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ATD Blog

Setting Up a Project Team for Success

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

There is an adage used frequently in management: if you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there. So, while we generally want to jump into the fray and start solving a challenge or design a new initiative, it is more efficient and effective in the long run to start with a roadmap—or in this case, a charter. For any team project or learning design activity, there must be an outline or framework. In the world of project management, this is generally called a charter, and in the design-thinking arena, it might be referred to as a design brief or research plan. Others might call it a game plan, playbook, business case, or outline. In reality, it can be a half-page outline or a collection of documents. The purpose is to initiate, define, and formally authorize the project.

The charter gets all the players on the same sheet of music relative to the goals related to the business challenge to be solved, the performance expectations, schedule, and project’s cost. Based on the size and scope of the project, the charter can be as detailed as the team wants it to be. A rule of thumb is to have it drafted by the project team and reviewed and approved by the sponsors or major stakeholders.

Because it is one of the first documents developed, it is drafted with partial or limited information. The template included provides a sampling of the information to consider. It is typical to use a longer detailed template, inserting “does not apply” or “to be completed later” on the template. As the project or design moves forward and gets more definitive, other documents can be added or referenced, such as the research plan, a milestone chart, a launch or pilot schedule, and even a communications plan.

Benefits of a charter include:

  • Focusing the entire team, including sponsors, on one purpose
  • Authorizing resources, including people and fiscal
  • Providing guidelines to clarify boundaries
  • Contributing to details related to the decision-making process
  • Serving as a resource for communicating about the project

An additional benefit of a charter and other project management tools for the learning and development team is that these tools are typically used by technical project teams within the business. As you engage your business partners, it speaks their language.


The charter is not a learning design, a solution, or even a deliverable. If you use a design-thinking model to develop a solution, you develop the charter prior to getting started on the project. The charter provides the guidelines or pathway for how the team will operate and their approach to develop a learning design or solution. Additionally, like a detailed milestone chart or Work Breakdown Structure, it is primarily for the project team.

Projects are generally defined as activities with well-defined parameters outside of the daily routine of work and are not repeatable. Projects turn a variety of tasks into results that impact the organization positively. Most projects use people and resources from multiple departments. Projects can range from short and simple to long and complicated with huge budgets.


Using a charter is critical for all projects. But like the project itself, the charter fits the project and can be short and simple or more detailed. Having a standard template and adapting it to fit the project should be the norm within the learning and development function. (See PDF of sample project charter.)

Bottom line: the charter provides structure and disciple to enable a higher level of consistent project success. But more importantly, it gives the team personal ownership of the project.

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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