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How to Use the Scope of a Project as Your North Star

Learn to use the project scope as your North Star. Keep projects on track, avoid scope creep, set expectations, and succeed with clear boundaries.

Motion Blog
at Motion
Oct 16, 2023
Table of contents

Are your projects often plagued with unexpected delays and budget overruns? Are you frustrated by constantly changing goals and endless additions?

Keeping your scope within boundaries is probably the most challenging part of managing a project, but also one of the most important. Without a clear scope, you might aim at the wrong targets. Your boundaries can even expand so much that you lose sight of the original goal. This is why knowing how to capture and use a project scope adequately is so significant.

What is the scope of a project?

The scope of a project defines what you need to do, how you should do it, and what the result should look like. Think of these as boundaries that help keep your project on track, so it doesn’t become a chaotic free-for-all.

The clarity and boundaries a project scope sets are essential for success.

According to a Harvard Business Review study, about 25% of projects fail due to budget overruns. This is because you can’t estimate project costs accurately if project requirements constantly shift or change. Defining the scope from the beginning will help you set a reasonable schedule and budget, as you can clearly see what has to be done to meet that scope. As your team progresses, managing the scope enables you to stay within that schedule and budget.

Another study found that only 29% of organizations manage to complete most projects on time, and that almost 75% of all projects exceed the baseline schedule. However, setting a realistic schedule is much easier when you know what’s required to complete an entire project.

Scope statement vs statement of work

The statement of work (SOW), is an official (often contractual) agreement between the project team and clients. Instead of a high-level overview like the scope statement, it goes into more detail about work items—such as listing accurate deliverables, schedule, milestones, pricing, and work locations.

Scope of a project vs. scope of a product

The product scope lists the characteristics and functionalities of your project's final product or service. The characteristics center around tangible aspects of the actual product, such as size, materials to use, and other physical features it may have. The functional specifications mention how the product should work in the eyes of the end user.

The project scope mentions all the work required to bring that product or service to fruition.

Scope in the Agile approach

So far, we’ve talked about using the scope of a project with the Waterfall method (the traditional project management approach). However, in Agile, scope is used and captured a little differently.

Agile methodologies typically don’t plan as much upfront as the Waterfall method. This is because of the adaptive nature of Agile—which aims to deliver products in iterations until the project is complete. In Agile, the project scope may be broadly defined in what’s called the product backlog. The scope for each iteration is selected from the product backlog.

Elements of Scope from highest to lowest

Each element of scope plays a unique part in getting a project from scope statement to final deliverables. These elements all serve different purposes and also give different overviews of the project.

Scope statement

A scope statement gives a high-level overview of the project and it sets the boundaries.

Typically, a scope statement should answer these key questions:

  1. Purpose: What problem does the project solve? What’s the need or opportunity driving it?
  2. Definition of a successful project: What are the results it expects to achieve? And what does project success look like?
  3. In-scope items: What work items are part of the project?
  4. Out-of-scope items: What are the boundaries you don’t cross? What’s explicitly not part of the project?
  5. Limitations: Are there any limiting factors that can influence the outcome?
  6. Exceptions: Are there special cases or situations that need mentioning?
  7. Agreement: Does everyone agree to the project scope?

Work items in the scope statement are listed as scope items. Since the scope statement predates any other formal work breakdown artifact, it’ll only list estimates of scope items—but these should still be as accurate as possible.

In-scope items are work items within the project’s boundaries, while out-of-scope items or work items not listed on the statement are out of scope.

Scope statement example

‎Take a look at the image above to see what a good scope statement looks like.

Project requirements

The project requirements doc outlines the desired end result and purpose of your project in detail. Here, you'll articulate the problem your project aims to solve or the opportunity it seizes. You'll also list the specific functionalities or features of your project and use them as a guide.

WBS

The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is your project's most detailed work breakdown artifact. The WBS breaks down the project into distinct work packages, that make it easier to plan, execute, and monitor each part of the project.

The WBS works like a hierarchical tree matrix. At the top, you have the project itself, and as you move down, it branches into smaller and smaller components. Each branch represents a level of detail, making it easier to grasp the entire project's scope. The lowest level of the WBS gives you your project’s tasks.

How important is it to stick to your scope?

Let’s say you’re planning a simple weekend home improvement project like painting your living room. You start with a clear plan. First, buy paint, brushes, and tape, then paint the walls.

You head to the hardware store to buy paint, and as you go in you see a display of beautiful wallpapers. Suddenly, wallpapering an accent wall sounds appealing, so you decide to do it while you’re at it.

Next, you remember that the lighting in your living room could use an upgrade to match the new look. While at the store, you might as well look at some new lighting fixtures and add them to the trolley.

Just before you leave, you realize that your old sofa and coffee table don’t quite match the fresh, new look you’re going for. Next thing you know, you’re shopping for some new pieces to complete the transformation.

In this everyday example, a simple painting project has expanded into a full-blown home renovation. It went from a half-day job that could cost $50 to a full weekend excursion that could cost upward of $500, or even more, like $5,000.

A ladder with paint

Scope creep can happen when you get carried away with additional ideas and tasks beyond the initial plan. This means you didn’t stick to just the in-scope items (painting), and the project inflated because of out-of-scope items (wallpapering and even furniture).

According to the PMI, about half of all projects experience scope creep, which makes it a regular phenomenon. What’s even more concerning is that, according to IEEE, scope creep is the main cause of project failure. These numbers show why you should clearly define your project scope and stick to it.

It is also why you need to be able to write one.

How to write a scope statement that works

When writing the scope, we typically mean capturing it in a scope statement. The project scope can sometimes be summarized in artifacts like a project charter or project plan.

