5 Simple Rules for Managing Project Scope

It is often said that Project Management is not complicated, it is the disciplined application of basic project block and tackling, using simple well defined processes and artifacts. Of course that doesn’t make it easy, and many organizations struggle with delivering projects, let alone actively developing their project management discipline.

With that in mind, I am going to pick up on the theme of a previous post and work on a series of “5 rules” posts regarding project management topics. Each of these topics could each have a book written about them, and in fact there are many, many books on each of these subjects. My goal is simply to contribute some practical knowledge based on lessons learned over the years I have been delivering projects for clients. These projects have mostly involved technology of some type, but these haven’t all been “IT” projects, in fact many have been user experience design projects as well, and are just as applicable for agency account and project management types as it is for IT PMs.

Today’s post regards scope management. Poor scope management has to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, contributors to project failure and budget and timeline overruns. It is the source of endless stress for PMs, and frustration for business sponsors/product owners. There are many factors that drive “scope creep“, and we can have a long discussion about the deep-seated mistrust within organizations that leads to unrealistic scope for schedule and budget – whether IT is padding their estimates, or whether business owners are unrealistic in their expectations, or dictate timelines without any basis of reality. However that discussion has no conclusion, and really depends on where you sit within the organization. My goal here is simple to give you as a PM, or possibly an Account type, some tools you can use in your daily project life to keep sanity.

As you think about the 5 points below, keep in mind they apply to four distinct elements of scope management:

  1. Product Scope – this is what the product needs to do, typically thought of as the feature set, or product roadmap. In agile terminology this is the collection of your epics, and to some degree the entirety of the User Stories in your backlog though it will never all be fully built. This is the long term vision of the project so it is never absent, just often poorly done.
  2. Release Scope – simply, this is the collection of Product Scope (features, user stories) selected for inclusion in your current project. Sometimes also called a Product Increment.
  3. Project Scope – this is work that needs to be accomplished to deliver the Release Scope to the performance characteristics defined by the product owner. Think of things like project management, team meetings, performance testing, etc. Really any activity the team needs to participate in that will affect your schedule. This is really only missed by inexperienced PMs, or people just pretending to be PMs.
  4. Scope Management Processes – this I find often gets missed, the very processes and meetings required to manage scope are in a way scope themselves, and each of the 5 rules below need to be applied to this category too.

1 – Write it down

This seems simple enough, but I am always amazed in reality how much scope gets undocumented, or is documented in so many places as to not have an official “source of record.” If you have a product backlog, associated business requirements, associated functional specifications, wire frames, visual design comps, meeting minutes, change requests, etc. you have yourself a potentially massive traceability problem. As a team, you have to define and agree on one master record, then you need to have processes defined for change management to ensure that changes to scope are clearly documented, approved, and updated throughout the documentation.

2 – Walk the team through it

For some reason, PMs seem to believe if it has been written down and checked into some document repository, their job is done. It is certainly not. It is critical that at least the lead for each track or discipline involved walk thru the scope together and raise (and document) clarifying questions. Your main goal here as the PM, it not to “defend” your scope document, it is to drive ambiguity and risk out of your project. I have found the team is usually good at identifying potential vague scope that needs drilling into, and they are definitely good at identifying scope that has the potential to take away their weekends. Typical times to do this are at the project initiation, during a mid-design checkpoint, and again when transitioning from design into development.

3 – Discuss it with your client or business partner

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that just because the project scope has been “approved” that you and your client/product owner actually have a shared understanding of what the scope document actually means. It is critical to have a review, similar to step 2 above, but this time you will also review the issues and clarifications needed from the team, and capture and resolve any follow-up. I also continue to be amazed at how often, simply asking “what else”, “what other…”, “anything else…”, elicits a response when everyone nodded their heads that we were closed. Your job as the PM is not just to facilitate the process, but understand the product – this enables you to have the insight to probe on grey and potentially missing areas of scope. Do so.

4 – Manage it

They way I think about this there are two aspects to “manage it” rule. The first one is generally dealt with in PM literature, often called Change Management, and that is to manage the intake of new scope requirements (and occasionally the removal of scope items.) The process for this is mostly an extension of the processes you used to capture the original scope, modified to be repeated over the life of the project. You need to be able to intake potential scope changes, validate, estimate the impact of them, meet with your clients to decide if they are in or out, and re-baseline you management metrics based on the new set of scope. Typically everyone understands this and the process are well documented in various books, PMO charters, manuals, ad nauseum. What I’ve found repeatedly missing is the PM actively monitoring discussions, meetings and design documents for the addition of scope that has not been agreed to. My experience is that both technology and creative teams too often over-eagerly agree to “just a little stretch” of scope here, and a little there, and pretty soon you have an unrealistic set of client expectations. I call this Listening for Scope, and it is a critical PM skill to develop an ear for scope. The best PMs do it naturally because they are detail oriented by nature, and so do some of the best Account people, (although they are less likely to stop it in front of the client, but that another post). However anyone can develop this skill, it just requires that you immerse yourself in the product/solution your team is developing as well as review the documented scope on a regular basis.

