The Best Way to Ensure Project Success? Understand and Control the Scope

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By Marian Haus, PMP

There are dozens of studies about project failure. (To name just three: Standish Group’s Chaos reports, PMI’s 2013 Pulse of the Profession®: The High Cost of Low Performance and Gartner’s 2012 survey on why projects fail). There are at least as many reasons why projects fail.

Although in some cases forces external to a project can imperil its success, I am convinced that properly managing internal factors, particularly scope, is a key enabler for project success. This is because internal factors can be controlled, while external factors can merely be influenced.

Let’s take some classic reasons projects fail and tackle their root causes from a project scope management perspective.

Vague or unclear requirements and no change control—aka the never-ending scope. These are typical problems related to poor project scope management. The remedy is straightforward. Complete and clear requirements should make it to the scope; anything else poses a risk. In addition, at least a basic change management process is required to keep scope creep under control.

Lack of clear roles and responsibilities (R&R). You tailor your project team around the scope work that needs to be carried out. Because of this, you have to be clear about what your project needs to deliver. This includes product specifications, product design, implementation, integration with other related product parts, validation, delivery, etc.

If the lack of R&R clarity lies within your client organization or with an organization external to your project, then break down your project scope into specific deliverables and lay out the assumption and prerequisites for delivering them. For example, a product specification will have to be reviewed and signed off by the client, the client is expected to provide you with the validation benchmarks, etc.

A lack of R&R often results in lack of ownership and accountability of deliverables.

Underestimated timelines. This can happen especially if estimations are done based on insufficient information or when the scope is not well understood. Estimates are consequently rough, based on previous experience, approximations and assumptions. If conditions are changing during the project lifecycle, this can lead to time or budget overruns.

Unclear and/or unrealistic expectations. This is often related to the project scope. Your project team might be unclear about what it is supposed to deliver or what level of quality and maturity your deliverable will have to pass to meet the acceptance criteria. In other cases, the team might be unclear on how the delivery of your project scope will impact the receiving organization.

Project complexity. This relates mainly to the failure to break down a large scope into more manageable pieces and deliverables. If the list of deliverables is not clear, the sequence in which these are to be produced will not be determined. If the deliverables’ relation to each other isn’t clear, then team members will just be busy delivering something, sometime, for some level of effort. This leads to missing the project goal or ending up with time or budget overruns.

A well-understood and executed scope brings you a huge step closer to finishing your project successfully.

What is your experience with managing project scopes? What key factors, other than scope, do you see as enablers for project success?

Posted by Marian Haus on: October 19, 2015 02:50 PM | Permalink

Comments (15)

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define the scope is a very critical "activity". the first we have to do is take the needed time not only for recollecting the requirements by stakeholders but for converting them in "measurable characteristics" or, in other therms, convert qualitative elements in quantitative ones

The scope definition is inaccurate and incomplete.
Stakeholders cooperation is not sought while understanding and documenting the requirements.
Appropriate time and importance is not given to collect requirements process.
Improper understanding of the requirements.
Requirements management plan is not in place or not managed or not updated.
The subject matter experts are not chosen correctly for the application area industry.
Most of the projects are delayed or over budget due to poor scope definition. The delays and over budget can be managed if the above factors are taken care.

Marian, agree that controlling scope is a key element to Project success. The other important one IMHO is the team (in a broader sense including sponsors, BAs and the PMO etc.). A dysfunctional team (especially also when it comes to executives and upper management) will kill any project.

Sorry, with all my respect, I thing we are missing something. First, there will be a clear distinction between project requirements and product requirements. Project requirements are defined from product requirements. And at the same time there will be a clear distinction between product scope and project scope where the second one is defined from the first one. I know that from the last version of PMBOK that was clarify by changing the name of the process. But is critical to understand what is the scope on charge of the project manager. Second, define and agree the change control is critical

Scope is utmost important element to control at initial stage. Here more clarity and information gives more confidence to have mutual agreement. Many times we start project in HURRY and avoid detailed scope statement. There is GAP in assumption for each involved party. Many times we miss Stakeholder involved which get POPPED up at later stage of project & this tend to have CHANGE.
Change Control is critical but it is smooth process if SCOPE is documented well with all stakeholder ON Board in such mutual agreements. THere are many things can be discussed and debated - its very interesting and important subject.

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/successful-project-starts-ends-scope-definition-parag-kandekar


Very apt article.

I have found myself trapped within the expectations of stakeholders who have influenced the project scope to a large extent. Instead of Software Development, I have sensed stakeholders wanting to do Software Manufacturing - waiting till all features and scenarios have been built in. And the results have been obvious because the scope kept increasing leading to failures across various activities.

I sum this situation ore as my own Stakeholder Management issue than Scope Creep, although the latter is a fallout of the former.

It is good to know as many as possible stakeholders in the beginning of project. It is always good to take help of similar projects as guideline in defining and understanding specification. Once the scope is well defined and all necessary documents are collected, then you can define the activities to be performed internally or outsourced.

The project success lies in defining any unidentified work as soon as possible, i.e. your WBS should include all major or minor activities.

Once it is done, work packages are more clear and responsibility can be assigned to control the scope. PM job become really easy after this.

Good arrticle.
There are many factors if taken care while execution project success can be achieved. Few of them are listed hereunder:
• Involvement of stakeholders in project progress meetings, status updates.
• Continues monitoring of contractor/subcontractor’s progress.
• Keeping watch on cash flow.
• Expect unexpected things before time. (Risk assessment)
• Accountability
• Proper planning including proper sequencing of activities.
In addition support from Management boost the Enthusiasm.

Thanks for the article

In regards to the importance of understanding and controlling the scope for the success of your project, I like to quote the singer Joe Jackson who says/sings: "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)"

https://youtu.be/Bo759np9-nM

Great reading, everyday stuff, easy to say but hard to implement.

Agreed what the post says but the most and important factor is Buy-In of all the stakeholders. I belong to software industry and while implementing software at Stock Exchanges & Stock Brokers , Business users never co-operate because of 2 reason , 1-they feel automation will remove their job and secondly resistance for change, I personally feel Buy-In of all stake holders internal & external is one the most crucial step for Project Scope
Awaiting for your comments gentlemen

Agreed with the post Marian. I also appreciate all the comments made by other fellow members of the community. All of them have made great points.
I would like to add one point. Failure to do a proper estimation also lead to project failure. There can be many reasons behind it even when the requirement is clearly understood.


Great points. many of the 'scope problems' arise when project managers don't keep a close relationship with stakeholders. Stakeholders needs may evolve and what was relevant in the past 'during project initiation' becomes irrelevant now.

Project managers should actively engage stakeholders and use the necessary strategies to manage their needs and requirements

Good points to allow our brains to be obsessed with. However, let's assume for a while that a PM achieved crystal clarity and mesurability in key milestones, requirements collection and conversion into func specs, also a robust change mechanism in place. WoW! wonderful ambience we're in. What if buy-ins not happening, what if frequent changes in scope vis-a-vis other base lines??? Just a night mare in PM's life - right? How to address and redress this night mare?? - Agile application....involve our customers at every sprint level with their sign-off. Let functional specs change overs be subjected to change control mechanisms holistically - no matter big or small the CRs.

None of us are exceptions to the heuristic.... deliver as planned and plan(to our capability) to deliver.

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