Project Scope: An Essential Part of Project Management Success

Project scope

Have you ever gone to the grocery to pick up one or two things and ended up leaving with a cart full of impulse purchases? This all-too-familiar experience is a simple example of what happens when you don’t stick to your project scope.

In a business context, the consequences of undefined or neglected project scope can be much more complicated. This includes missed deadlines, obliterated budgets, poor project quality, and unhappy stakeholders. 

So, what exactly is project scope and how can it be defined? 

Project scope definition

Before you start any project, you need to understand exactly what you’re trying to do. Your project scope — often referred to as the scope of work — establishes the key goals (both for the stakeholders and your team members), main deliverables, timelines, tasks, and budget of your project. It basically outlines the five “w’s” of your project — what, why, who, when, where — as well as the how and the budget. 

Why is defining a project scope important? Doing so sets expectations for both stakeholders and contributors. It lays out the finish line and the boundaries along the way. 

With a defined project scope, you’re able to: 

  • Reduce confusion or communications issues
  • More easily align your team on the project goals 
  • Speed up execution
  • Ease stakeholder management

What is a project scope statement? 

To ensure the scope of work is adopted and embraced by everyone involved, the project manager should create a project scope statement. This written record should be accessible to all stakeholders and contributors. When issues come up or changes are proposed, the project manager can refer to the scope statement in order to make an informed decision. 

A standard project scope statement will include the following components: 

  • Justification: explains the initial need for the project or why it has been proposed. 
  • Description of scope: a high-level list of what is expected to be included in the project. 
  • Goals: any key targets or business objectives 
  • Deliverables: a specific list of all the deliverables and tasks your team is expected to produce
  • Challenges: any risks, potential issues, or roadblocks that may interfere with a successful completion of the project within the scope
  • Items out of scope: a summary of items you can predict being requested during the project’s life cycle but which are out of the current scope

How to define the scope of a project

A well-defined project scope can help you and your team successfully deliver a high-quality project. While every project is different, there are standard steps that can help you maximize your potential for success. 

  1. Define the project’s needs and requirements: Set aside some time to talk to the stakeholder(s) requesting the project to understand exactly what they’re asking for and why they need it. This will inform the specific objectives you set.
  1. Confirm the project objectives: After you’ve established the project objectives from your own perspective, confirm that these align with not only the stakeholder’s goals, but the high-level business objectives. 
  1. Define the workflow: Once you understand the project objectives, you need to implement and communicate a clear workflow to ensure that you, your team members, and the stakeholders are all aligned. Lay out how the project will be completed, communication expectations, any tools that will be used, and other workflow-related matters. 
  1. Describe the deliverables: This can include anything from a list of product descriptions that need to be rewritten to a complete brand overhaul including new logo design, typeface selections, a website overhaul, and more. It’s important to list these in detail to reduce or eliminate any potential confusion that could lead the project off-course. 
  1. Identify potential issues: No matter how much planning you do, there’s always the possibility of changes or issues arising when completing a project. To lower the chances of major mishaps, proactively look at anything that could slow the project down. These could be issues such as technological problems, stakeholder management concerns, or budget issues. 
  1. Make necessary changes: Sometimes change is unavoidable, no matter how well a project is planned. It’s important to have a standard change management process in place that accounts for any possible pivots — while also avoiding scope creep.  

How to avoid scope creep 

Now you’ve created a thorough project scope statement and the project is going swimmingly. That is, until you notice a contributor working on something totally unrelated to the deliverables. This is called scope creep

One of the most common issues in project management, scope creep occurs when new requirements or changes to the project and tasks are introduced, usually by stakeholders. Say a graphic designer was asked to design a logo for a new brand. Suddenly, the client wants not only a new logo, but a new branded color scheme and custom typeface. These additions to the project can derail timelines, budgets, and quality of work — not to mention the graphic designer’s morale. 

According to research recently conducted by PMI, nearly 50% of projects experience scope creep, only 57% are completed within budget, and just 51% are finished on schedule. 

So, beyond creating a project scope statement, how can you set your team up for success and avoid scope creep? Here are some tips: 

  • Agree on an endpoint: A big part of scope creep is the confusion surrounding when a project is actually finished. Clearly define what the completion of the project looks like. Outline what stakeholders are involved (ie. who has to approve the final deliverables?) and what the final deliverables are. 
  • Get stakeholder sign-off: It’s harder for stakeholders to request changes when they’ve already officially signed off and approved on components of a project. Incorporate this process into your project timeline to help raise accountability and limit any unnecessary changes. 
  • Plan for scope creep: It sounds counterintuitive, but flexibility is a big part of a project manager’s job. We’re not saying you should be ready to completely pivot on a huge project, but allowing room for minor accommodations along a project’s lifespan will make your job easier and more efficient. 

Whether it’s one deliverable suddenly turning into five, or a few extra rounds of edits that weren’t included in the original project scope statement, avoiding scope creep will help your projects run as smoothly as possible — while keeping your team happy.

A project scope example

To help you visualize exactly what a project scope statement could look like, we’ve put together this high-level example. While every project and company will be different, this is a good place to start when you need a general understanding of project scope. 

Project scope statement

Project Title: Website Rewrite
Due Date: November 15, 2020
Scope Statement created by:[Name] 
Project Justification:This project is intended to increase business and brand awareness, as well as raise the quality of user and customer experience. Our recent customer research suggests that website users are not able to find what they need on our site, which is negatively impacting sales.
Project Goals:
The main goal of the project is to better communicate the business’ unique positioning in an effort to drive sales and brand awareness. Our objective with this project is to create a new foundation and refreshed identity to drive conversion and long-term growth.
Project Scope: 

– Establish a refreshed brand tone and style guide
– Rewrite website copy on specific pages according to new brand style tone and voice guide
Key Deliverables: 
– New brand tone and style guide (PDF format)
– Rewritten copy on the following pages: 
– Homepage
– About Us 
– Product descriptions (35)
– FAQ 
– Help and Contact Us
– Delivery
Challenges: 
– Timeline (8 weeks) 
– Coordination of team members (two employee vacations booked) 
– Approval of new brand tone and style guide could be complex (need to determine ultimate approver) 
Out of Scope: 
– Photo and other visual content production
– Implementation (uploading copy to website) 
– Website engineering or development 
– Web strategy 
– Social media pages copy

A clear and thorough project scope statement will not only make it easier for you to manage and deliver projects; it will also keep your team members happier. This simple but powerful document sets expectations and ensures everyone shares the same vision when it comes to the successful completion of a project.