01 Jun 2021

What is project scope? The ultimate guide to scoping your next project

Skills, Project scope
What is project scope? The ultimate guide to scoping your next project

Have you ever experienced this dreaded moment? During the course of a project, the client has somehow snuck in 17 extra project deliverables. You were so busy meeting milestones you hardly noticed. The budget is in tatters and you're not exactly employee of the month. 

As project managers, we’ve all been there to some degree. Having a solid project scope and using it to keep your project on track can avoid such disasters. It's a critical piece of the project management puzzle.

A project scope is created during the planning stage and it defines the project goals, objectives, deliverables, tasks, resources, costs, and deadlines. Importantly, once approved, it becomes a constant point of reference and the guiding light for the project, informing stakeholders and keeping project teams focused.

Creating an effective project scope is a key skill in any project management career, so we’ve put together this ultimate guide to help you drive better project outcomes. Read on to find out exactly what makes a good project scope, why you need one, and what to include in it. We give expert tips, touch on scope creep, and provide a template to help you craft your next project scope.


Project scope definition

The project scope is an agreed summary of all the important parameters of the entire project. A well-written project scope includes things like goals, deliverables, tasks, costs, and deadlines. Usually, it establishes project boundaries, responsibilities, success criteria, and procedures for how work will be approved. It outlines key stakeholders, assumptions, and constraints. Importantly, it describes the project in a way that all stakeholders can understand.

The project scope is sometimes called a statement of work, scope statement, or terms of reference document. It is usually included in the overall project management plan.

 

“In simple terms, the scope is what a client or sponsor wants delivered. It sums up the work that needs to be done to get the desired result.”

Graham Watt, LFAIPM

 

Why do I need a good project scope?

Your project scope is a key communication tool. A project scope should be developed for every project, regardless of its size or the project management methodology used. It tightly defines all elements of a project and helps deliver successful projects. Writing project scopes is an essential skill for any project manager.

The project scope helps ensure clients, key stakeholders and the project team have the same understanding of the project. It keeps teams on task and helps prevent projects from expanding beyond the established vision. It gives a baseline when scope change is necessary, and it provides the team with guidance when making decisions about change requests during the project.

The project scope is important in every phase of a project:

  • Project initiation: determining an initial project scope is usually the first part of a project. It helps frame any business case and helps decision makers do their due diligence.

  • Project planning: once any business case is approved, the project can be fully scoped. This is often an iterative process between the project team and the client or sponsor. It’s critical to get the scope agreed upon before moving on to delivery so that everyone involved has a shared understanding of all elements of the project. It draws the line in the sand that defines the project.

  • Project execution: in this phase, the deliverables are developed and completed. The project scope should be a constant point of reference to keep project teams on task and manage stakeholder expectations.

  • Project monitoring: the project manager will continuously monitor the progression of the project. The project plan will detail the process you need to use to adjust schedules, resources, or scope.

  • Project closure: after the project, the project manager and the client will reflect on the project’s success. Together you will analyse the outcomes against the project scope’s stated goals and objectives, with any agreed changes during delivery.

 

“By gathering and documenting accurate details, the project scope will reflect all requirements of the project. Project leaders are more likely to be able to deliver products that meet stakeholder expectations on time and on budget with a great scope behind them.”

Graham Watt, LFAIPM

 


What is scope management?

Scope management is an overview term used to describe the process of scope definition, scope verification, and scope change/control. Scope management plans are a useful tool to help project managers anticipate the need to update the project scope as the project progresses, carefully control what changes are made, gain approvals to the change, and document the agreed changes.

There is some cross-over in what is in the project scope and what is in the scope management plan. Ultimately, it all feeds into the overall project plan. Remember, the key purpose is to keep the client and stakeholders informed, engaged, and involved throughout. Having a defined project scope and a plan for controlling your project scope will help you finish your project on time, within budget, and to the level expected by your stakeholders.

 

Scope creep

The term scope creep is often used to describe the continual extension of the scope of a project due to poor planning, miscommunication, or inadequate change control. It happens when more and more work is added to projects as they're underway. It can lead to poor outcomes like budget overruns, missed deadlines, and under-delivering on core project objectives. It is mostly thought of as something to be avoided at all costs, but if it’s managed well, scope creep isn’t all bad.  

