Creating a team charter is a great first activity for your newly-forming team.
It helps build team cohesion and trust, gets you off to a quick start, and is a great activity to get everyone — team members and management — onto the same page.
Sounds good already, doesn’t it? But what is a team charter?
A team charter is simply a common understanding of how a team gets its work done. It covers the basic questions of why a team exists, what it’s designed to accomplish, and how the work will happen.
It may sound simple, but it really is a powerful document.
A team charter keeps your team focused on their purpose — and greatly increases your chance of a successful outcome.
An effective, actionable team charter should include the following elements:
Some of those items may seem pro forma, and you may be tempted to skip a team charter altogether or give it short shrift. But fair warning: you’d do so at your own risk.
Hashing out all the elements that go into a team charter is the best thing you can do for your team — and that’s before any of the real work gets started.
A well-developed team charter creates clear expectations. It can help to efficiently solve problems that frequently come up during a project…and it may even help keep problems from forming.
In fact, a team charter is one of the top 6 factors to have been shown to contribute to successful team collaboration.
Ready to get started? Read on to find out how to create a team charter of your own.
It maybe seem obvious, but starting with your origin helps set the tone. Have a key stakeholder discuss why the team was formed, the problem the team is being asked to solve, how that problem affects the organization’s goals and objectives, and the consequences of letting the problem go unchecked.
When these questions are answered up front, teams and management get to see how the team contributes to the bigger picture. It also lays the groundwork for gaining consensus on the team’s mission and objectives, which follow next.
Leadership coach Kristi Hedges urges teams not to whitewash the situation that is leading to the team’s formation.
In “How To Get Real Buy-In For Your Idea” for Forbes, she argues that including risks — or even doubts and unknowns — invites discussion and debate. Not only is this the right time to field new opinions, but including other voices in the conversation up front generates real buy-in for the work that’s to come.
By starting with this background, you benefit from well-rounded perspectives. You also now have a team that knows their contributions are valid.
You’re off to a good start.
2. Mission and Objectives
The mission statement succinctly communicates what the team is setting out to achieve.
You want it to be clear and memorable — but also specific enough to guide team members as they get to work.
Project manager Doug DeCarlo recommends a 3-sentence mission statement that contains the key information a team would need:
- Who is doing what, and for whom
- What successful project completion looks like
- The business justification or expected benefit of the work
Once the mission is set, list the interim goals and objectives that must be attained on the way to project success. Whether you call them milestones, goals or outcomes, they are some of the most important elements of the team charter.
As you develop your list, make sure you can answer “yes” to each of these questions for each:
- Is the goal SMART? (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound)
- Is everyone on the team in agreement?
- If we accomplish this goal, will it make a difference in our success?
A clear mission objectives section is the foundation for the rest of the team charter and its importance cannot be overstated.
It serves as the bedrock for the budget and resource allocation, it drives the number and type of the members you assign to the team, and it serves as a crystal-clear picture of what project success looks like.
Have you heard of scope creep?
It’s moving the goalposts once a project is underway, usually with little acknowledgement of the impact to headcount, resources, the budget or the deadlines.
Do you know what can banish scope creep (or at least tame it)? A super-clear mission and list of objectives.
As software engineer Glenn Stovall explains, “When you don’t put down clear goal posts, there is nothing to stop them from changing. They’ll move on the opinions of people involved in the project from day to day. This swaying in the wind is particularly insidious because it looks and feels productive while killing your project from the inside.”
Of course, you’ll eventually need to make changes that are deliberate and thoughtful. In fact, you can count on changing at least something once the project is underway.
But having a clear picture of success is essential for your team.
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3. Budget & Resources
Now that you’ve got a clear picture of project success, it’s time to put your company’s money where its mouth is. That means it’s time to align funding and other resources against the project objectives you’ve outlined.
There are two basic approaches to budgets:
Working top-down, from a more-or-less fixed amount that was handed to you
Working bottom-up, looking at your project line-items and figuring costs
(Looking for a primer? Check out “Creating a Project Budget: What You Need to Know,” a great reference by project manager Duncan Haughey.)
It may be tedious work, but it’s necessary.
Your ability to hit your project goals is directly dependent on your ability get the people, equipment, and materials that your project needs.
Underfunded? If that’s the case, at least you know it up front and can change the project objectives (or due dates) accordingly.
And nothing beats the clarity of marrying project outcomes with a budget.
Whether you’re a team member on the hook for producing results or the project sponsor in charge of signing the check, knowing that the money is available, and what it pays for, is liberating.
4. Roles and Responsibilities
Defining responsibilities — both for the project overall and in support of specific goals — is an important component of your team charter.
A good roles and responsibilities matrix will outline who is responsible for project management activities, who key stakeholders are in which areas, who the executive sponsor is, and the individual team members responsible for key deliverables.
