salvador-dali-famous-quote-perfection-art-creativity1Recently I saw a disturbing (but not unusual) event. Updating the project charter a mere two weeks from implementing the results of a project. Updates this late in the project even with the best of intentions really only serve to cover up the deficiencies in the charter. If you cover up the deficiencies your organization has lost an opportunity to learn. Failing to learn can only lead to a failed organization!

There’s a few things likely going wrong in this case:

  • Low trust or fear – Changing the Charter to cover your butt. This has to be the worst case scenario! If you don’t have trust in the organization you’re in trouble! 
  • Decisions were forced too early – your chartering process forced your customer to make a decision before they had enough information
  • Following rigid process –  too much focus on adhering to process over delivering value for the customer
  • Too many details – trying to accurately document details of how the project will fulfill the customer’s requirements

If these or similar things are happening in your organization it might be a place to start improving your processes. When organizations insist on trying to create ‘detailed and accurate’ charters they are throwing good money into process! We need to be throwing good money into valuable results for our customers!

The Agile Manifesto tells us we should embrace “Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation”. Remember while we value the things on the right, there is more value in the things on the left. (Read the manifesto if you are lost on this one).  Collaboration by itself isn’t enough. Neither is contract negotiation. Tough balance to strike for sure! I strongly advise the use of some form of charters in projects.

I believe the chartering process is always valuable and necessary regardless of your methodology. That doesn’t mean you need to create a fancy document with the title “Charter”. It can be a statement of work, work order or in some cases other less formal approaches. What ever the deliverable looks like – when you have the discussions (big or small) it is ALWAYS a good thing!

Here’s some thoughts to hopefully inspire you to improve your Chartering process:

  • Handle the Chartering process like an iterative project. Do the least amount possible to provide a framework for moving the project forward in the smallest increment possible. Get into a Build-Measure-Learn type cycle at the project level (think LeanStartup). The challenge most will have is shifting the corporate budgeting cycle to match. However if you can cross this chasm and move to quarterly budgeting your might be close to an ideal state. 
  • Your project is an investment – much like a financial portfolio you need balance to succeed. The only way  your customer can accurately define details is by learning through the project. Defining the details in the Charter works against these learning opportunities. Focus on providing your customer the opportunity to learn and balance their investment throughout the project.
  • Focus on value proposition – your customer is investing valuable money in your team’s work. Through the chartering process help them define what benefits they are looking to achieve. Stay away from how you’re going to meet their requirements to help avoid tunnel vision.
  • Stop trying to make it perfect (because you can’t) –  When you find deficiencies, figure out what condition allowed you to introduce it in the first place. Learn to accept deficiencies as a good thing as they provide valuable opportunities to learn!
  • Manage change – your charter is the contract with your customer. If you fail to document material changes you’ve lost a valuable opportunity. The opportunity I’m always seeking is to have a discussion and confirm the change in direction makes sense. Make sure you document material changes to your chartered agreement or you’re only asking for problems when you don’t fulfill the contract.

The reality is very few of us get to work without contracts. The Charter is just one such contract and it’s important to manage it effectively. In Agile having a charter type agreement provides the understandings and agreements your team needs to succeed!

For the rest of you who feel the need to update your charter at the end of the project to make it perfect … maybe it’s time to hold up the deficiencies with pride and learn from them! Either that find a new job.

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