What is project scope? (Plus 7 steps to help you define project scope)

Illustrative elements depicting project scope.

Project scope is the project manager’s best friend. It’s what we lean on throughout the project life cycle. It keeps us on the straight and narrow all the way to project success.

But sometimes, complacency can creep in. We might think that “oh, I don’t need a project scope, I’ve done thousands of projects like this!”

Let us stop you right there.

As project managers, defining and planning projects is what we do. That means everything starts with creating a project scope. No matter how many times you’ve done similar projects, you can’t afford to ignore the basics.

So let’s revisit them.

 

What is scope in project management?

First things first. This article covers project scopes (rather than product scopes). These are often confused, but are two different items:

  • Product scope: the features, functions, and characteristics of a product or service
  • Project scope: what is required to help deliver that product or service (and the outlined features, functions, and characteristics)

Project scope definition

Simply put, a project scope defines all the work and considerations required to deliver a specific outcome.

All of these elements are documented in a project scope statement, which we’ll look at next.

What is a project scope statement?

Also sometimes known as a “statement of work” or “project definition,” a project scope statement is a document that outlines the objectives and deliverables of a project. 

Throughout the project life cycle, it serves as a reference point for all stakeholders involved. It should be revisited during the course of the project to make sure nothing’s gone awry. 

A project scope statement can include items such as: 

  • Project overview and description of work
  • Project justification 
  • Project goals and objectives
  • Deliverables  
  • Processes
  • Resources
  • Budget
  • Costs
  • Stakeholders 
  • Tasks and deadlines 
  • Timelines 
  • Milestones
  • Constraints
  • Assumptions
  • Inclusions/exclusions
  • Agreement 

And let’s be real here. It’s not easy to write a good project scope statement. It takes time and requires a lot of attention to detail. Clients want to know exactly what they’re paying for, and this is the document that will clarify that.

The importance of project scope

It’s essential for project teams and other relevant stakeholders to understand why project scope is so important.

Understanding what, when, and how things are getting done is one of the many benefits of developing project scopes.

A foolproof project scope statement is your get-out-of-jail-free card. (We’re not kidding, it’s what could win the case in a potential lawsuit!)

Key benefits of a scope statement in project management

If you’re wondering why project scope is so important,  it really boils down to three things:

Manage project objectives

It can be easy to lose track of project objectives once you’re swamped with tasks. But your project scope should inform the project plan in which each task is tied to a specific project objective. The project plan will keep you on track and make sure your project team is always working on the right things.

Download our project plan template

Manage project cost

Every project has a budget. And it’s the project manager’s responsibility to make sure that budget is used wisely. The project scope includes a breakdown of the costs, explaining exactly where the money is going, leaving no room for client concerns. Plus, for bigger projects, you want to set aside some of the budget for unforeseen expenses.

Download our project budget template

Manage project schedule

Project delays anyone? Yup, we’ve all been there. The project manager is responsible for making sure deadlines are met and projects wrap up in a timely fashion. If you don’t have a well-defined project scope, you’ll soon run into issues with timelines, scheduling, and resource allocation. 

Download our project scheduling template

The dangers of not following project scope best practices

Once you’re in the project it’s easy to forget about scope and “press on”—after all, what’s an extra couple of thousand dollars and a slight delay? 

Well, a poorly defined project scope, a forgotten project scope (or not having one at all!) is a one-way ticket to project failure.

Ask any seasoned project manager, and they’ll have plenty of tales to share about failed projects. The culprit—for the most part—is a poor project scope. 

Sir James Dyson knows better than anyone.

Project scope failure: Dyson’s electric car

This is an example of what happens when a project scope doesn’t exist.

Ever heard of Dyson’s electric car? No? Well, not many of us have. Back in 2017, they announced the development of their first electric car. Dyson was ready to apply its well-known design thinking to an entirely new product. Pretty exciting stuff! 

But just two years (and a handsome amount of $600,000) later—they pulled the plug. 

So what happened? Poor project scope is what happened. But within that, two key things:

  • Underestimation of costs
  • Perfectionism (aka scope creep)

As a result, the N526 (its code name), never saw the light of day. 

Dyson's electric car, a futuristic SUV

The N526 could have been yours for a neat $185,000.

Point is, never underestimate the power of a solid project scope, it could make or break a project (and the bank).

So, how do you go about writing a successful project scope statement? Let’s take a look.

How to write a project scope: a checklist of what to include

All projects are different, and with that, what’s included in a project scope statement will look different, too.