1. Gather all the information you need to write a scope statement

You must first gather all the essential information to craft a clear scope statement. Much of this information typically originates from your project's business case or feasibility study.

Here's what you'll need and where to get it before you start writing:

  1. Project objectives, requirements, and key stakeholders: Get them from the business case or study. A good business case or feasibility study might have milestones or major deliverables as well.
  2. Rough idea of scope items: While you may not have all the details, having a rough idea of the work items for now is enough.

2. Draft a rough outline

With all the key details in hand, it's time to draft a rough outline. You are going to use this as a framework to build your full-on scope statement.

Start with the key components we've just gathered and list them out logically.

Then, add a section for the project's purpose and write it out in simple terms.

Next, add these sections: exceptions, project constraints, and acceptance criteria for success (you’ll fill them in later).

Also, add and complete the sign-off section of the statement. Think about how you will make sure that everyone agrees to this scope. This could involve formal approvals or even a clear acknowledgment from all relevant stakeholders.

3. Gather the team and hash it out together

Here, you take the rough outline and gather your team to review the project scope. This meeting will help fill in the scope statement, as the team has direct project experience.

It’s a good idea to ask their opinion on:

  • Project goals
  • Scope items
  • Assumptions
  • Project exclusions

Getting them to agree to the timeline, goals, and scope items will also help them stay within the scope and give them a sense of ownership.

4. Pinpoint your scope items and milestones

WBS best defines the scope which is why you should use this artifact to help you gather your scope items. You can use ‌the WBS even if it isn't yet fully laid out, as you can still draw the major deliverables from it.

Clients often also refer to the project scope to check on your commitments. Therefore, each scope item you list should be indispensable. If a scope item appears vague or lacks a direct link to a milestone, it's best to leave it out.

For example, if you're building a website, scope items could include a homepage, a contact form, and a payment system. Leave out vague work items like testing or ones that aren’t WBS items, like managing documentation (unless some of the deliverables are documents).

Once your scope items are finalized, you can use them to help you estimate the high-level durations.

Based on experience with prior similar projects, you might estimate the duration for completing the homepage design for the website project in two weeks. And you might estimate that integrating the payment system could take an additional two weeks.

5. Be clear about what’s included (and what isn’t)

To stop scope creep, you must be clear about what’s included and what isn’t.

Jigsaw pieces joined together spelling in scope and scattered apart spelling out of scope

‎First, outline the tangible tasks and components that are part of the project (the in-scope items from before). Next, you outline out-of-scope items associated with the project that your business or project are not going to work on. This could be something like security audits or legal compliance for the website.

If your project design requires client feedback, state how many rounds of feedback it includes before any extra fees apply. This prevents endless rounds of revisions that can expand the project's scope.

Reflect on previous projects and any experiences with scope creep. If you can find bottlenecks or issues that created scope creep in the past, you can plan to handle them better this time.

6. Get it signed

Keep your project scope statement concise—ideally on just one or two pages. You want to make sure your clients and stakeholders can quickly scan through and grasp the key details.

Once you have this, it's time to gather all the necessary signatures. These signatures signify their agreement to the project's scope.

Ensure everyone, including yourself, receives a copy of the signed scope statement. This way, you can easily reference it throughout the project’s lifecycle and use it as your guide.

Project scope example

Now that you know how effective a project scope is as your North Star, let’s go over an example you can use as your guide.

A lighthouse with project management icons around it

Project Scope Statement

Project Name: Website Redesign Project

Description: The Website Redesign Project aims to revamp our company’s online presence by improving our website’s design, functionality, and content.

Deadline: November 25, 2023

Manager: Sarah

Goal: The primary goal of this project is to create a modern and user-friendly website that effectively communicates our brand identity and engages our target audience.

Specific objectives include:

  • Optimize the layout and design to make it mobile-friendly.
  • Conduct keyword research and implement SEO best practices, including optimizing meta tags, headings, and content to increase organic search traffic to key pages by 20%.
  • Enhance the website's visual appeal with high-quality images and graphics from the content production team that align with the brand's identity and values.

Project Deliverable(s)

In-Scope Items:

  • Website design and development: due Sep 15, 2023
  • Content updates and reorganization: due Sep 29, 2023
  • Branding guidelines implementation: due Oct 08, 2023
  • SEO optimization: due Oct 30, 2023
  • Progress reporting: due Nov 2, 2023

Out-of-scope Items:

  • Integration of a new content management system (CMS).
  • E-commerce functionality implementation.
  • Creation of additional web applications not related to the main website.

Exceptions:

  • A change request process will be used for any major changes to project scope.

Constraints:

  1. The project budget is limited to $50,000.
  2. The project team will work within the existing CMS rather than implementing a new one.

Criteria for success:

  • User-friendly interface as measure by user acceptance test
  • Secure payment processing
  • Functional contact form
  • Mobile-responsive design
  • On-time delivery within the specified deadline

Authorizing signature:

Use Motion to manage your scope

The scope statement is your project’s foundation, guiding creation of your work breakdown structure (WBS). Subsequently, refining the WBS breaks down the tasks and subtasks that lead to your project’s deliverables.

Once you have your WBS, you can use Motion’s AI-enhanced project management tool to stay on course. With Motion, you can upload your scope document to your project so your team can effortlessly access it and use it as a reference as you put your plans into action.

‎Motion’s AI task manager can automatically assign tasks to your project team while factoring in key elements like project deadlines, priorities, and capacity. It can manage changes and reschedule tasks or workloads quickly.

Motion AI Scheduling Work

‎Motion can alert you to potential schedule problems so you can stay on track and avoid any unexpected costs or project delays.

Sign up for your 7-day free trial.

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