Setting your Sights before Ready, Aim, Fire


By Toby Lucich

My memory is good, but far from photographic.

If you’re anything like me, you can share details on thousands of trivial things, and still can’t find your car keys if you don’t leave them in the same place each night.

Our work world recollection challenges are compounded by the fact that we often collaborate with several people, each of whom also has less than perfect recollection. One of the most painful - and frustrating - challenges I see in teams is the dreaded ‘he said, she said’ (also versions in ‘she said, she said”, and “he said, he said”).

  • Two people remember details from a past meeting or agreement differently.

  • They try to add details from the prior conversation, like what else was discussed, or what someone’s breath smelled like.

  • They seek to enroll other meeting attendees even as these poor souls are slipping toward an exit.

  • This often comes down to a slow and painful series of REPLY-ALL emails, citing pieces from emails over the last many months (or years).

The sin isn’t simply that we recall (or don’t) the details differently. It’s that we also communicated AND heard the intentions differently. At the root of this painful experience lies a communication breakdown, and a short but targeted Project Charter provides a powerful inoculation to future memory loss.

Scope is more than Mouthwash

Projects begin so simply, often with a casual request (or ask).

What can begin as a minor favor (“Can you just run me the TPS report?”), can turn into a small annoyance (“Can you just add just one more field to the TPS report query?”), which can turn into a headache that now requires the help of several other folks (“I’m going to need you to just replace the TPS reporting system so I can have interactive reports on my iPad”).

What may have begun as a 5-minute favor turned into a 2-hour task, and transformed into a 6-month, $250k software replacement.

Qualify Your Sponsor

Before embarking on a much larger effort than anyone anticipates, it’s a great time to challenge the request. If the request  is casual or hypothetical, it goes away. If it’s real, you’ve just clarified that you’re here to take care of business.

“Sure thing Mr. Lumbergh, just a few questions before I get started:

  1. What is it that you want out of this new system?

  2. What’s your budget and timeline for this project?

  3. Is this a ‘top 3’ priority for you, since I may need you to demand resources for this be successful?

Photo by  Ian Chen  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ian Chen on Unsplash

Set Your Sights: Building your A-Team and Charter

While the high-level scope may be clear (new system with interactive reporting), there are a number of open questions that a robust charter template helps teams clarify up front.

Drawing from more than  20 years of experience (and the practices of 50+ companies, and  200+ professional project managers), we’ve designed the tightest, clearest “project contract” in the business.

Project charters aren’t just about checking a box. They’re  about clarifying the goals of your project. They’re  a mechanism for building buy-in, setting expectations, and clarifying roles and responsibilities before the hard work begins.

While we dedicate a large portion of our Accidental Project Manager workshop to the art and science of chartering projects, we’ll usually touch on a few really big ideas that most folks look past.

What may be most critical isn’t what’s on the charter, but how you use it.

This is typically a 60-90 minute facilitated exercise, in which we like to include our project sponsor, a subject matter expert (SME), the related function or business owner that’s involved or impacted, and a technical resource, depending on the project dimensions. The goal here is to get your core stakeholders in a room together, and have them weigh-in and debate the nuances of the work up-front. The more they contribute to the conversation, the more you can lean on their expertise and reputation to support and drive the work.


The Return Leverage Project Charter

Beyond the basics of what all good scoping charters consider, here are a couple of our favorite components:

  • Identify your Sponsors and Executive Stakeholders. Name them up-front, since these are the folks who are funding your adventure. They need to be fully committed to this effort, as you’ll need their budget, their influence, their authority, and sometimes their voice to communicate and advocate for what your team needs to deliver successfully. (These folks are also pivotal to driving organizational change and ensuring that your emotional investment reaches fruition).

  • Alternatives. Before spending a quarter-million dollars and untold hours of staff time, what ELSE might scratch this same itch? Stakeholders often become enamored with the latest, shiniest thing, but are satisfied with existing tools they may have forgotten about. (Re-introducing existing alternatives isn’t glamorous, but is incredibly easy and drives adoption of existing investments.) If nothing else, listing out the consequences of “do nothing” helps clients imagine the impact of saving their money for other things.

  • Scope Definition. This is the bread and butter of what the simple ask is really about. You aren’t seeking technical or business requirements, but trying to get a clear line around the work on the table. You are equally interested in ‘what’s in' and ‘what’s out,’ since both have an impact on project planning and cost estimation. This is a great time to name sore spots, political footballs, and perennial pet projects that are close but not on your list of things to accomplish. You shouldn’t try to boil the ocean here, but simply be clear about topics that new stakeholders might otherwise assume is part of your effort (either in or out) of scope.

  • Success Metrics. “Because I want it” isn’t a metric. Many organizations balk at the idea of a business case on the front end, and then want to burn the project team for unclear ROI on the back-end. Success metrics aren’t always financial, but naming the impact of a project early helps to ensure that everyone has a shared view -- before things get started.

  • Major Milestones. Finally, you need to nail down expectations for timing -- when sponsors and stakeholders think this thing is getting started, when it needs to deliver, and critical points of intersection with other organizational events and initiatives. This is somewhere between 5 - 9 major project moments from start to finish. This should be very high-level, but recognize the dates your team is sensitive to before the work gets underway.

Your Surrogate Project Memory

Before you start wielding your project charter as a perfect recollection of commitments made and truths captured, sit down and edit the details you’ve captured.

This is the foundation for your masterpiece, and you will be staking your reputation on the delivery of the facts it contains. Make sure it’s well- grounded, complete, and thoroughly vetted. A few thoughts:

  • Make sure you’ve got the content and details as intended, not just as described in the moment.

  • Circle back for clarifications as needed.

  • Share your final draft to stakeholders for final review, AND be sure to get your sponsor’s signature (or digital approval) before commencing the work.

Delivering well means starting well, and documenting your project understanding upfront will save you hours of chasing and heartache later.

Interested in learning more about running effective projects, enrolling sponsors for better organizational change, or getting out of the office for a day of workshop fun? Sign up to learn more about future workshops, and we’ll follow-up with details .

Or maybe you just want to put an eyeball on the project scoping and charter tool we use. Sign up to download it, and let us know how it works for you. We love feedback, and are always happy to lend a hand if you’re not making the progress you’d hoped for.

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