Below, we’ve listed the key elements to include when writing a project scope statement, regardless of project size:

  • Project overview and description of the work: Summarize what the project is
  • Project justification: Explain why this project is necessary or a priority. Why was the project started in the first place?
  • Project goals and objectives: What the project aims to achieve 
  • Deliverables: All outputs (whether tangible or intangible) that are submitted within the scope of a project
  • Processes: Specify any processes that need to be followed to execute the project requirements 
  • Resources: Who and what is needed to complete the project?
  • Budget: How much budget do you have to work with? 
  • Costs: How much will the different ingredients of the project cost?
  • Stakeholders: The organizations and individuals actively involved in the project. It may also include those who are interested or impacted by the project completion result (but not actively involved) 
  • Tasks and deadlines: What tasks will be carried out? What are the target timings of when these will be completed? 
  • Timelines: Overarching timeline of what will happen when
  • Milestones: Key events in the project’s timeline, for example, when stakeholders can expect a specific deliverable to be done
  • Constraints: What boundaries or risks is the project facing?
  • Assumptions: All projects assume certain conditions, for example: “Mark from marketing will support the team.” What other assumptions do you or your team have about the project? What factors do you assume to be true for the project to fail or succeed (without hard proof)? 
  • Inclusions/exclusions: Tasks, items, or actions that will be included or excluded from the project
  • Agreement: Stakeholders’ sign-off at the end of the document

How to define project scope 

Now we know what to include when writing a project scope statement. But, getting started with how to define the scope of a project can sometimes be overwhelming.

That’s why we’ve put together actionable steps to define what should go into your project scope, and how to approach writing a project scope statement. 

These will help you keep projects on track, and ultimately make sure your stakeholders are happy.

7 project scope steps to get started

Step 1: Identify project objectives

One key factor that can impact project success is fully understanding the objectives of a project and outlining them in a way that every stakeholder can understand.

This process involves:

  • Identifying the stakeholders
  • Understanding their needs and expectations
  • Determining how the project will meet those needs
  • Formulating clear project objectives that address those needs

Ideally, you should apply the SMART framework to ensure that your project objectives are: 

  • Specific: Set clear and specific goals for effective planning
  • Measurable: Define how you’ll measure progress across the project
  • Achievable: Ensure goals are achievable within the given time frame.
  • Relevant: Make sure goals align with stakeholder expectations.
  • Time-bound: Set realistic deadlines across all stages of the project.

Defining project objectives can sometimes be an exercise in patience more than anything. But it’s worth spending time on this upfront to avoid confusion or conflicting opinions down the road.

Pro tip: Project objectives may also be referred to as deliverables.

Read: Project management tactics that drive project success

Step 2: Create a resource management plan

No resources, no project. A resource is anything from a meeting room to a vehicle, a tool, a person, or a budget. You name it, it’s a resource.

(However, calling people resources feels a bit bleurgh, so we like to call them, well, just people.) 

Once your project objectives have been defined, it’s time to look at resource allocation. In summary, who’s doing what and when. The most important part of resource planning is getting the right people with the right skills on the right projects. The second most important thing is preventing resource over allocation.

To achieve the above, you want to create a detailed resource management plan.

Pro tip: Forget about spreadsheets and do your resource planning at scale in a flexible resource management tool.

Read: The #1 mistake you’re making with your resource management plan

Step 3: Identify project constraints

What will impact your project scope? Project scope is not just about the work that’s going to be delivered. It’s also about the boundaries and constraints that will have an impact on said deliverables. 

It could be something as simple as one of the main stakeholders will be OOO for four weeks due to surgery, and feedback won’t be delivered as quickly. Or it could be something as daunting as a global distribution issue due to a shortage of a certain material.

Project constraints can fall into different categories, which may include:

  1. Cost: This is a standard constraint for any project and is typically presented as a cost or budget range. As long as you stay within range, you’re on target.  
  2. Time: Time, along with cost, is a standard constraint stakeholders will look at to determine if a project is on track. Similar to cost, you’ll use a timeline range that you’ll want to stay within.
  3. Scope: Scope refers to the project deliverables. These might change during the project life cycle.
  4. Quality: Quality refers to the quality of deliverables agreed on. Has anything changed? Has everything been properly tested? Has anything been substituted? 
  5. Benefits: This constraint represents the value the outcomes of a project are expected to deliver. 
  6. Risk: Every project comes with risk. It’s about how much risk we’re willing to deal with. That’s why we do risk assessments before projects start and evaluate the impact and how much risk we’re willing to tolerate.
  7. Resources: Resource planning can be difficult depending on the type of project. Sometimes you might need a resource sooner than expected and that resource may not be available. Resource scheduling is all about planning for change and being flexible in order to make sure project timelines can be met.

No constraint is too big or too small, so make sure to speak to all stakeholders. Depending on the nature of the project, do your due diligence in terms of research—it might just be what saves the day.

Pro tip: Think about project constraints as soon as you can (even before project initiation) to gather as much information as possible to add to the scope.

