In the project management world, being a vigilante is rarely advisable. Managing a project without proper authorization is not keeping Gotham or your company safe. And the Commissioner Gordon of your organization is more likely to put you in Arkham Asylum than congratulate you for showing initiative.

So what prompted this week’s Dark Knight analogy?

I recently taught a project management foundations course in which I spent some time talking about the importance of having a project charter.

I asked my learners to recall one of the old Western films they might have seen where an unnamed drifter (usually played by Clint Eastwood or a similar actor) rides into a town which is clearly in need of some law and order. The drifter makes quick work of a couple of baddies in the local tavern but happens to attract the attention of the town’s sheriff. The sheriff is aware of his own ineffectiveness and convinces the drifter to clean the town up. And to make it official, the sheriff pins a deputy badge on the chest of the drifter.

And that’s what a project charter does for us.

It could also provide a whole slew of other benefits including:

  • Providing stakeholders with a high level understanding of the why, what, when, and how
  • Helping to resolve any “grey areas” before we proceed further
  • Identifying some of the key stakeholders and their roles (e.g. sponsor, PM)

But it’s primary value is to formally authorize the existence of our project. Without it, we are consuming the organization’s resources towards a well intentioned goal, but without evidence of any approvals for this work.

In the case of projects done for or with third-parties, a contract might be in place before a project starts. In such cases, the contract serves as a charter if a separate one isn’t created.

However, on projects which don’t involve contracts such as those done wholly within a company, are charters still used?

I decided to pose that question to the members of PMI’s LinkedIn Project, Program and Portfolio Management discussion group. I gave them three choices to choose from for how their company’s internal projects are authorized:

  • A verbal request from a leader
  • An e-mail request from a leader
  • A written, formal document

My expectation was that the third choice would win nearly all of the votes. While it did receive just over two thirds of the seventy votes cast, 13% indicated a verbal request was used, and 19% responded that an e-mail request was provided.

An e-mail message might not be sufficient to satisfy some of the other benefits of having a charter but it does at least provide evidence of approval as long as it describes the work to be done and is issued by an appropriate authority figure.

A verbal request on the other hand is worth the paper it was written on.

So the next time someone asks whether you are a project management Batman, the only correct answer is “No!”.

(If you liked this article, why not read my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on Amazon.com  and on Amazon.ca  as well as a number of other online book stores).

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