Project Scope – Let’s “Get Real”

John F. Gravel

Defining project scope may sound simple in theory, but it can be quite complex to create, communicate, and execute. “We need an 8-foot trench” sounds like a simple scope to complete, but do we really understand how wide the trench should be, how deep, the incline of the walls, what it will be used for, etc.?

Clearly defining deliverables at the beginning of a project is imperative to avoiding blowouts. Modifying scope without adjusting the schedule or increasing resources sets the project on a path to failure. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors identified one of the common causes of project failure to be “lack of understanding of the project scope.”

RICS breaks down the issue further;

  • Failure of contractors to understand the complexity of project delivery when tendering.
  • Failure of owners to fully articulate their specific requirements and communicate their knowledge to facilitate tendering, project planning, and delivery.
  • Failure of owners, project teams, and contractors to allow time and resources to reflect the scope and nature of the project.
  • Failure to ‘get real’ at the outset resulting in unrealistic and undeliverable targets.

Read that again, “Failure to ‘get real’ at the outset resulting in unrealistic and undeliverable targets.”

So let’s “get real” and ensure your scope is correctly and clearly defined.

Writing a Scope Statement

A clearly written scope statement will help secure buy-in from stakeholders, align the project team, and help control the deliverables, keeping the project on track to reach targets.

Although having stakeholders sign off on a complete list that includes every detail down to the size of the screws sounds like a dream, it’s likely to remain one. However, the more detailed the elements are covered within the project scope, the less risk is inherited. The length of the scope statement should be as long as it needs to be to protect against the key risks.

Here’s what should be included:

  • Scope description: A detailed description of the final product or results that draws clear focus on project boundaries
  • Deliverables: A comprehensive list of everything the project is to produce for all stakeholders.
  • Objectives: Providing justification and objectives gives both project team members and stakeholders a clear understanding and perspective on reasonings. From RICS list of common causes of project failure, “Failure by the project manager to articulate the owner’s business objectives to the rest of the project team and for them to understand the reasons for undertaking the project.”
  • Acceptance Criteria: Identify all criterial for final acceptance of the project, including any testing or completion certificates that may be required. If a final authority is needed, list details such as name, site visit or sign-off requirements, due dates for approvals, etc.
  • Assumptions/Constraints

Assumptions and constraints are inherent in all projects. It is important to be thorough and list assumptions and constraints explicitly to limit risk. When problems arise, assumptions provide the necessary information to gaining an understanding of the initial thought process and thereby gaining perspective on issues and possible root causes.

  • Exclusions/Inclusions

To avoid confusion or incorrect assumptions, it’s important to distinctly call out exclusions and inclusions, such as utility hookups.

Mitigating Risk

Project uncertainties can lead to scope creep, schedule delays, and cost increases. The more that uncertainties can be limited, and requirements included within scope, the more risks are mitigated. Although it’s nearly impossible to identify all risks, it’s imperative to understand where the danger lies and to cover at least primary risks by including as much detail as possible on project tasks in the scope.

Keep in mind the causes of project failures discussed above and strategize on how to approach contractors, owners, and stakeholders in a way that ensures thoroughness of thought and a clear and realistic view of requirements. Owners may need help in identifying objectives, and contractors may need to be prodded into taking into consideration the full complexity of the project.

Remember to be clear, specific, quantitative, realistic, time-bound, and relevant, and use common language to ensure understanding.

Rely on subject matter experts to identify potential issues and focus on clearly identifying the deliverables. Be quantitative and detailed enough to set boundaries and limit risk. How high? How much weight must it hold? What varying conditions will be faced? How must the item perform? When is it to be completed?  Is it on the critical path?

A lack of boundaries invites a lack of structure to a project. Get real, so that success can be real.