Read: 5 tips to help you manage resource constraints

Step 4: Draft your project scope statement

Objectives, check. Resources, check. Constraints, extra check.

Now it’s time to start writing your project scope statement. Pull in all the information you’ve collected from your research and discussions with project stakeholders.

We know the project scope statement sounds like a big fancy document, but it doesn’t have to be. Depending on the size and complexity of your project, it can be anything from a bulleted list or a couple of paragraphs, to a comprehensive statement of work (SoW).

If you’re wondering how to get started, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the project and why are we doing it?
  • What are the deliverables of the project?
  • How do we measure the success of the project?
  • Who’s on the project team for this?
  • Who’s the project owner?
  • What does our resource plan look like?
  • What’s our budget?
  • What’s our time frame?
  • What are the constraints?
  • Who are the key stakeholders?

Pro tip: You want to cover your bases, but focus on relevance—not length. 

Step 5: Align with project stakeholders

Don’t think about your project scope statement as a “one and done.” Sure, do your research and pre-empt the important things in order to create trust with your client. But feedback is essential—plus, clients love giving it! Always make your clients part of the process and turn the project scoping process into something everyone can get excited about. 

This is also an exercise in assessing whether the project objectives are the right ones. Don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board if that’s the case. Change in direction is common once stakeholders are given the full picture. 

Once aligned, make sure key stakeholders sign off on the project scope. As mentioned earlier, it’s your insurance if anything goes wrong. 

Pro tip: Managing stakeholder expectations and creating alignment is about negotiation more than anything. Brush up on your negotiation skills!

Read: Guide to negotiation in project management

Step 6: Create a change management plan

A change management plan won’t be necessary for every type of project. If it’s a big, complex project, with a huge scope, a lot of constraints, and equally as many stakeholders, then a change management plan will be your saving grace. 

A change management plan is exactly what it sounds like: a process that guides how to make changes in a project that’s already underway. 

You don’t want just anyone to be able to jump in and make changes to the scope on the fly, but you also don’t want people to not be able to change anything at all. As we all know, once a project gets going, you might run into issues or make discoveries that require change.

So what you want is for anyone to be able to request a change. And that’s exactly what the change management plan is here to do. Again, fancy term, but it might be something as simple as submitting a Google Form, stating the reasons and requirements for a specific change.

Now, while smaller projects won’t require an established change management plan, it’s still the project manager’s responsibility to keep an eye on changes to avoid their greatest enemy: scope creep.

Read: Scope creep – 6 ways to win against the scariest villain in project management

Step 7: Share the project scope with the team

Once finalized, the project scope statement should be shared with the project team and its stakeholders. 

The project scope should live in a place where it’s easily accessible to everyone so they can go back and use it as a reference whenever they need to.

For bigger projects, put a scope reminder day in your schedule to make sure it’s top-of-mind. This way, it’ll be easier to identify deviations from the scope and you’ll be able to make any adjustments necessary. 

Sure, noticing that you’re straying away from the project scope isn’t a good feeling. But do you know what’s even worse? Not noticing at all, and in turn, not being able to do anything about it.

Trust us, your clients will thank you for scope reminder day!

Pro tip: It can be hard to create a healthy relationship with a project scope statement, so make sure you don’t obsess over the details to the point where it affects your team. 

Read: Team burnout: 9 ways project managers can prevent it (before it’s too late)

Project scope example: Website redesign 

Alright, here we are. You’re a project manager that needs to define the project scope for a website redesign project. Not an easy task! 

Some components of a simplified project scope statement will look something like this:

Project overview:

Website is outdated in terms of design and functionality and needs a complete overhaul to better represent our brand to stand out and compete in a saturated market.

Project objectives:

Deliver a revamped website that’s easy to navigate and guides visitors down the conversion path.

Resources:

  • Project owner (in-house)
  • Design agency (external)
  • Dev agency (external)

Project timeline:

  • Week 1-2: Audit
  • Week 3: Brief design agency
  • Week 4-8: Design phase
  • Week 9-12: Development phase
  • Week 13: Testing phase
  • Week 14: Launch

Budget: $95,000

Project constraints:

  • Technical issues with CMS
  • Feedback delays
  • Technical issues during the testing phase

Your project scope will change (and that’s fine)

When in doubt, go back to the project scope. Remember, while the project scope is your insurance policy, it’s not written in stone. Changes are often necessary, and it doesn’t mean you didn’t do a thorough job in the first place. It simply means that projects are living things that are inherently prone to change.

As project managers, it’s not about creating the perfect project scope—there’s no such thing. It’s about planning for and anticipating change. If we didn’t do that we wouldn’t be doing our jobs.

Working on a project scope statement? Nail the resource plan by managing team schedules, utilization, and workloads with a resource management tool like Resource Guru. Try it free for 30 days.