How to define project scope and eliminate scope creep

Nothing derails a project faster than poor planning. Without the proper strategic structure around your business or organizational goals, your endeavors can go wildly over budget, take months longer than planned, and even get canceled. 

Scope includes not just what the team will accomplish, but also what they will NOT within the budget and timeframe specified. 

Get It ALL in Writing—and Share It

Too often, we see trusting clients and contractors moving forward with projects without getting the scope and processes down in official documents. Then when changes arise or scope creep looms, there isn’t an agreed upon system in place to manage these change requests. 

Be sure your stakeholders understand up front how change requests should be handled, and that all parties involved—team and stakeholders—follow the same procedures for requesting changes to scope.

Approvals should also be formalized so that everyone knows that not every change request will become part of the scope automatically. The approved scope and processes should be documented and shared among ALL members of the team and any stakeholders. Transparency is key.

Some clients or department heads will try to minimize the impact of change requests (“This shouldn’t take very long”) without truly understanding the time and cost involved. Don’t be afraid to say no to and/or clarify how any change requests will disrupt the project for any reason. 

Scope creep - project management

Consider this scenario:

Your client (or supervisor) wants to modernize the organization’s website within the next 3 months. He’s very busy, and he needs you to lead the project.

The Nightmare

You allocate lists of tasks to individuals, but avoid holding an all-hands status meeting to save time. There is no public scope document or change request protocol.

Engineers, designers, and content creators are confused about messaging and the goal of the redesign. Efforts are conflicting and overlapping. Some team members are only making minor tweaks, while others are reconstructing palettes, ideas, and brand focus—all at the same time. 

After much frustration from the team and stakeholders, the project is canceled for failure to capture the vision and failure to meet the deadline. Contractors won’t get paid—and might not choose to work with you again—and everyone feels defeated.

The Right Way

Get organized! There are 7 areas of scope that must be defined before you begin work. They are:

  • Stakeholders
  • Goals
  • Deliverables
  • Resources
  • Budget
  • Schedule
  • Flexibility

Stakeholders

No matter how busy the guy is, you need to interview your boss / client to understand his motivations and vision for the project. 

  • How did he decide to update the site?
  • Did the request originate from customers, staff, himself, or other parties?
  • What does he mean by terms like “modernize”? Does he have examples in mind? 
  • Who will approve the scope of the project? Are there other stakeholders?
  • Who will approve milestones as sign-off is needed?

Note here that you’re getting approval of the scope before you begin work, giving an opportunity to collect input on how the suggested scope aligns with the organizational vision.

SMART Goals

Goals

You must have SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. SMART goals ensure success by requiring the team to set out a framework ahead of time that aligns the purpose of the project with a measurable metric. Consider the differences: 

  • Bad goal: Launch a modernized website.
  • Good goal: Increase website traffic by 15% every month.
  • Bad goal: Add more calls to action.
  • Good goal: Decrease bounce rate by 20% by the end of the year.

In order to define goals, you must assess the following before you begin work:

  • What are the reasons for updating the website?
  • What isn’t working now? What do customers seem to respond favorably to?
  • What is the end goal?
  • How could this upgrade help other departments? 
  • How will it support organizational objectives?
  • What are the success criteria and who will decide if we’ve met our goals?

Successful organizations take the guesswork out of this process: they define what success looks like, so they know when they have achieved it. If you want project success, you have to define what success looks like for your project.

Perhaps budget is the most important thing to your stakeholders, and quality is taking a back seat on the project. Perhaps customer satisfaction is essential, and you don’t care how many overtime hours the team has to work to get that end result. (Elizabeth Herron)

What if my boss / client doesn’t want to help?

It’s up to you as the project leader to explain to key senior-level stakeholders before offering deliverables that the project cannot succeed or be completed without their involvement at the early planning stages and at pivotal approval stages. Also assure them that you will make as many decisions as you can within the team to meet the goals of the project.

Show empathy—is there something preventing them from being available? And be flexible. Offer possible pivots like reassigning accountability / sign-off to meet the deadline so that this communication problem doesn’t hinder the overall goal.

Deliverables

Too many project leaders start here, bypassing stakeholder interviews, information gathering, and goal-setting in order to show off their ability to check boxes on the deliverables spreadsheet. That spells disaster.

You cannot truly know how to structure the team and tasks without understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing.

For lofty objectives, you may even want to suggest as part of the deliverable scope a Feasibility Study to determine if the value of this project outweighs the costs involved.

When you get to deliverables, ask: 

  • What is being updated, rebuilt, or built for the first time? In this example, is it just the main website? What about sales / landing pages or lead-gathering pages?
  • What needs to be updated exactly? Be specific here, and cover all aspects of brand and organizational factors
  • What will NOT be included in the deliverables for this project? 
  • Do the proposed deliverables meet the organizational goals? 

Resources

Consider time and team, as well as equipment or software, you might need to complete your project. Ask:

  • What materials, equipment, and people will be needed?
  • Should we hire additional staff or contractors?
  • Will we need licenses or permits? 
  • What privacy or regulatory constraints might there be? 
  • Will we need to engage attorneys or financial advisors?

Budget

Devising a budget to determine costs associated with the project will be much easier once you have the previous steps completed. 

  • What is the budget for this project?
  • How will it be allocated and distributed among contractors, vendors, etc? 
  • Is there flexibility should the scope creep or additional expenses arise? If so, how much? 

Schedule

You’ll likely need answers to these questions from the project stakeholders. 

  • How much time does the team have to complete the project?
  • What is the deadline?

Flexibility

An effective project manager always plans for uncertainty, scope creep, and shifts within the project expectations. Perhaps a key contractor gets sick or the stakeholder suddenly wants to add in a component to the build that you weren’t staffed or projected to deliver by the due date.

In order to allow yourself some flexibility, ask:

  • How much flexibility do we have within the scope and deadline?
  • What are the ramifications if the schedule is not met? (This helps with prioritizing tasks and deliverables.)
  • What are the highest priority items: hitting a deadline, meeting the budget, or hitting quality targets?

Getting the answers to these questions will help ensure that you’re moving forward with confidence. 

22-year veteran of strategy: brand, business, organizational, communications. Certified in project management and regulatory compliance. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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