Here are some questions to consider as you work through your matrix:
- Are there additional skills or expertise that we need for project success?
- Are there any other teams or individuals that need to be represented or consulted during the project?
- Is the team strength sufficient for the work and the deadlines?
- Is there any training that the team members will need to complete the work successfully?
Being diligent here can really pay off. Finding and filling holes in skills and expertise becomes much easier when a matrix makes it clear what the team members bring to the table.
Adjusting budget or deadlines now means a smoother project after sign-off.
Being extra-thoughtful and deliberate as you pick your team can also pay dividends, even though many teams are formed by default due to location or function.
Knowing how to ”select systematically for competency in a team is one of the best assets a business leader can have,” says Robert McHenry, executive chairman of OPP, a British HR consulting firm.
One competency you may have overlooked?
Adaptability — the ability for team members to roll with the changes, says McHenry, in his article “Getting the right people on board for a successful team.” Intrigued? Check out his article to learn more about the art of team selection to help you form your team.
5. Team Operations
This is the section where you clarify how the work gets done. Having consistent process and procedures that everyone has agreed to helps keep your team on schedule and productive.
To get started, identify frequent and recurring activities that would benefit from a clearly defined, documented process.
Usually this means items such as:
- Meeting guidelines
- Decision-making guidelines
- Conflict resolution process
- How work gets distributed among team members
- Communications inside and outside the team
- Progress updates
Think this is overkill? Organizational psychologists Krister Lower and Ruth Wageman beg to differ.
Their research, reported in “The 3 Essential Conditions of Team Effectiveness,” shows that, when left to their own devices, teams can get stuck in daily crises or end up working at cross-purposes.
Defining best practices of how the work of the team gets done, gets everyone on the same page and helps contain team fragmentation.
Alignment around team operations frees a team up to take on the challenges of the project itself — it’s essential to a high-performing team.
6. Team Member Assessment
In the sections above, you were careful to paint a clear picture of what project success looks like. Here, you’re being explicit about what success looks like for each team member, and how performances will be evaluated.
Questions to ask yourself and your team may include:
- Will the success of this project, and their individual contribution be a factor in their annual review and their bonus?
- How does their work on this project tie in to their work objectives as a whole?
- What merits a meeting expectations versus exceeding expectations?
- At what points does the team member’s responsibility and accountability begin and end?
Also, consider adding in a peer-to-peer and self-evaluation component to your team member assessments.
The tabulated results from those evaluations can become a useful team training and formation tool for future projects.
Consider variations on the following themes in your evaluation process:
- How effective has the team’s collaboration been? Why?
- Did the majority of the team’s members participate consistently? If not, why?
- Did team members come to meetings prepared to contribute? Give examples of one stellar contributor whose contributions would serve as a good example for future teams.
- What is a specific example of something you learned from your participation on the team that you wouldn’t have otherwise learned?
- What is a specific example of something your team members learned from you and your participation on the team that they probably wouldn’t have otherwise learned?
- Did you and the team at large have the resources (including project management support, communication, budget, leadership, skills, time) necessary to achieve the team’s goals?
- Do you have any suggestions for improving the organization’s next project team’s performance?
How participation and performance is assessed is often overlooked during project kick-offs — but this is one of the last items you’d want to leave murky, since it can significantly impact team members motivation and performance.
This is especially true when company values such as collaboration and consensus-seeking are prized just as much as hitting due dates and budgets.
Having clear assessment goals allows for mid-project course correction when it’s needed — and a No-Surprises Evaluation at the end.
And who doesn’t want that?
Looking for more assessment inspiration? Check out this 15-question assessment (complete with score interpretation and advice) from MindTools.com.
7. Signatures and Approvals
Last but not least, your team charter should close with a signatures field, with a spot for each team member to actually sign.
Their signature ensures that each member understands and agrees with the details of the charter.
And a formal approval of the charter by the project sponsor gives an official blessing to team goals, deliverables and definition of success.
Official signatures head off two big potential problems: the But, I didn’t know! and the That’s not what I agreed to! situations.
The formality of the signatures — we do suggest actual signatures instead of email-based comments — requires all involved to really understand and consent to the charter contents.
Allison Rimm learned this the hard way.
A former VP of Massachusetts General Hospital, she took her colleagues’ smiles and nods at face value as she worked to move a project through to completion.
As she explains in “How to Keep Support for Your Project from Evaporating” for Harvard Business Review, that tacit support eroded due to circumstances that had nothing to do with the project (read: office politics).
Now, Rimm suggests taking actual votes and recording them in official minutes.
“That way, if there is ever a disagreement about the status of one of my projects, there is a clear record of everyone’s position.”
We agree! Charter signatures are the best voting system we know of, especially at project kick-off.
And once you’ve got your signatures…congratulations on your completed team charter! Best of luck on your team’s success.
This post has been updated from the 2014 original.