The second aspect of “Manage It” is managing what I call Scope Drift. This is the process by which the team and the client’s remembrance of what the documented and agreed upon scope actually means drifts apart, and if unmanaged can diverge significantly. If you have ever had a client say “Well, yes, I know we agreed on X, but I just thought that would also include Y” you may have unmanaged scope drift.

I have prepared a complicated diagram to illustrate this process:

As time passes, the shared understanding of scope drifts apart.
As time passes, the shared understanding of scope drifts apart.

So what to do about it? You can’t really ask the team and the clients to meet regularly and review scope – “hey folks, I know this deliverable is closed, but I want to get together and review it again anyways, just to be sure.” That would go over well. My approach to this is implicit, and relies heavily on that ear for scope I mentioned above. You can, and should, have design reviews, tech reviews, deliverable reviews, wireframe walk-throughs, demos, user testing, acceptance testing, etc. and during all of these meetings you must asking probing questions to drive out any assumptions being made about what is happening that isn’t shown, what is happening behind the scenes, and reinforce to the client (and the team) how what was reviewed maps back to scope. You can use simple statements like, “And as we closed on during the project definition, the Account Management functionality we just walked through represents the full set of account management features for this release.”

You might be surprised the difference that one sentence could make:
Scenario 1 : Sentence is not used. The clients and the team are both happy with the walk thru and all the designs are approved. The team believes they are done with Account Management, but in their head the client has approved the Account Management functionality that your team has completed so far. There are so many more exciting things the client wants to do with Account Management, and they can’t wait to see the next revision. This scope drift isn’t realized until weeks later, and the team ends up working several weekends to implement a compromise version of what the client wanted. The client is unhappy, the team is burnt, you go over budget and deliver late.
Scenario 2 : Sentence is used. The issue having been detected is taken offline and discussed later that day, you the PM review the agreed upon scope with the client and they realize that they had not talked to you about their evolving vision for account management. You agree to document the new items in the backlog for future releases. The client thanks you for being so diligent, the team is relieved and impressed they finally have a PM that knows their shit, and all is right in the world.

So there you have it – manage scope and everything will go as planned. Well, not really but still you do need to manage scope diligently

5 – Verify it

It should go without saying that after you have done all this diligent work to carefully document and manage scope that you also need to ensure that your team actually develops to that same scope. Every experienced PM has heard statements from their team like “well I knew the client wanted it and I had time” or “well I thought this approach was better than what we agreed to.” Exasperating to be sure, and truly the actual execution and quality of whatever craft is involved is the domain of you Creative Director, or Technology Lead/Architect, but you as a PM have to ensure that the proper quality controls and verifications are integrated into your plan, and that you involve whatever QA discipline you have available within your organization. But that simply is not enough. As we have already discovered and agreed upon above, no one in your organization knows the scope of this project better than you, so you have to be in attendance at these reviews and checkpoints. Maybe not all, but enough for the team to know that you are on top of it and you will catch it. It is also a best practice to have periodic internal walk-throughs, if nothing else you must have one before a walk-through is done with the client. Your other domain leads can help here, and be up front that the internal walk through is to make sure that everyone is on the same page internally and there is no misleading or unintentional scope or expectations set by the intended walk-through or the voice over for the session.

A Final Word

To make all this work, the number one thing that you need to instill in yourself and your team is discipline. Discipline to follow the scope management processes you’ve defined. Discipline to gently and professionally refer the client to you, the PM, when new scope or a scope disagreement surfaces. Discipline to hold the team and client accountable to the scope agreed to. Discipline to force yourself to have that difficult conversation early rather than let it go and hope the team will get ahead somewhere else so you can “sneak it in.”

Yes, being a PM can be difficult and thankless, but you picked this profession, now you have only decide if you are man or woman enough to do what needs to be done.

For a thorough discussion on the subject see the PMIs Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), search Amazon.com for project management, agile management, product management, or the many excellent blogs and sites on Project Management, a few listed to the right.

6 thoughts on “5 Simple Rules for Managing Project Scope”

  1. Hi Keith, Nice, succinct and informative. I really enjoyed reading your post and found myself nodding my head vigorously throughout. I will look forward to your next post. Hope all is well with you. Best Sanjay

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