Agile Project Charters: Clarity of Vision for Optimal Project Success

“Agile Project Charters: Clarity of Vision for Optimal Project Success” on Smartsheet, May 5, 2020.

What Is an Agile Project Charter?

”An Agile project charter is a living, updateable document that serves as a roadmap through the Agile process. It outlines a project’s scope, objectives, and deliverables, ensuring that everyone is working toward a common purpose.

“Agile projects leverage the Lean startup model to develop and test a hypothesis and then stop, pivot, or persevere,” explains Alan Zucker, Founding Principal of Project Management Essentials. “Projects stop if the team realizes this is not a viable product or there is not a market for it. We should cut our losses and move on. We pivot when we find a nugget worth pursuing, but it requires changing direction. We persevere when the hypothesis is validated.”

Teams that follow a well-designed project charter will remain focused on a common goal, which makes it easier to identify when that goal needs to be adjusted or replaced. “Pivoting is valuable,” Zucker continues. “We have found something valuable but need to apply it differently. There are many great examples of pivots, including Slack, which started as a gaming community, and YouTube, which started as a dating site.”

Creating a successful project charter begins with a collaborative project kickoff meeting, where team members can align their goals, assign responsibilities, and design a comprehensive plan for project completion. Input from all stakeholders is essential for drafting a thorough and effective project charter.

These are the central components of an Agile project charter:

  • Mission or Vision: Clarify why the project exists, what business outcome it is trying to achieve, and which stakeholders will be affected. Define what success looks like for the project by using metrics, targets, or other performance indicators to help track project progress objectively.
  • Risks: Document any uncertainties that could affect the project, and outline your team’s mitigation plan. Risk management planning is essential for coping with obstacles such as budget cuts and personnel changes, and they should be included on every Agile project charter.
  • Responsibilities: Outline the key roles and responsibilities, and assign them to teams or individuals. Include both technical and non-technical positions and people who will be responsible for communicating with stakeholders.
  • Stakeholders: Make a list of everyone who will impact or be impacted by the project. This list should include individuals or groups who will need to provide input or sign off on the project and those who will be held accountable for results.
  • Success Criteria: Identify key markers of project success. Consider using a set of specific deliverables or objectives, a timeline, or other acceptance criteria to determine whether the project is on track.

In projects that use traditional Waterfall methodology,  Zucker explains, “The charter is a critical foundational document. It outlines the business problem, high-level direction, requirements, timeline, budget, key stakeholders, initial risks, assumptions, constraints, etc. There is common agreement about the charter elements.

“Agile projects should have documents that describe goals, objectives, and acceptance criteria for the project,” he continues, “but there is not a consensus on what that document should be called or the included elements. There is agreement that the document should be lightweight. In other words, it should fit on a single sheet of paper, either a flip-chart sheet or an A3 sheet. ”

Both Agile and Waterfall include project charters as part of the project planning process. The project outcomes should be clear regardless of the project type. Agile and Waterfall methodologies may differ in how the work gets done, but according to Imbarrato, “There should not be a reason for distinct project charters based on methodology. All projects have objectives, assumptions, strategic alignments, and risks.”

Estimating Agile Project Size

The size of an Agile project will depend largely upon its scope. Clearly define the objectives of your project, and figure out what resources and work are required. Once you have this, you can estimate the size of your project.

Traditional projects require teams to complete all deliverables within a project’s scope by a specific  deadline. When teams estimate project completion time without allowing for potential delays or obstacles, they risk missing deadlines or going over budget.

“Despite best efforts, few traditional projects deliver on time and within budget,” says Zucker. “Agile takes an entirely different perspective. The product backlog is a prioritized list of what may be needed or wanted. However, the product backlog is emergent. Items may be added or removed, or their prioritization may change. There is the recognition that not everything may be delivered.

“On Agile projects, we focus more on how long we want the project to persist,” he continues. “Because we have stable, persistent teams, estimating costs is very easy.  The number of people on our team is multiplied by their rates and the intended project duration. It then becomes a question of how much work can be completed within our desired time or budget box.”

Tips for Writing an Agile Project Charter

When you write an Agile project charter, concision and clarity are crucial. Outline the project’s purpose, scope, objectives, timeline, and deliverables, and define the roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders. Your final charter should be a single-page, easy-to-read document.

The following are best practices for writing an Agile project charter:

  • Accessibility: Make your charter easily accessible for the entire team. “By having the charter front and center on the team wiki for distributed teams or in the team room for collocated teams, everyone knows where to find the key facts,” suggests West. “It is great to remind the team or infrequent visitors of what is important.”
  • Clarity: Ensure that your charter is easy to understand. Simple, direct, and non-technical language is essential for keeping all team members and stakeholders informed, whether or not they are involved with the technical aspects of a project. Organize your charter with bold section titles and bulleted lists to keep it clear and easy to navigate.
  • Concision: Try to keep the charter to a single page. “Single pane of glass, sheet of paper, mural board — it is impossible to define the medium upon which the charter will exist,” says West. “For distributed teams, the charter must be electronic, and even for co-located teams, it is good to have a charter visible from anywhere. Immaterial of the medium and technology, the charter must be a constrained document. For example, if we took a leaf out of the Lean world, then A3 might be a great tool for a charter. The key is that the charter must be accessible and easy to read and understand, and that tends to mean short and direct.”
  • Collaboration: Incorporate team input when designing your project charter. “Charters must be owned by the whole team and not created by someone else,” advises West. “Ownership is key to understanding and getting value from the charter. Stakeholders must feel some connection, but the team must work together to define the content and structure.”

Ultimately, your project charter should align team members and clarify objectives and avoid creating confusion. “The value of the charter is establishing the parameters of the project and the expectations,” says Zucker. “Creating a clear set of success factors, objectives, outcomes — whatever you want to call them — allows the product owner to validate the results. A common pitfall in all projects is that expectations are not set, so the team does not know what success looks like. A good charter will provide that clarity.”