Create a Scope Document for Project Success

You may be asked to create a scope document for a project for your company or a client. What does that mean? Well, a good scope document defines both a project’s goal and its realistic resource limitations (time, staff, budget, technology), helping you create the best plan possible. It’s a crucial step to project management and vital to avoid “scope creep,” where the project slowly grows until you realize you are spending more time or money than originally planned due to unclear or unenforced boundaries.

The best scope documents include the following project elements:

Goals: Teams tend to work better when they understand why a project is important, so tell them the business goals or intended outcomes. Stakeholders often ask for additional tasks at some point during the timeline, but your scope document helps serve as a back-up up when and if you need to deny those changes because they don’t meet the project requirements. Scope creep can wreak havoc on project resources, but preparing ahead of time will help keep your budget and timeline on point.

Requirements/Constraints: You need to ensure you’re not exceeding your limits to complete a project on time and under budget. Such limits include budget, staff, and technology. For example, you may have a small staff where everyone wears many hats. In that case, they cannot all be expected to work only on this project every day. Talk to them and their supervisors to understand what constraints are on them and schedule their time accordingly. It’s better to over-deliver than over-promise.

Major deliverables: Use plain language when giving an overview of the project’s deliverables. Avoid confusion by clearly outlining what will be delivered for approval (and when) throughout the project, as well as the final deliverable. Provide a simple description of what you’re working to deliver, but also includes quantity, amount, length, etc. – anything that accurately describes the project.

Exclusions: As important as it is to detail deliverables, it’s just as important to mention what you will NOT deliver – just for clarity’s sake. You’ll avoid some of the “But what about…” questions and requests later. Setting expectations from the beginning of a project is vital to avoid miscommunication during the project. This is another area where honest discussions with your team and stakeholders will make a big difference in the long run, as everyone needs to fully understand what is included in the project and what is not.

Cost: Cost is not always included in scope documents, but is often required in a statement of work (SOW), particularly if you’re part of a consulting agency that charges clients for your work. Outline project costs at least down to the milestone level. The clearer you are about costs and the work associated with them, the better you can manage them and make a case for more funds if necessary additional tasks are needed.

Key milestones: Each project should have deliverables throughout its timeline, not just at the end. This includes research, interviews, drafts, approvals, etc. Creating a milestone timeline helps to keep both the team and stakeholders on task: the team knows when parts of the project are due, and the stakeholders know when they need to approve and suggest changes in order to keep their project on schedule. Gantt charts often come in handy for timeline tracking, as you can see the entire project timeline at once.

Risk Analysis and Management: What could happen (within reason) that could affect your timeline or budget? No one can think of everything – who would have thought millions of us would start working remotely suddenly in March 2020? What about more common issues, such as a team member getting sick or leaving, or a major financial change in the company causing you to do more with less – money and staff? Show that you have at least a general plan in your back pocket for these problems. Your stakeholders will be impressed by your foresight, and it will certainly be helpful if a problem does arise.

Agreement: While such documents create an implied agreement, you still want to obtain signatures from the lead stakeholder or project funder. Remember: this is a contract. Getting a final review from a lawyer before the document is signed is a good idea, especially if you’re collecting money for the work.

When you have a well-thought through and researched scope document that both you and your stakeholders have officially approved, it’s easier to not accept new requests that arise as you are trying to deliver you project on time and under budget. It also helps all involved to align around important details that can make or break a project.

We know this is a lot to do at the beginning of a project when everyone involved is anxious to get started, but it’s imperative to set expectations from the beginning. Combine your scope document with good communication to deliver a fantastic final deliverable. Keep scope in mind once project work begins to defend your team from inevitable scope creep. Once you get final sign-off on your document, you can delve into your detailed project plan. Add scope reminders so all the effort you put into your scope document isn’t wasted and you, your team, and your stakeholders will be very happy with the results.