Here is how to write a great scope statement

Nearly all IT projects start with a scope statement. The purpose of the scope statement is to clarify what your project is, and is not. The definition is simple, but doing it right takes a lot of work.

What is a scope statement?

When a company budgets for a new project, that money is usually set aside as an idea with an estimate for what the project will deliver. As the company decides to spend those budget dollars, it will put a small project team in place to scope out the work. This team will define the resources, business impacts, change management, and risks associated with the project.

It is the responsibility of this project team to establish a draft for what the project will and will not deliver. The project team will have to look into other factors for their project as well. For example, they will want to be sure there is no duplicative projects underway and clearly define any risks and assumptions.

What is wrong with most scope statements?
Flickr / Gavin Llewellyn

A common mistake IT makes when defining the project’s scope is to assume everyone will understand technical jargon. Here is a scope statement I came across recently (modified to protect client confidentiality):

This project will implement a new project management system based on Microsoft SharePoint. The new software will replace the old software in six months after the project begins.

In this case, my client called me in to help them address why the project was failing. After reading the scope statement and talking to the team members, it was evident they were going too broad and did not put enough focus on the value the project will deliver.

In this article, I will show you how we refined the scope and some relevant change management activities we made to get the project back on track.

Define your audience

Very often, I will see a scope statement that is five, 10, or even 50 pages long. In my experience, those large scope statements are project proposals, not scope statements. The proposal covers topics like resources, costs, timelines, issues, risks, training, change management, and many other topics.

The purpose of the scope statement is to make it accessible to anyone and everyone. When you are writing the scope statement, you should think about everyone the project will impact. You should share that scope statement with each party and ask if they understand and agree to it.

Craft the message

Let’s face it — most projects will face political challenges. There will be people speaking against the project, others that are not for or against, and there will be supporters. You must craft your scope statement to address everyone’s potential concerns.

Do not assume just because there are people against the project they will not turn into supporters. Often, these individuals just need to know the details, so make sure you consider their concerns. Be very thoughtful in crafting your scope statement, so it addresses specific concerns people may have.

Do not over deliver

I have seen a lot of scope statements that say something like “we will do these two things, but these four things may also be in scope.” It is best to avoid making statements like this and just stick to the two things you plan to accomplish. The fact is, if you put something in the scope statement, they expect you will deliver on it.

A better approach to solving this problem is to make a statement like this:

“The project scope is to deliver these two items. The project team has a clearly defined roadmap that will provide additional features and enhancements, at which time the team will develop a scope statement for new projects to cover those elements.”

Do not under deliver

Very often, project teams remove scope elements just because they do not want to be under too much pressure. That is a bad idea. Make sure you build a scope statement that includes what you will accomplish, not just the pieces you feel like communicating.

Show the value

If you recall from that original scope statement I shared, it said there would be a new project management system based on SharePoint. What it does not answer are questions like this:

  • Why is it better than the way we are doing things now?
  • Are there improvements in efficiencies?
  • What are the benefits?

If you cannot answer questions like this, then you do not yet have a good handle on the project’s scope.

Be clear and concise

A solid scope statement should be no more than 100 words and fit nicely on a PowerPoint slide. Take the time to craft and edit the scope statement, so it is very clear what you are doing (and not doing) with as few words as possible. Remember, the scope statement must be something anyone can read.

Consider when you are looking for a movie to watch. Typically, the description of a movie is just three or four sentences. By using a minimalist approach to writing the scope statement, you can usually keep it to two, not more than three, paragraphs.

This is a team effort

There should be a team of people writing the scope statement. First, start with a small core team that has already been working on defining the project costs, resources, and vendors. After that, you can start sharing drafts with others.

Make sure you engage with people you are sharing the scope statement with. I like to avoid just sending it in an email. Instead, we go through it in a meeting (physically or virtually) so the other people can ask focused questions, provide input, and share their thoughts in real-time.

Another reason I like to craft the scope statements in meetings is so I can control the document. This prevents someone from forwarding a copy off to a group of people without context. You must carefully contain the review process until the document is ready for review by a wider audience.

Avoid adding a timeline

Very often, people write the exact start and finish for a project in the scope statement. I suggest you avoid doing this because you do not know when the project will officially start. The project’s scope could change later, so it may not finish on time either.

Remember, you should deliver a scope statement with a full proposal that includes timelines, costs, and other elements. The scope statement focuses on what you are doing, not the nitty-gritty detail of how you will be doing it.

If you must add a timeline to the scope, try to keep it high level by using quarters instead of months or days. For example, here is how I might add a timeline component to a scope statement:

“Barring unforeseen risks or changes to this scope, the project’s objective is to start in Q1 2017 and complete by Q3, 2017.”

Build the scope statement

As you will recall, this was the original (modified) scope statement from my client:

This project will implement a new project management system based on Microsoft SharePoint. The new software will replace the old software in six months after the project begins.

Following the basic structure I share with you in this article, here is the new scope (by the way, I changed everything that might suggest who the client is):

Our company offers the best products on the market, but we take 18% longer than our best competitors.

As part of our Cycle Time Reduction initiative, we are implementing a project management system with the expectation to reduce that average to 12% by the end of Q4 2017.

This new system will hold project teams accountable for estimating and tracking their projects and resources. The delivery team will define a set of metrics and KPIs to hold teams accountable and improve efficiencies.

The first release will only impact new product development projects with budgets of $150M or more. Future releases will consider integrating financials, document controls, and smaller projects.

Every project is unique, and some will require more or less information, but this scope statement has helped focus our project team. For example, we were able to remove the requirements to work on SharePoint sites, we stopped attempts at integrating with their financial systems, and removed any reporting requirements that deviated from our standard set of KPIs and metrics.

Building a great scope statement takes a lot of thought but will greatly improve the chances of success for your projects.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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