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How project scope management can save you big time

Time, resources, money, and more

Project scope is everything that’s needed to complete a project, including tasks, time, and resources. So, project scope management the process of overseeing and regulating all of those things so that you can complete your project on time and within budget.

Complex workflow


You need to make a quick stop at the grocery store to buy eggs. 

On your way to the dairy case, you remember that you’re out of cereal. So, you grab a box. Okay, two boxes. Then you get distracted by an end cap full of scented candles. You might as well snag one of those, too. Oh, and then you realize you need some paper towels.

At this point, jamming items under your chin and precariously balancing them in your arms isn’t working. Things are tumbling everywhere, no matter how hard you try to keep them together.

You take the walk of shame to the front of the store to grab a shopping cart. Then you toss a few more purchases into the cart as you make your way back to the dairy case to grab those eggs (you forgot about those for a minute, didn’t you?). 

Before you even realize what happened, your five-minute stop at the grocery store turned into an hour-long shopping trip. What was supposed to cost you $5 ended up costing closer to $100. And honestly? The last thing you needed was another candle.

If you put that in the context of your work projects, this is known as “scope creep” — and it’s evidence of why defining and managing project scope is worth making a list ahead of time. 

Yep, there are people out there who don’t get sidetracked by the paper towels or scented candles because they weren’t part of their initial shopping list. With project scope management, you can be one too. 

Why is project scope management important?

Chances are, you’re someone who’s guilty of an unexpectedly large shopping trip or a project that somehow ballooned beyond the initial requirements. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), a whopping 52% of projects experience the dreaded scope creep.

You don’t have an infinite amount of team members, time, and money. And, if your project requirements continue to expand, your resources are going to be strapped.

Effective project scope management helps you stick as closely as possible to your original plan and manage your resources more effectively, which leads to the following benefits.

1. Realistic timelines

One PwC study of more than 10,600 projects found that only 2.5% of companies complete their projects 100% successfully. The rest miss their original budget or deadline (or both!). 

Managing project scope will prevent you and your team from blowing past your original end date. When you know exactly what’s required to complete a project, you have a much easier time setting a realistic deadline you can actually honor. 

Think of our grocery trip again. If you knew you had a long list of things to purchase (and not just eggs), you would’ve set aside more time and grabbed a shopping cart right away, rather than thinking you’d be in and out in five minutes. Now the rest of your day has to be adjusted to make up for that lost hour.

2. Accurate budgets

It’s tough to understand how much a project will cost if its requirements and deliverables are constantly shifting and evolving. 

Defining the scope helps you set a reasonable budget in the first place, and monitoring the scope as your team makes progress will help you stick with that number. 

3. Efficient projects

We’ve all been there. You’re dealing with a project that won’t end because teams or clients keep requesting new features, tweaks, or additions. The scope keeps expanding and the project drags on and on and on. 

It feels good to say “yes” to things, but project teams have the tendency to keep agreeing to requests without realizing how far they’ve strayed from the initial plan. 

Defining and managing your project scope enables your team to deliver projects efficiently in accordance with the original requirements, rather than letting them continue to snowball. 

To put it simply, your scope (and the project scope statement you create) serves as the project touchstone. It’s something that the project manager and team can return to and use to guide their project-related decisions.

Steps for defining project scope

You can’t see into the future, which makes defining your project’s scope seem challenging. How are you supposed to know from day one everything that your project will entail?

Let’s walk through a few steps you can use to create a basic project scope statement. 

Imagine that you work as part of a marketing agency, and you and your team want to create a templated questionnaire for intake of all new clients. Here’s how you would define your scope:

1. Define the project’s goals

Every project has an objective — that’s why you’re doing it in the first place. 

Don’t assume that your end game is common knowledge for everyone on your team. Defining your goal (i.e., what will this project achieve?) provides important context. 

In the case of our example project, the goal would be: Create a new client questionnaire that will streamline the intake of new clients and ensure we have all necessary client information from the get-go. 

Pointing to your objective at the start makes future steps easier, as you can keep your eye on the project’s main goal and make decisions with it in mind. 

2. Define the project’s deliverables

Now it’s time to determine the output of your project. What tangible thing or things are you creating? In this case, it’s the online questionnaire that will be automatically delivered to your new clients after they sign your contract and a landing page for more information. 

Identifying your deliverables will help you catch when scope creep starts to sneak up. 

If you and your team start talking about how great it would be to also have an online portal where clients can submit file materials, you can remind yourself that an online portal isn’t a deliverable included with this project. You’re better off tackling that separately once this project is wrapped up and you have more resources and brain space to dedicate to doing it right.

3. Define the project’s tasks and activities

You know what you’re creating and why. Let’s talk about how you’re making that happen.

