Changing Charters: A Lesson from the US Constitution

February 11, 2009

Article V of the United States Constitution

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress; Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year One thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article; and that no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.

The delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention realized that the Constitution (charter) needed to be flexible, but, at the same time, require a bit of pain in changing it. After all, changing the charter would change the whole country. It would have an impact on relationships between federal and state governments. It would have an effect on the everyday lives of all citizens. It would constrain some, free others.

So . . . what got me onto this topic?

After reading my recent article on chartering, my friend, Bill, commented that I was making it sound too easy to change a charter. He preferred that the charter be done carefully and renegotiated only with great care, more hesitantly than changing a requirements document. While I agreed with his view, I felt that the subject of changing the charter deserved more attention than I could give it in the article. This is my chance to set things right.

When I think about changes to a charter, the US Constitution immediately comes to mind. Article V defines how the constitution can change and evolve. There are four lessons about chartering that we can learn from Article V.

  1. Article V requires broad acceptance of a change for it to be ratified. Because of the wide effect of change to a charter, it, too, benefits from broad acceptance of changes. Daily project decisions and requirements, like legislation, can be made and changed relatively simply by the body responsible. Changes to the charter, however, can affect everyone involved in the project. Considering changes carefully and securing broad acceptance help make the changes successful. The referendum provision of the Colorado Constitution offers a counter example. The Colorado Constitution can be amended by a majority of the popular vote. It is possible to amend the constitution, with impact on the entire state, with support only in one densely populated part of the state, Denver. Compare his with a project sponsor unilaterally changing a charter — by removing people or dollars from the project, for example — and expecting the project team to still meet the original objectives.
  2. Article V prohibits some changes based on time (no knee-jerk, quick changes before it has time to take hold) or principle (some lines should not be crossed). These are both good concepts to keep in mind when writing a charter and negotiating a change process. A project can derail if the charter is changing constantly. Additionally, a project team can fail if it is allowed to act outside the principles of the organization as a whole.
  3. A charter, like the Constitution, is stronger with a provision defining how changes may be raised, the charter renegotiated, and an updated charter accepted. Additionally, it is useful to define the tolerances for having to change the charter. For example, the charter may allow the project team to increase the budget by 10% without having to renegotiate the charter with the sponsor.
  4. To be effective, the change process doesn’t have to take pages to describe –again a framework is the target. The Constitution does it in less than 150 words (barely 100 if you subtract the need to put a short term provision in effect). The specifics are left up to the parties involved. A simple framework for changing a charter will allow for some flexibility and better ensure that the parties will be willing to follow the process when events cause changes in the project.

A change to the charter really defines a new project. A change to one part of the charter may cause ripple effects — adding to the scope may require more resources, for example. Changes should be considered and renegotiated with care — using a process negotiated with the first iteration of the charter.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on changing charters.


Chartering Article Published

January 28, 2009

I just published an article on chartering to my website.  It explores the idea that the charter is a great tool for establishing and sharing a common context for a project.  I look forward to any comments you may have!

Your Watch

October 21, 2008

con·sul·tant n. someone who steals your watch to tell you what time it is.

After reading my last blog, my friend Nynke commented that this joke may not really be a joke after all, but rather a compliment.

I agree! Some of my best client engagements involve helping my client be confident enough to follow the path they knew was right, but were afraid to follow. Jerry Weinberg calls this “jiggling”.

A good consultant doesn’t force their own opinion on you as a client. Instead, they help you form your own opinion. Often, they just get you unstuck by giving you a little jiggle — a small change, a different perspective on the problem, sometimes even just permission to act on your instinct. The best advice is when a consultant leads you — using good questions — to your own answer. A good consultant does this well. Often, you feel like you came up with the answer on your own. You did, but with help.

Five Minute Rule: Clients always know how to solve their problems, and always tell the solution in the first five minutes.

— Gerald Weinberg, The Secrets of Consulting

My Enlightened Consulting Materials

July 3, 2008

con·sul·tant n. someone who steals your watch to tell you what time it is.

Everyone knows the old joke. It endures because it’s what clients often get when hiring a consultant. Hearing the joke gets me thinking about what a consultant really should be.

Recently, I read Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, of which The Golden Compass is the best known because of the film version. In the trilogy, the children, Lyra and Will, possess useful, but dangerous, tools (an Alethiometer and a Subtle Knife). I realized that each of these tools represents a characteristic that a client should expect in a good consultant.

An Alethiometer is a device that always tells the truth – while not giving answers. For Lyra and Will, the truth is sometimes hard to interpret, often painful to hear, and, in the end, both important and useful. The truth isn’t an easy answer giving instructions about what to do next. It helps the children understand the potential outcome of their actions and who might be helpful in getting what they want. A consultant should be an Alethiometer for their client. Being an outsider, the consultant can give the unvarnished truth, and warnings about potential outcomes. On the other hand, the consultant cannot choose the best path for the client, as they are unaware of the full impact of the culture and history of the organization. In other words, they cannot give answers. The truth, however, is what they owe their client.

The Subtle Knife is a knife with one edge that can open doorways into other worlds and a second edge that can cut anything. It is useful — allowing the children to go someplace new or to escape danger. Unfortunately, when they open a doorway to another world, the children sometimes find themselves in a dangerous place (in one case, 50 feet above a busy highway!) The second edge is useful simply because it can cut anything. It, of course, is dangerous for exactly the same reason when misused. A consultant can be a Subtle Knife for their clients, giving them doorways to other worlds (other industries or companies). These vicarious views into other experiences can be helpful, providing insight into solving problems within the client’s organization. They can be dangerous when the client thinks the “other world” is exactly the same and tries to implement the same solution without tailoring. (Or worse, when the client thinks the situation is so different they can’t learn anything.) Consulting advice can be like the sharp edge of the knife. It can be useful when considered and used carefully. It can be dangerous when misused or misunderstood.

These tools clarified aspects of a consultant’s role for me. Can you think of other tools that might give you similar insights?