The quick guide to defining project scope—in 8 steps

When it comes to project management, you don’t want to aim too big or too small. Rather, you want your project size to be just right: big enough to capture all of your project deliverables, but small enough to be an achievable goal.

The way to do that is to define your project scope. Defining the scope of your project helps you hit your project deliverables on time and within budget—without overworking your team. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know to define and manage your project scope.

What is project scope?

Project scope is a way to set boundaries on your project and define exactly what goals, deadlines, and project deliverables you’ll be working towards. By clarifying your project scope, you can ensure you hit your project goals and objectives without delay or overwork.

Defining your project scope isn’t a one-person job. Rather, you should align with any important project stakeholders and ensure that you’re all on the same page. For example, if you’re working on a product marketing launch, you want to make sure you align with stakeholders on relevant teams at your company, like the product team, the design team, and the content team. Depending on how complex your project is, you may also want to define a change control process—we’ll get into how you can do that later.

What is a project scope statement?

A project scope statement is simply a written document of your project scope. Depending on the complexity of your project, your scope statement could be a section of your project plan, or it could be its own stand-alone document. Additionally, if you’re working with an external team or agency, you may turn your project scope statement into a statement of work (SOW) to cement the agreement between you and your vendor.

What is scope creep?

Scope creep is what happens when project deliverables exceed the project scope. For example, imagine you’re working on a product launch, but you haven’t drafted a project scope statement. Halfway through the project, a stakeholder adds a press release to the project’s deliverables. A few days later, a different stakeholder adds a blog post about the new product. This added work that your project team was not expecting or prepared for could cause unnecessary stress or even delays to your project’s original deliverables.

When your project suffers from scope creep, you end up working on tasks you didn’t expect at the beginning of the project. This can lead to project delays, overwork, or low quality deliverables.

The best way to prevent scope creep is to create a solid project scope statement and share it with any relevant stakeholders as early in the process as possible. That way, everyone is on the same page about what your project does—and does not—cover.

[Read: 7 common causes of scope creep, and how to avoid them]

The benefits of defining your project scope early

Defining your project scope is a key element of project planning. Without a clear scope statement, your project could warp and grow beyond your team’s ability to complete it, causing delays or burnout. Your project scope helps you envision the entire lifecycle of your project and make sure your end goals are achievable. Specifically, defining your project scope allows you to:

  • Ensure all stakeholders have a clear understanding of the boundaries of the project
  • Manage stakeholder expectations and get buy-in
  • Reduce project risk
  • Budget and resource plan appropriately
  • Align your project to its main objectives
  • Prevent scope creep
  • Establish a process for change requests (for complex projects)

8 steps to define your project’s scope

1. Start with your project objectives

Before you can define your project scope, you first need to outline your project objectives. Project objectives are the assets you plan to deliver by the end of your project. Your project scope, ultimately, will help you get there—but you first need to know where “there” is.

[Read: How to write an effective project objective, with examples]

2. Make a resource plan if you haven’t already

In addition to project objectives, you also need a sense of which resources you’ll have available to you. In project management, a resource can be anything from project budget to team bandwidth. A resource management plan outlines which resources you have available for this project—and how they’ll be used.

Plan to define your resource management plan before creating your project scope. That way, you’ll know exactly what resources you have available when you’re drafting your project scope statement, and you can adjust the project scope based on that availability.

[Read: Your guide to getting started with resource management]

3. Collect any additional project requirements

There are other, important elements of early project planning. But right now, you should be focusing on anything else that might impact your project scope. Remember: project scope is your way of documenting your project’s boundaries, and what your main objectives, budget, resources, and deliverables are. If there’s anything else that might impact those things—like your project timeline, for example—collect that now.

4. Draft your project scope statement

It’s time to put all of the research you’ve compiled into one place: your project scope statement. Your project scope statement should explain what you will and will not do, and why.

Depending on the complexity of your project, your project scope statement could be a bullet-pointed list, a longer paragraph, or a full blown SOW. No matter how long it is, your project scope statement should outline what your project objectives are and indicate what your project will and will not cover.

If you need help defining scope, start by answering these questions:

  • Why are we working on this project? What are our ultimate goals and deliverables?
  • What restrictions do we have? How much budget, headcount, and resources are available? Which team members will be working on this?
  • When are our deliverables due? What timeline do we have to hit?
  • What is out of scope?
Example project scope statement

Let’s say you’re rebuilding your company website. Here’s what the project scope might look like:

Project objectives: Transfer website backend onto CMS platform in order to improve page speed and flexibility.

Resources:

  • Web team (three people), 30 hours of work a week for 6 weeks
  • Engineering manager (one person), 10 hours of work a week for 6 weeks
  • IT & Legal review (two teams), five hours of ad hoc work a week
  • $7,000 for CMS

Deliverables:

  • Training for all content writers in late May 2021
  • Entire website on new CMS by June 2021

Project roadmap and timeline:

  • April 26: Begin scoping CMS
  • May 10: IT & Legal review
  • May 17th–June 3rd: Web team transfer
  • May 31st: Content writers’ training
  • June 4th: CMS is live

Out of scope:

  • New DAM system
  • Customizable web pages on new CMS
5. Get buy-in and approval from key stakeholders

Before you sign off on your project scope statement, make sure you get buy-in from your project stakeholders. This is your chance to change things around, rethink your project’s objectives, and decide what is and isn’t part of the project. Once your project is underway, it’ll be harder to change any element of your project scope statement, so communicate your scope well to any important stakeholders.

[Read: What is a stakeholder in project management?]

6. Establish a change control process if necessary

If you have a lot of stakeholders, or if you’re managing a complex initiative, it might also be worth establishing a change control process. With large or complex projects, some things will inevitably have to change. Maybe your timeline was way too optimistic, or new customer feedback came in and you have to change several important deliverables. You don’t want your project to be impossible to change, but you also don’t want anyone to be able to make a change willy nilly, because that can lead to scope creep.

A change process is an established set of processes that stakeholders have to go through before their change is approved. To create a change control process, establish a way for your project team and stakeholders to submit change requests—for example, through a centralized intake Form. Then, a pre-selected set of important stakeholders should review the change and see if the change request is important enough to merit addition. If it is, see if you can deprioritize some work you were planning on doing, in order to avoid scope creep.

7. Share your project scope statement with the team

Your stakeholders have seen and signed off on your project scope—the next step is to share it with your project team. Make sure your team has a one-stop shop to access all of your work, like a work management tool.

8. Refer back to your project scope statement during the project

It’s helpful to reference your project scope document frequently to make sure you’re on track and not at risk of scope creep. If anyone introduces new elements to the project that haven’t gone through your change control process, refer them to the project scope statement and encourage them to submit their idea as a request or fast-follow.

Set healthy boundaries with project scope

A project scope statement is a great tool to make sure your project is on track and going to be successful. It’s also a great way to support your project team and prevent burnout. But a project scope is only useful if it’s been effectively communicated. Make sure to surface the project scope document early in your project. Then, continue referring back to it frequently during the project.

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