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Appointment as PM definitively before planning starts and officially with signing of the charter. It is good to participate in charter development, but you are not appointed PM then.
Business analysis can speed up your understanding of the project but also narrow your independent view on the charter (unwritten assumptions).
Never ever participate in contract negotiations.
As early as possible. The more of a foundation the PM can have on the project the better they can help steer the ship.
I agree with @Andrew the sooner the project manager becomes aware of the project, the more he will be able to prepare for it and gain a deeper understanding of it.
As early as possible would be very beneficial. This will be aligned according to the organizational structure of the organization and the availability of the project management workforce.
There is a best practice that has been stated long time ago: somebody that has knolwedge about project management must be engaged from the time where the idea came, no matter this person will be the assigned project manager to the project just in case the project is approved. If you review PRINCE2 you will find it inside the process life cycle. In other cases that is the mix between business analysis and project management disciplines. You will find the recomendation I stated above just in case you review the IIBA or the PMI related standards.
I agree with Sergio and the rest, and have personally found the best practice to be one of the following:
-  Mandate -- Project Sponsor -- Project Manager
-  Mandate -- Project Manager -- Project Sponsor
Either of these options happens basically in the same time-frame and provides the best opportunity for PM empowerment and project success (in all respects). However, as long as the PM is involved in the formulation of the charter, the full value proposition of the PM can be realized regardless of when he/she is assigned.
I agree with my fellow colleagues and specifically, Andrew’s statement.
I joined my current project as the busines case was being written. It was good to be part of that effort.
Like previous posts "as early as possible". In the case of an external bid, it would be in that process the best time for the PM to be determined.
In an internal project, the case of Stephane is also an excellent timing.
Project Manager should be appointed & authorized while drafting Project Charter.
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