A Beginner’s Guide to Scope Management

Managing the scope well allows you to better control a project’s budget and schedule. Here, we discuss what scope management is, its benefits, and some best practices to implement today.

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Gina, a graphic designer, needed a portfolio website and opted for Troy, a friend’s cousin. He had the coding chops, but not a lot of project management experience.

They agreed on a fixed price for the project, and Tony began work. But after two weeks, they parted ways, less than amicably. The reasons?

  • Gina only had a vague idea of what she wanted her website to look like.
  • Troy created the website based on what he assumed Gina wanted.

Gina was unhappy with the final product, while Troy was unhappy that she wanted him to redo everything based on a new set of requirements but no additional compensation.

You can pin the blame on either Gina or Troy, but one thing’s clear here: Scope management could have steered the story’s ending in a more agreeable direction.


Overview: What is scope management?

Before we dive into a definition of what scope management is, let’s first define what project scope is.

Project scope

In project management, scope is the total amount of work required to complete the project’s deliverables. It lays out the features and functions each deliverable must possess upon delivery, as well as the resources — manpower, tools, equipment, time, etc. — necessary to achieve those deliverables.

Thorough requirements gathering is the first step to nailing the project’s scope.

Scope of work

Prior to starting a project, stakeholders must agree on a written scope of work that identifies:

  • What’s within and out of scope (e.g., deliverable features and functions, the tasks necessary to produce the deliverables)
  • The expected timelines (e.g., project kickoff, product testing, and turnover)
  • The project’s terms and conditions (e.g., payment terms, testing support the client is expected to provide, access to certain data or software systems)

The scope of work not only serves as a guide for the project team throughout the project but communicates what has been agreed upon in terms of scope.

Scope management

Scope management refers to the techniques, tools, and activities the project team implements so the project delivers as promised but doesn’t fall victim to scope creep. Managing and controlling the scope, especially since project requirements can change throughout the life of the project, ensures sufficient resources are available to allocate to the project at any given time.

Common scope management activities include:

  • Identifying deliverable functions, features, capabilities, and limitations
  • Determining the total work required to complete the project
  • Estimating the resource types — and quantities — necessary based on the project’s requirements
  • Creating a plan for identifying, verifying, tracking, and monitoring the project’s scope
  • Documenting the project’s performance against benchmarks
  • Making adjustments as necessary to prevent scope creep and keep the project tracking as planned
  • Putting a change request process in place and making sure it’s followed
  • Performing quality audits on deliverables

3 primary benefits of practicing scope management

Aside from staying on schedule and keeping the budget under control, proactively managing the project’s scope presents a host of benefits.

1. Manage stakeholder expectations

Managing stakeholder expectations is no walk in the park. But a well-defined project scope that’s easy to visualize and understand prevents problematic situations that can hurt your project, such as:

  • Clients not approving the final deliverable because it is not what they were expecting
  • The project’s requirements changing throughout the project, leading to confusion, overworked team members, deadlines not being met, a serious budget overrun, and poor quality deliverables

2. Establish work boundaries or controls

The project’s scope defines, explicitly, the features and functions the project’s deliverables must possess at the end of the project and the required tasks and activities to meet those specifications.

Anything a client (or other stakeholder) wants added or removed from the list of agreed-upon deliverable attributes should undergo a procedure called change request. In the absence of a formal change request process, any addition or alteration to the project’s deliverables is out of scope, which, when left unchecked, can lead to scope creep.

3. Better estimate the project’s resource requirements

Knowing exactly what the work entails gives you a clear idea of the skill sets you need to satisfactorily complete the job, the number of people to add to the project, the type of hardware and software resources necessary, etc.

For example, if you know 500 pages of content is expected at the end of a two-week project and you only have five people available to work when you need at least 10, then you can hire more people to stay on schedule. If that’s not an option, you may request the project deadline be extended.


Scope management for project and products: How does it differ?

Although products and projects are largely intertwined, there’s a difference between product scope and project scope.

  • Product scope: Often considered a component of project scope, product scope is the sum total of all the features, functions, and capabilities of a product, service, or project outcome.
  • Project scope: The work performed to deliver a product or service that meets agreed-upon requirements. Examples are staff training, resource allocation, and everything else associated with producing the project’s final output according to quality specifications.

In a construction project, for example, your product scope and project scope may look something like this:

  • Product scope: Deliver a two-story building housing 10 studio apartment units measuring 472 square feet each. A unit must have a bathroom, kitchen, and laundry area, etc.
  • Project scope: Get the necessary building permits, procure materials, hire people for the job, create a schedule, manage spending, etc.

6 best practices for successful scope management

To successfully manage the project’s scope, keep specific tasks, processes, and best practices in mind.

A circle showing the different project scope management processes.

The different tasks and processes involved in scope management. Source: invensislearning.com.

1. Create a scope management plan

A scope management plan, typically a component of the project management plan, states how the project’s scope will be defined, tracked, and controlled throughout the life of the project. It typically contains the following information:

  • Project requirements
  • Stakeholders
  • Scope statement detailing the project’s goals and objectives
  • Work breakdown structure (WBS) and an accompanying WBS dictionary
  • The project team’s roles and responsibilities
  • The project’s deliverables and how they will be evaluated and approved
  • Scope control measures, including when and how the project’s scope will be assessed throughout the project
  • How the change request process works

2. Collect project requirements

Requirements gathering is a crucial activity in project management. It provides an understanding of what the project and its stakeholders expect from the project. Skipping this process — or not giving it the time and attention it deserves — can often result in project failure. Case in point, our hypothetical example above. (Troy started work on the project without ascertaining what Gina really wanted.)

Applicable project management techniques for collecting requirements include:

  • Interviews
  • Questionnaires or surveys
  • Document analysis
  • User observation
  • Prototyping

3. Define the project’s scope

Once you’ve gathered the project’s requirements, you’re ready to define the outcomes and deliverables of the project, including the work to be done to produce them according to plan.

4. Create a work breakdown structure

The work breakdown structure, as its name suggests, breaks the total project work down into more manageable pieces, which are easier to assign, manage, monitor, and control. The WBS also allows project managers to come up with realistic project timelines.

5. Validate the project’s scope

This is the point in the scope management process in which stakeholders verify and validate the project scope and then sign off on the scope management plan.

6. Monitor and control the project’s scope

The last thing you want is project creep where you go over budget, or miss milestones and deadlines, so it’s important to keep track of the project’s scope, monitor the change request process, and continuously measure actual performance against scope baselines.


Final word on scope management

Scope is one of the elements of the project management triangle, more popularly known as the triple constraint. Failure to clearly define and manage your project’s scope will likely result in your team failing to keep a tight leash on the project’s schedule and budget as well.

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