If you are like me, you've been involved in a project that got off track. You may have even sponsored a project that delivered a different result than you intended. If so, please join me on my journey to learn how to mitigate, if not avoid, project teams and sponsors working toward divergent ends.
Scenario 1: The sponsor wants stout and gets light beer.
Long ago, I reviewed a project building a system to manage stocking delivery trucks with cases of beer. The new system was nearly unusable in the warehouses. Reasons included slow performance and too much data entry by the warehouse workers. It turns out that the sponsor's goal for the project was to make stocking the trucks each day more efficient. The system had become even less efficient than the existing process of filling empty space on the truck with whatever was lying around. Unfortunately, the development team’s goal was to more precisely track inventory in the warehouse.
Scenario 2: We may take payments incorrectly, but we can take lots of them!
A few years later, I led a team that delivered an electronic tax payment system. We projected that transaction volumes would grow slowly over time–with no payments even arriving on the first day. The peak volumes were months, if not years, away. More critically, the system had to be perfectly in balance every day by a specific time. As the initial delivery date loomed, however, a part of the team spent significant time, money, and effort, concerned that the system would not be able to perform under full load. This distraction delayed delivery to the test team, resulting in inadequate testing, followed by several preventable issues upon delivery.
What went wrong? In each scenario, the project team lost sight of the project sponsor's desires. A project team does not wake up one day and decide to deliver something other than what the sponsor and organization wants. They get to that point based on a series of smaller, isolated decisions that slowly steer the project in the wrong direction. What can we do to improve the chances that each small decision is correct?
Context comes from the Latin for "weaving together". Context is the setting or circumstance that brings together a set of events giving them meaning. A project sponsor cannot (and should not) be involved in every decision made on a project. The sponsor needs a mechanism to give the project team a clear sense of the context. The sponsor's best tool to establish the circumstances and setting for all the actions on a project is a project definition document, or "charter" (see below for an outline). Properly defined and communicated a charter "weaves together" all the specific decisions and actions.
The dictionary defines charter as being about authorization to proceed within certain limits and conditions. Charter comes from the Latin word chartula meaning document or "little paper"–it is meant to be a tangible artifact. A charter creates the foundation for every project decision. It combines a description of what the sponsor is trying to accomplish (vision and mission), the values (principles) of the organization, the target (objectives and boundaries) for the project, resources the organization is willing to commit, and the authorization to go forward with the project.
An effective charter is the result of negotiations between the person establishing the charter (the project sponsor) and the team carrying out the charter. It is a negotiated agreement, or commitment, between these two parties establishing the overall context of what the project is to accomplish. The charter, however, leaves open how the work should be performed. The choice of specific methods remains the project team's responsibility.
How does a charter help create context for decisions?
First and foremost, a charter is tangible–explicit and visible–to facilitate a shared understanding of the context established by the sponsor. If the charter is invisible, or tacit, each person on the project will mentally