In this step, you’re breaking your deliverables down into distinct tasks and activities. What steps do you need to take to produce that deliverable? This is called a work breakdown structure.

To create your new client questionnaire, you’ll need to:

  • Decide and draft questionnaire copy
  • Input the questionnaire into an online form
  • Create a landing page where clients can access and learn about the questionnaire
  • Set up an automated email that delivers the questionnaire

The more you can split your project into specific, actionable steps, the simpler time you’ll have identifying ad hoc requests and tasks that weren’t part of the original plan.

Plus, this approach makes huge, complicated projects feel a heck of a lot more manageable.  

4. Define the project’s exclusions

When it comes to managing scope, understanding what you won’t do is just as important as understanding what you will. Just think: If you had written “don’t buy scented candles!” on your shopping list, you would’ve been way less likely to get sucked in by that fragrant end cap. Because you know how you can get when it comes to candles.

As counterintuitive as it seems, outline the tasks and deliverables you won’t complete as part of this project. With your questionnaire project, you’ll spell out that you aren’t tackling the following:

  • Online portal where clients can submit resources and files
  • Multi-step onboarding email sequence
  • Tailored questionnaires for each type of client

You’ve probably heard that the best offense is a good defense, and that’s what this step is all about. It’s like you’re posting a “beware!” sign for out-of-scope things you think could crop up and make you stray from your goal.

5. Define the project’s constraints

You’re not completing this project in fantasy land. There are real-world project constraints (budgets, timelines, and resources) you’ll need to work with. You’ll define those in this step.

Here are a few constraints of your client questionnaire:

  • It needs to be live by November 25, 2020
  • Total project budget can’t exceed $5,300
  • Web development team will not be available to create the landing page until the end of October

You need to be as realistic as possible, so make sure to involve your team members in this process. They’ll have input on other limitations you need to work with. 

Project scope statement and example

You’ve scribbled out your notes, and you’re ready to pull this all into a project scope statement that you and your team can reference. Make sure you keep it somewhere safe and accessible to everyone (a collaborative knowledge sharing workspace like Confluence is great for this). 

Most of the hard work is behind you, and now you just need to organize the information. At the top of your project scope statement, you’ll include a few nuts and bolts elements like your project’s:

  • Name
  • Description
  • Deadline
  • Manager

Here’s what the project scope statement for our example project could end up looking like: 

Project Scope Statement

Project Name:

New Client Questionnaire

Description:

Automated questionnaire that’s delivered to all new clients after we’ve secured a signed contract

Deadline:

November 25, 2020

Manager:

Isabel

Goal:

Create a new client questionnaire that will streamline the intake of new clients and ensure we have all necessary client information from the get-go

Deliverable(s):

Online questionnaire that’s automatically delivered to new clients

Tasks: (In-Scope Items)

  • Decide and draft questionnaire copy
  • Input the questionnaire into an online form
  • Create a landing page where clients can access and learn about the questionnaire
  • Set up an automated email that delivers the questionnaire

Out-of-scope Items:

  • Online portal where clients can submit resources and files
  • Multi-step onboarding email sequence
  • Tailored questionnaires for each type of client

Constraints:

  • It needs to be live by November 25, 2020
  • Total project budget can’t exceed $5,300
  • Web development team will not be available to create the landing page until the end of October

Want to make this even simpler? Our project plan template has an entire section dedicated to project scope, plus other helpful sections (like milestones and reference materials) to help your projects run smoothly. 

Use your project scope statement to keep your eye on the prize

Whether it’s a trip to the grocery store or a task at work, you’re familiar with how projects can inflate beyond your original expectations. Defining your project scope will keep you and your team in check.

Let’s wrap up with a few more quick tips for defining and managing scope:

  • Be as specific as possible: Being vague makes it much harder to understand what is in and out of scope.
  • Talk to your team: You don’t have to go it alone. Involving your team will ground your project scope in reality and provide alternative viewpoints to spot any holes or unforeseen obstacles. Use our capacity planning template to get a handle on their availability and avoid overextending them.
  • Work backward: Too often, people have a deadline or budget in mind, and then define scope to fit that. The most successful projects define their objective and deliverables first, and then base the timeline and budget off of that.
  • Learn from previous projects: History is the best teacher, and you can learn a lot from past project hiccups and successes. Make sure you do a retrospective on all of your projects to gather the most insights. 

Use these tips and the above steps as your guide, and you’ll stay focused on exactly what needs to be done and deliver winning projects more efficiently. Don’t worry — you can always grab cereal and paper towels next time. 

In order to avoid scope creep, your entire team needs to be able to refresh themselves on what’s included (and what isn’t). Keep your project scope statement within Confluence, so everybody can easily refer back to it. 

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