Defining Scope: Want vs. Need

Defining and sticking to your project scope can sometimes be the most intense and uncomfortable experience for you and your stakeholders. Weeding through perceptions and assumptions to get to the actual deliverables takes patience and grit. In this article, I’ll discuss ways to make the requirements-gathering process more engaging and enjoyable for everyone. I’ll also walk through tools and tips to guide your clients and your teams toward better clarity, better estimates and better project success.

At some point in your project, you will have a stakeholder that will question the original constraints agreed upon in your scope of work. This stakeholder may also question the success criteria that defined the project from the outset. Of course, all of us would like to deliver every project smoothly with no change but we know that even with the most solid of plans tasks and expectations will adjust and slide throughout the engagement.

I’ve heard of PM’s being referred to as “obstructionists” and “project police” by stakeholders and teams alike. As project managers, part of our job is to be inflexible at times for the benefit of the project and – of course – that will inevitably rub some project sponsors the wrong way, even if it is for the long-term benefit. So let’s talk about ways PM’s can focus on delivery while creating alignment between our team and project sponsors.

how to define scope in your project

Does your project sponsor or stakeholders understand how change will be managed during the project? How will you communicate that a change is being proposed or that one needs to happen? Your stakeholders might not understand how (or even that it’s possible) to expect change. If you use documentation to communicate change review that at the beginning of the project to explain how that change will be identified. Ask your stakeholders about how they want to notified of change on the project.

A project is expected to change. As a project manager, you probably understand this all too w
ell. However, are you sure your project sponsor understands this as well as you do? If your answer is “no” then it’s time to prepare your sponsor for the inevitable. Asking questions like “At the end of this project, would you consider it more successful if we were able to deliver on time, on budget or with the entire feature set?” Don’t stop there! Whatever the answer is, take the time to probe deeper. Understand what is driving the success metrics and find a way to review those consistently throughout your project. Defining agreed-upon success metrics or criteria before you begin a project will ultimately help set it up for a smooth delivery.

Paint Me a Picture

During one particularly fluid project, I took the time to make a graphic that outlined the success metrics as a visual representation. I attached this graphic to the top of every status report and shared meeting minutes. As time went on, the project sponsor began to question those metrics and eventually decided they needed to be adjusted. This change was easy to manage because I had taken the time to solidify and then regularly communicate our shared understanding of a successful delivery. When the needs changed, the graphic changed to reflect those new goals. Again, expect change – but do your research to find out how to best communicate this with your sponsor and team.

Listen Like a Thief

Spoiler alert: if you pay close attention to what your stakeholder or client is actually saying, you will find it easier to guide them to the best solution. Do not simply write down their requests but engage them to better understand the “why” behind those requests. Stay positive. Know that every action has a reaction. If you outline a particular approach to a request, it’s on you to ensure you’re also outlining the potential outcomes. Alignment on the project goals only comes when everyone understands the consequences and opportunities to every decision. A successful project delivery does not always equal a successful project. The experience your team and stakeholders have throughout the project will also count towards a noteworthy project.

Can We Talk?

Project sponsorship is poorly misunderstood in the business world. One of the main culprits is a lack of alignment between the C-level suite and the execution team. The executives may very well have a handle on what is “needed” but may lack a seat at the table of defining the success criteria for an individual project or deliverable. A stakeholder matrix can be an invaluable part of your communication plan. Take the time to review the matrix over the course of your project as those names, roles and titles might change as time goes on. Stakeholders will change roles, titles or even leave a project completely as a project goes on so it’s a good idea from time to time to make sure you’re working with the right decision makers.

Doubt? Pick Up the Phone

In our digital age of using email, text messaging and all the other options out there, we often lean on those for our communication needs. Documentation of the decisions and conversations between teams is important, but many times the actual context can be lost without a real person-to-person conversation. I have a general rule that anytime there is more than three-to-four threads in any digital communication, a phone call or face-to-face conversation becomes a requirement. Ever since I set this personal baseline, the feedback on my communication skills as a project manager improved dramatically. If the opportunity for face-to-face discussions are an option, I’d strongly advise that you make those a regular part of your project lifecycle.

If you follow these simple guidelines then everyone from your team to your stakeholders will know what is expected of them and when it is expected. Using better tools to communicate is going to help facilitate the successful scope of your project.

Communicative tools, such as, are also helpful to support the methods offered above. The collaborative online software offers tools that can be easily shared during the planning, monitoring and reporting of your project. See for yourself with this 30-day free trial.

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