As project managers, we know that projects can evolve along the way, especially large and complex ones. The better the original project scope, the better the team will be able to manage necessary change. If the scope is clear and guidelines for change requests are documented, there’s the possibility of improving project outcomes with the knowledge that comes during the project. Being inflexible might limit the potential or create long-term inefficiencies.

So don’t just actively avoid changing your scope. Be as specific as possible and have a process that allows you to positively manage changes to the scope that will improve the planned business outcomes.

 

Project scope template

We’ve created a template to help you write your next project scope. Depending on your organisation, industry, and chosen project management methodology, you might choose to include some of the below in other documents. Use it as a checklist to guide your thinking, ensure you’ve covered all bases, and customise your project scope to suit your needs.

  • Project title: the name of your project

  • Project manager: contact details for the project lead

  • Introduction: a high-level overview of the project

  • Justification: the reason why the organisation needs to implement a solution to a problem

  • Goals: high-level statements about what the project will achieve

  • Objectives: specific statements about what the project will achieve

  • Scope statement: overall description of the scope

  • Deliverables: details the output of the work done during the project

  • Acceptance criteria: spells out exactly how success will be measured

  • Boundaries: clearly defines what is in and out of scope

  • Approval procedures: details how completed work will be verified and approved

  • Constraints: any limiting factors that can impact project success

  • Assumptions: any factors that are considered true without actual proof

  • Exit conditions: any conditions that would trigger the exit or close of the project

  • A task plan: a timetable that organises tasks, timing, and milestones

  • Deadlines: schedules when the work will be completed by

  • Roles and responsibilities: details who the work will be completed by

  • Costs: outlines how much the project (or elements of it) will cost

 

How to write a project scope

1. Brief: Collect details of what the client/ stakeholders need from the project. Communicate to find out what problem needs solving, when the project needs to be completed, and how much they can pay for it. Understand your client may not fully understand what’s necessary to fully “scope” the project.
 
2. Draft: Create a skeleton draft of your project scope that includes what you know. Get all members of the project team to contribute. Lean on subject matter experts. Consider all solutions to the problem, not just the solution presented by the client or sponsor. Focus on the deliverables, what specifications are needed to achieve the desired outcomes, and how the solution needs to perform under different conditions.
 
3. Collaborate: Work with key stakeholders in an iterative process to define all the details of the scope. This ensures important things aren’t forgotten, and that everyone is on the same page.
 
4. Agree: Gain buy-in for the scope with all important stakeholders. It’s critical to have an official sign-off process that confirms the document is complete and accurate. The scope will be used throughout the project and cannot be a moving target.

 

8 expert tips for creating a great project scope

  1. Demonstrate the value: what long-term business benefits does the project provide? What problems does it solve? How does it bring something new to customers? The project scope will be used by many stakeholders in different situations throughout the project. It must communicate the project’s benefits.

  2. Jargon-free zone: the project scope is for everyone. Lots of different stakeholders from different departments with different backgrounds, and people outside the organisation and the industry. Keep the language simple and easy to understand. Remember your client/stakeholders may not have a deep understanding of project management principles.

  3. Consider the big picture: it’s important to think about organisational factors like culture, IT infrastructure, and market conditions when developing your scope. If you scope a project in a bubble, it’s likely to miss the mark.

  4. Don’t generalise: make sure you are very specific, and that there’s no room for misunderstanding.

  5. Check yourself: have an independent person review your scope (adhering to confidentiality requirements of course). Get them to play devil’s advocate. Can they see any gaps? Does it all make sense? Fresh eyes will see what the project team is too close to notice.

  6. Short and sweet: the scope is designed to be a quick reference guide for later, and it needs to have buy-in from all sorts of stakeholders. So, keep it simple and save the detail for your full project plan.

  7. Use visuals: not everyone likes to consume great slabs of words. Break up text with tables, lists, and infographics to keep it interesting.

  8. Share your scope: there’s no value in having a great scope in your bottom drawer (or hidden somewhere in the cloud). Publish it, talk about the it, and refer to it often. As with most things in project management, good communication is key. Regularly revisit scope, especially if changes are being discussed.

 

Project scopes save projects and careers

A solid project scope is an essential foundation for a successful project. The scope summarises every important aspect of a project. It provides a clear vision for the project, so that everyone involved has agreed on the outcomes. It ensures the project team is kept on task, on time, and on budget. Building your skills in writing effective project scopes will set your projects (and you) up for success.

 

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