on the way over here.”  “Let’s go look at the lady in the jiggle belt.” 

However, in real life situations, not all conflict is resolved this easily. And in some cases the project manager may need to get involved and possibly escalate to resolve.

The key is learning how to deal with conflict by using appropriate conflict resolution techniques. 

Amy Ohlendorf  also distinguishes types of conflict. Although some conflict is beneficial, destructive conflict is not. She defines 3 unproductive roles in her article: 

  1. Persecutor refers to a person who uses aggressive behavior against another person, attacking the intended victim. An attack can be direct or indirect and be physical, verbal, or both. The persecutor’s actions deliver a message that “you are not okay” while making the persecutor feel righteous and superior.
  2. Victim refers to a person who uses nonassertive behavior so others view them as “I’m not okay.” This behavior encourages others to either rescue or persecute the victim. Victims will feel helpless, inadequate, sad, scared, or guilty. The victim role is often used because the individual is feeling stressed, has low self-esteem, or is being persecuted by another.
  3. Rescuer refers to a person who uses either nonassertive or aggressive behavior. Individuals become rescuers because they will not say “no” and unwillingly assume the responsibility of solving the victim’s problem. In contrast, others will assume the rescuer role to demonstrate superiority over the victim.

And according to Amy, “learning how to identify these unproductive roles and how to effectively handle each role player, managers can prevent some conflicts from occurring and resolve those that do.”

Below are some conflict resolution techniques that a project manager can also use to handle and resolve potential issues and conflicts as they arise:

  • Withdrawal (Avoidance): retreating from a potential disagreement or postponing a decision on an issue.
  • Smoothing: de-emphasizing or avoiding areas of difference and emphasizing areas of agreement.
  • Compromising: bargaining and searching for solutions that bring some degree of satisfaction to the parties in a dispute. Characterized by a “give and take” attitude.
  • Forcing: exerting one’s viewpoint at the expense of another. Often characterized by competitiveness and a win-lose situation.
  • Confrontation: facing the conflict directly, which involves a problem- solving approach, whereby affected parties work out their disagreements.

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Effective Communications

The performance reporting process collects and distributes performance information, such as project scope, schedule, cost, quality, risk, and procurement.

The key to successful communications is asking stakeholders what they need communicated to them, and then follow through and provide it to them. I have heard many new project managers complain of “backseat drivers” on their projects, always going around them, asking team members for status (i.e., asking “are we there yet?”).

I suspect the reason for this is that many project managers act as if project status is top-secret, classified information that only the privileged few with top-secret clearance can receive. Consider that the project is operating on a “need to know” basis and your stakeholders really need to know. Mark it as confidential if you are so inclined (or if it is appropriate because you are actually dealing with confidential or sensitive data), but send out accurate and timely communications on a regular basis.

By managing the work and reporting the progress regularly to stakeholders, you will avoid the “backseat driver” syndrome.

Another benefit of this is that you will create the environment for the team to do their job uninterrupted without numerous disruptions from various stakeholders asking for status updates because you fail to provide updates sufficiently. If this is happening on your project, know this: it is the project manager’s fault.

I’ll share a story from my career.

In my colleague’s haste to leave the office for vacation, she failed to update a stakeholder on a critical deliverable that was due at the end of the day. I happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and became the unintended recipient of his frustration. He was extremely agitated and looking for anyone who could give him an update. I was able to get an update for him in less than five minutes and he had the information he needed and the assurance that his deliverable was on target. For something that took so little time and effort, it created a lot of unnecessary stress, frustration, and ill will. So ask yourself, is it worth it?

It is remarkable how many failing projects I have seen rescued throughout my career by improving communications and reporting. In many cases, beginning project managers did not understand their role and were not collecting or disseminating the information accurately or in a timely fashion. The work was in fact being completed; however, it was not being managed, thus timely handoffs (i.e., for dependent tasks) were not occurring between project team members. Nor was there any evidence of progress being presented to stakeholders. Therefore, stakeholders had the perception that the project was way behind schedule and they reported as such to their management. Of course, this causes a rippling effect of escalations. As soon as an experienced project manager reigned in and managed the team and got a handle on the work actually being accomplished, status was adjusted to reflect accomplishment accurately, handoffs between project team members occurred, and the project quickly was back on track. Performance reports present evidence of the work. Without them, how will anyone really know what is being accomplished along the way? The team works hard. It’s your job as project manager to ensure this is reflected in your performance reports.

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Motivating and Leading Project Teams

As a project manager, you will need to manage people to get the work done. And most of the time, the resources won’t report directly to you. So you need to learn to manage without authority. Thus understanding how to motivate people is critical. Also, you will need to leverage the appropriate leadership style depending on the situation.

Typically relying on saying “because I said so” simply doesn’t work. If you have kids you may have already discovered this. No expert study is required. Fear and intimidation doesn’t really work either, particularly in the long run. You may already have or eventually will encounter this type of manager. They are typically easy to spot. But if you don’t catch on to the numerous unsubtle clues, just look for the department with the high turnover.

I’ll share a true story here to help illustrate the point.

Years ago, at an All Hands meeting, a new HR executive delivered a speech where he revealed in a ranting fashion the new dictates he would mandate. The first question raised was met with the stern response, “if you don’t like it leave. If any of you don’t like, then leave. There’s the door.” It certainly was a very powerful and motivational speech. And it definitely produced results. Although I’m not sure it produced the results he or the company intended.

Within a month, 80% of the IT department walked. They took his advice and found the door. And he got to put on his resume and substantiate any claim of being a “results-oriented” manager delivering an 80% turnover rate in less than 1 month. I learned a lot not only from observing the results, but also from observing the behavioral response of the associates. Everyone pulled together to help and support each other to find meaningful employment elsewhere. Team work in action. Amazing what can be accomplished when a team pulls together. But wouldn’t you rather use this for a productive means and to your advantage to ensure the desired result? Be careful. Power of motivation can work in more than one way.

An alternative approach is empowerment. I’ll share another story from my career.

I was working on a project with a senior colleague who I knew and had an established rapport. So what could go wrong I thought? However, I started to have doubts as I noticed she was acting out of character and insecure, waiting for my every direction to do her job. As I continued to observe her behavior, I wondered why she was feeling intimidated and not empowered to deliver at her full potential. I needed her expertise for any chance of success. So I told her candidly that she had expertise that was critical for the project success. I continued to say that I can’t tell her how to do her job, so I’d be relying on her expertise and guidance. This approach produced results in 30 seconds. She responded immediately, showing confidence and took charge of her deliverables as an empowered team player. Needless to say, the project was a success because we delivered as an empowered and motivated team.

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Patti Gilchrist is a Sr. Technical Manager with extensive experience in the field of IT Project Management. Patti has more than 20 years of IT experience and a reputation for effectively implementing strategic enterprise initiatives, with a proven track record of delivering simultaneous large-scale, mission-critical projects on time and budget. Her experience includes ERP implementations, data conversions, business software application development aligned with critical business requirements, IT infrastructure delivery, and process implementation in existing and startup organizations. Patti currently manages a team of project managers and is dedicated to the continued development of her team and knowledge sharing within the project management community.