Advice for Strategic Initiative Charters

InitiativeA secret of strategic initiative success is to establish effective starting conditions. One of the first documents created in a program is the charter. A strategic initiative charter serves at least two foundational functions:

  • The information in the charter provides inputs for discussion and reference. You can describe the quality of this information as “initial,” or “preliminary,” or “tentative.” As the team learns its way into the program, it updates and supplements the information in the planning documents.
  • A signature on the charter indicates that the strategic initiative is legitimate (e.g. management is prepared to invest resources into it). Strategic initiatives are boundary spanning and transformative; thus, this legitimacy helps to identify the stakeholders who will support with visibility and resources.

The strategic initiative charter serves as a symbol of the launch of the strategic initiative. It is of far less importance to document intentions for planning or controlling the work.

In prior articles, I explained that strategic initiatives are programs and not projects. If you have a template designed for projects, be careful as the typical template is designed for ordered, understood deployment projects and not complex strategic endeavors (a related article on Five Rules for Complex Strategic Initiatives is found at the bottom).

Strategic initiatives often work in an environment where you want good things to emerge, rather than obtain a predetermined result.

Enforce Conciseness with the Two-Page Rule

I and other practitioners compared our experiences with strategic initiative charters. We noticed the “two page” rule: cull the information into the essential elements and keep the entire document to two pages. This practice encourages you to think about your audiences and your purposes in communicating to them.

I once worked with an executive whose mantra was, “Conciseness is next to godliness.”

You don’t want to make the mistake of putting too much information into a strategic initiative charter.

I have created one-page strategic initiative charters. The response was that this one page is insufficient. Experience says that two pages is optimal.

Essential Elements of a Strategic Initiative charter

When I write a document to charter a strategic initiative, I include the following elements. I write and edit to keep the document to two pages.

  1. Strategic Initiative Name
  2. Background/Rationale – This is a brief statement explaining the significance of the strategic initiative, including the impetus, who is affected and how.
  3. Statement of Problem or Opportunity – This takes the prior section and goes into more detail, and is typically where tentative vision and metrics are described.
  4. Lead Entity (ies), Other Partners – Often the initiative involves other organizations. It is useful to clarify other partnering organizations that are likely to be involved, and their roles, if known. Who is the lead partner?
  5. Program Manager Name
  6. Key Resources – If known, state the people, funding, equipment/facilities dedicated to this initiative.
  7. Strategies/Actions to Advance This Initiative – This describes the problem-solving approach. I often find it useful to explicitly address deviation from standard project methodologies. This helps you avoid misunderstandings with project offices, which often enforce compliance to project standards that are inappropriate for programs and strategic initiatives.
  8. Out of Scope – I describe the known excluded items, particularly other strategic initiatives.
  9. Anticipated Timeline – Here I focus on incremental benefits delivery. I avoid due dates for deliverables, which is much better addressed in program and project planning documents.
  10. Program Sponsor and Other Key Stakeholders
  11. References – Strategy takes place in an environment where there is a plethora of information; literally, hundreds of pages of presentation slides, spreadsheets, analysis, proposals, and the like. In this section of the charter, I reference strategic planning documents.
  12. Approval – (Signature)

There are many things than can be included in a program charter and anyone with experience with project or program charters should be able to provide many suggestions. These elements can include authorities, decision rights, strategic assumptions, and budget.

What is your experience with strategic initiative charters?

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About Greg Githens

Thought leader who helps others think strategically, make strategy, and turn vision into action. Coach, advisor, board member, and hands-on leader. Seminar leader and speaker of popular offerings "How to Think Strategically & Apply Business Acumen" and "Leading Strategic Initiatives (Program Management)." Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation.
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12 Responses to Advice for Strategic Initiative Charters

  1. Alicia says:

    I am interested in hearing any opinions about charters for multi year strategic initiatives. Would you recommend versioning as they progress over time?

    • Greg Githens says:

      In the ideal world, a one-time charter should be sufficient. Many (maybe most)”true” strategic initiatives last at least 1 year, and my experience is that they are never re-chartered. On the other hand, projects that are under the initiative ARE chartered as necessary, and that gives you many of the advantages of phasing.

      I’d encourage you to look at the two bullets at the beginning of the article. Do you agree with the functions? Perhaps a function is missing?

      You use the word “versioning.” Is versioning significant to your success metrics? or is it some sort of compliance policy specific to your company?

      Once the charter is out of the way, the program can move into planning. I’m a fan of Rolling Wave approaches which allow the start of early incremental benefit delivery. The rolling wave can be sustained over a multi-year program.

      Thanks for your question, and I can respond with more detail to your situation with more specifics about your strategic initiative.

      Comments from other readers are welcome!

      • Alicia says:

        I do agree with the first two bullets and they are very helpful. I think where we differ is that our Strategic Initiatives are actual Projects that are large and can span multiple years. So when you say “As the team learns its way into the program, it will correct erroneous information and supplement it.” and “projects that are under the initiative ARE chartered as necessary, and that gives you many of the advantages of phasing.” I think it would make sense then to perhaps update the Charter in a phased approach.

      • Greg Githens says:

        Thank your for the clarification of your experience. The definitions get to the crux. In the very first article on this blog, I gave my definition of strategic initiative. I further wrote that the discipline of program management applies, rather than project management. In subsequent articles, I explained how program management is different than project management is different than portfolio management (they have been widely read and cross posted, by the way).

        With that being said, I can only say that I can not personally think of a strategic initiatve that was project managed.

        The term strategic initiative (like many other terms) can be used any way that the author intends. It is my hope that – through this blog and my other contributions – that the phrase strategic initiative and associated practices will gain some consistent professional recognition.

        Thanks! I hope you keep reading and commenting.

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