Project scope: definition, importance and how to develop it

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 30 November 2021

The scope of any particular project is very important for determining its goals and boundaries. This is why the scope of a project is usually determined at an early stage, typically in the initiation or planning phases of a project. If you're interested in project management, understanding the importance and usefulness of this concept can be beneficial for your career goals. In this article, we explain what project scope is, why it's important, how it's determined and answer some frequently asked questions.

Related: How to become a project manager

What is project scope?

Project scope is a detailed outline that's determined quite early in the project life cycle and represents a mutual understanding of the project's purposes and limitations. The scope is typically detailed and can include the important deliverables, related activities, timelines, resources and the boundaries of a project. This often also includes information regarding the important project stakeholders, the assumptions which laid the groundwork for the project, its processes, what the project intends to achieve, what it doesn't intend to achieve and who are involved. You can include all of this information in a single document called a scope statement.

Why is scope important for project management?

Much of the information contained in a project's scope can also be found elsewhere, which might make it appear unnecessary. In fact, this is typically a crucial part of project planning and can help prevent potential problems for the project in the future. The scope represents a form of contract or agreement between the project manager, stakeholders and clients. This is why it's generally developed during the planning or initiation phase of the project. It's used as a point of reference throughout the project's life cycle, both by project managers and stakeholders.

Various people can base their expectations on the scope statement, as it typically includes the expected outputs of the project in addition to its timeline. Another key aspect of scope is that it determines what's a necessary part of the project and what isn't. This helps to prevent 'scope creep', which is the process whereby additional activities or outputs happen due to conflicting ideas regarding project priorities.

Related: Project management skills and how to improve them

How to define a project's scope

A project's scope statement primarily intends to define what is and what isn't a part of the upcoming project. This is why the development of a project's scope is often a collaborative task. To help you understand how to effectively determine your project's scope, either alone or in collaboration with others, you can consider the following steps:

1. Develop a broad description

This is similar to the project goals and defines what you hope to achieve by successfully completing the project. The result could be the production of certain outputs, the development of a new design, the delivery of a service or even the removal of something unwanted. This information is essential for many of the people who have some form of involvement in the project's planning and implementation, such as the project manager, stakeholders, team leaders, managers and team members. A lot of the information for this description is already determined during the initiation phase.

Although this is somewhat broad, the language can be quite specific to help determine the project's boundaries. A description of the output's purposes and end-users is typically included. This is because it helps to further specify what counts as an integral part of the project.

Related: Objective vs. goal: what are the key differences?

2. Stipulate the project's deliverables

A project's deliverables are the individual outputs that the project is meant to produce. When you're developing this list, include as much information and detail as you can, even if it appears obvious. You can also add points that specifically exclude certain activities or outputs, which can further clarify the project's boundaries. This can be quite a long list, as the project may depend on a number of complementary outputs. For example, if the goal of the project is to remove something, such as waste from a river, the primary deliverable is the removal of certain objects.

To achieve this, you'd need specific tools which might require development. These could be machines for removing waste substances and objects, measures to ensure that wildlife in and around the river isn't adversely affected or the training of project personnel in proper waste removal techniques. You might also wish to state that damage to natural habitats would violate the purpose of the project and mention additional measures that the team can take to prevent this. This limits the project's scope while still allowing for additional activities that would benefit its goals.

3. Define the project's success criteria

A project's scope is useful because it can help you determine whether or not the project succeeds in meeting its goals. To assess this, you can use success criteria, which stipulates that the project is successful based on specific and measurable standards. For instance, you might state that the project would be successful if it produced a certain number of outputs at a minimum standard of quality and within a specific time frame.

Alternatively, to use the example of the river waste removal project, you could specify that the project would be a success if it removed 80% of identifiable waste from the river within a certain number of months. How you measure this is also an important inclusion. For instance, you might recruit outside experts to determine the efficacy of certain processes and to give an impartial account of progress. This also means that the project would fail if it didn't meet its success criteria.

Related: How to develop SMART goals

4. Identify project constraints

A project's constraints are the internal and external factors that can limit its progress or activities. In the case of internal constraints, these might be the budget and other resources, personnel available or the project's deadlines. There are also external constraints, which might be laws and regulations, the availability of contractors, the availability of quality suppliers for project inputs and even public opinion. In a way, your project's scope is itself an important and useful constraint, as it determines project boundaries.

A good way of identifying constraints is with a SWOT analysis. The weaknesses and threats identified from this are the internal and external constraints, respectively. You can complement this with a PESTLE analysis, which can provide additional details regarding the specific nature of a project's external constraints.

5. List specific project exclusions

A good way of clarifying what counts as beyond a project's scope is to list these exclusions. Although you may have stipulated these elsewhere throughout the scope statement, it's useful to include all of them in one list for easy reference. This is a detailed list of all the activities, priorities, outputs, concerns and interpretations that aren't part of the project's scope.

Anyone who attempts any of these during the project's life cycle would've exceeded their purview, and there might even be the need for disciplinary action. This is because it could result in the wastage of project resources. Many instances of scope creep occur due to simple misunderstandings, and a detailed list like this can prevent them from occurring.

6. Include expert input

You may find that you and the project could benefit from some input from experts. For instance, in the case of the river waste cleanup example, experts might be environmental scientists, biologists or government health and safety personnel. These individuals can give you advice on the legal, environmental and practical challenges associated with the goals of your project. They can also advise you on the best ways to proceed. You can also speak with stakeholders and any other relevant parties and bring these various individuals together in brainstorming or question-and-answer sessions.

Related: Consulting skills: definition and examples

Project scope frequently asked questions

Below are some frequently asked questions regarding scope in project management, together with their respective answers:

How much detail is necessary?

Include as much detail as possible. The more detailed you can be in the scope statement, the less likely the project is to encounter misunderstandings, waste of project resources and conflicting priorities. Things like organisation, hierarchies, individual processes and suppliers might not need inclusion, as they're not always directly related to a project's boundaries.

What are SWOT and PESTLE?

These are two analytical methods that project managers commonly use. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. PESTLE stands for political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental. These are the various constraints, priorities and concerns that a project can expect to encounter.

How does scope creep happen?

Scope creep refers to when a project's scope gradually increases based on individual actions. This might be because some project personnel have their own ideas about what the project ought to produce, misunderstandings due to unclear scope statements or in reaction to external events. These can be either deliberate or inadvertent.

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