Starting a Software Project? Clarity is Key Starting From Day 1

US President Dwight Eisenhower addressing soldiers in WWII
* Always start your project by clearly communicating the mission of the project to your entire team.  
* Document and communicate your mission through a Project Charter

The contents of the project charter articulate the ultimate goal of every project, the desired end-stage, or the success criteria in quantifiable terms.  Let me repeat that — it must be quantifiable. It is not the document itself that is important but it is the mission stated in it that is important.  It is very useful to have it documented or recorded so that is is easy to share among project stakeholders especially the project team.

Colonel Tom Kolditz of West Point relates how the US military spends a lot of time planning every mission and they produced marvels of communication.  The drawback he says is “The plans often turn out to be useless”.   The plan becomes useless when their enemies do something unpredictable which is very often.  What they did notice is it is more effective to come up with what they call “Commander’s Intent (CI)”.  This is a crisp, plain-talk statement specifying the goal of each operation.  It states the goal – what needs to be done.  It does not state how it needs to be done.   (Dan Heath, Made To Stick, 2006).   The project charter is similar to the CI.

What is a vague project objective?

Here is an example of unclear project objective: “The software must meet all written specifications, thoroughly tested and completed on time”.   It has good intentions but this is vague.  It is open to misinterpretation.  First, it is already implying that they can write future specifications that the project does not know yet.  Second, how thorough is “thoroughly tested”.  Third, “completed on time” must have a specific date.

What is a clear project objective?

A clear project objective has a quantifiable scope of work, budget, and schedule.

Here is an example of a clear project objective in a project charter: “Implement a new system to ensure all new passports are issued to all applicants within one hour of submission of a valid NSO authenticated birth certificate.  This should be in production in the DFA offices in Pasay, Cebu, Davao, and Baguio by June 15, 2020.  The budget for this project should not exceed PHP 80 Million.”   We have a clear mission, a clear target date, and a clear budget.

Of course, we will have to define the specifics of each unit of work in our detailed business requirements, program specifications and test criteria but having stated a clear objective, all future actions of the team to achieve the objective are now guided by a clear mission stated in the project charter. It will definitely help reduce incidences of delayed projects due to different interpretations of the scope of work, especially if the project team and the the one paying for the project are not seeing eye to eye in terms of expectations. Have a project charter agreed with, documented and communicated to the entire team and it will be a big help to your project — for both the project team and the investor paying for the project.

What are the contents of a project charter?

  1.  Project title – a single line description of the project
  2.  Project Objective – this states the mission of the project in quantifiable terms.
  3.  Project success criteria — this states the exact measures to consider the project a success.
  4.  Target schedule — this states the target year, month and exact day. 
  5.   Budget — this states the amount of investment allocated for this project.  
  6.   Forced prioritization of the scope of work, schedule, and budget.  The team should be well aware of these priorities so that they know how to make adjustments.
  7.   Project sponsor – the name or names of the people who are funding this project. This person represents the group of people who will benefit from the success of the project when it goes live.
  8.   Project manager – the designated person to manage the project
  9.   Key personnel and their responsibilities.
  10.   Some other administrative information that may be relevant to the project

What should not be in the project charter?

  1.  The detailed project plan should not be part of the project charter, it should be listed in a separate project plan document.
  2.   The detailed business requirements should not be part of the project charter, instead, this should be listed in a separate business requirement document.

What are other recommendations to come up with a clear project charter?

A project charter should be communicated to everybody involved in the project.  Ideally, a project kick-off should be convened where this project charter is explained to all team members.  The project sponsor or the project manager gives the short briefing to state the mission of the project.  

The project charter should clearly rank the priorities between the mission, the budget, and the schedule.   It is not possible to prioritize schedule and insist on keeping the budget at the same level.  If we want faster speed, we may have to spend money.  If we are constrained on our budget, we need to be flexible with our schedule and even the scope of work.

A project charter is short, concise and to the point — this can even be just one or two pages.

Ensuring this project charter is clear from the very start can greatly help reduce conflicts and wasted time during the course of the project.  There will be less meetings, less politics, better motivation in the team, and a higher likelihood of success.