Managing a project’s scope is easily one of the most crucial skills of a project manager. A project born with a mismanaged budget or a staff that has been spread too thin will likely fail in a way that’s not only stressful but also entirely predictable.
What is project scope?
Project scope defines what the project entails—right down to the specifics. Your project scope should set clear guidelines, goals, and deadlines so everyone knows how the project will progress and what’s needed to consider it a success.
A project’s scope should also be planned carefully enough to minimize unexpected tasks and deliverables down the line. In planning, you should consider available resources, budgets, and other potential limitations to ensure your project expectations fit reasonably into what you have at your disposal.
If you start your project and run into a lot of unforeseen additions or changes to your project production, you’ve run into what many call “scope creep.” According to the Project Management Institute, unmanaged scope creep is one of the top contributing factors to project failure as well as poor planning and lack of clarity. Too many unanticipated issues or tasks can add pressure and prolong timelines, potentially leading to lower quality and team burnout.
So your project scope should not only be thorough and clear but also adhered to as much as possible—and paired with an effective change management plan should the unavoidable happen.
Project scope management in the planning phase
The first step for project scope management is effective planning. A thorough, concise scope management plan will create a resilient project that is less likely to balloon out of control. The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) suggests considering a few key aspects of a project during its planning phase to reduce the likelihood of scope creep.
Requirements as defined by the PMBOK guide are conditions or capabilities needed in a product, service, or result to satisfy a business need. We use requirements to define the contours of any sort of project.
A requirement can be as simple as “doors on a building” or as complex as “defining an exhaustive workflow for the everyday operation with backup plans for potential failures in the workplace.” Defining requirements gives project managers a baseline from which a project can be concretely defined. This gives teams a set of principles to return to when a project begins to grow in scope.
Create project scope statements
A project scope statement will naturally develop out of defining project requirements. Scope statements are documents that define the elements of the project scope as well as assumptions, project requirements, and acceptance criteria.
When project adjustments crop up, scope statements give project managers clear boundaries to refer to as they discuss which changes are necessary or not. Statements should be just rigid enough to create an upper limit of acceptable scope while leaving flexibility to push production if a team can stretch its resources in a pinch to get across the finish line.
Define project completion
Determining what a finished project looks like is different from outlining requirements. The definition of completion should be a living definition that responds to every change in scope throughout the life of a project. This responsive definition should give project teams an additional view of the true scope of a project, even as the roadmap to completion shifts and changes.
Project scope management in an active project
Designate a scope manager
The PMBOK suggests handing accountability of scope to a single person. This scope accountability manager can be the project manager or a level-headed member of the team that intimately understands the capacity and capabilities of a team.
This provides a single point of contact everyone on the team can consistently come to with scope-related issues and ensures all information related to the project and its scope lives with one person. Furthermore, creating a scope accountability manager eliminates confusion and scattered conversations.
Design projects with space for change
No planning phase can possibly account for every possible change that may or may not occur during the project. Creating a buffer for potential issues or unforeseen needs can help prevent scope creep.
This developmental wiggle room also gives team members more space to complete crucial tasks and deliverables with quality and care. Designing projects to accommodate unexpected needs or changes can ease tight turnarounds if timelines need to be adjusted.
Know when to say no
As mentioned before, unchecked additions and changes can lead to excessive delays and issues, which could lead to project failure if the project becomes too difficult to manage.
While some unexpected issues can’t be helped, you should examine all proposed changes carefully and decide which ones are necessary and which aren’t. They may all have value, but you need to think about how these changes might impact deadlines and team resources—some may not be worth the cost. At any given moment, project managers should be ready to enforce boundaries to preserve the project schedule and product quality as much as possible.
Communicate early and often
In many cases, there is room for negotiation when planning to add additional tasks or deliverables to a project. When adding work to a project, communicate with team members as soon as possible to responsibly manage workloads. Similarly, when team members report that workloads are too much for what they can reasonably handle, stakeholders should be notified that the project is possibly suffering from production overload.
Communicating development needs early and often will give all parties involved time to make useful adjustments, such as prolonged deadlines, additional funds, or trimmed project plans.
Tools to aid project scope management
Project scope management can be a lot for one person—or even a few—to handle. While a clear plan can alleviate some of those hardships, project management tools can take it a step further.
Project portfolio management (PPM) software can help set portfolio-wide standards and expectations for wider clarity and simpler process management. And Gantt chart software, like GanttProject and GanttPRO, can outline clear project steps with visual mapping so you can review the defined steps at a glance.
Explore a few different options to see what might work best for your team and projects. Different industries have different needs, and you may want to consider how your team best absorbs information to find your ideal solution.
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