What Is “Scope” in Project Management: Definition, Scope Creep & Examples

in Research   Posted on July 15, 2021  Author: Imed Bouchrika,

I.T. projects are most notorious for going out of control. These either go way past their budgets by 27% or overshoot their scope and become black swans. This, according to Harvard Business Review in the largest survey ever conducted on IT modernization initiatives, covering 1,471 projects in all. These scope-related woes are the kind that can force CEOs to resign (for instance, Levi’s former Chief Information Officer David Bergen) and the kind that can make high-flying giants crash (example, Kmart, whose massive $1.2 billion IT modernization project was tagged as a major factor in its bankruptcy).

This article aims to provide detailed answers to that seemingly simple question: what is scope in project management? Because in the real world, scope is a moving target that you need to hit before attempting to put anything on paper. And even after it has to put on paper, if the project manager isn’t careful, the target can move again.

Table of Contents

  1. What is “scope” in project management?
  2. How important is project scope management?
  3. What is “scope creep”?
  4. What is a project management scope statement?
  5. How to Write a Project Management Scope Statement
  6. Project Scope Statement Examples
  7. Inter-relationship of Scope and Project Management Terms

What is “scope” in project management?

You and your team of young aeronautics engineers were tasked with building a light airplane that would be cost-efficient for island-hopping.  The build team observed that on some islands, landing strips are not always available. Somebody mused how cool it would be if your plane could take off vertically – just like all those experimental vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircrafts produced by major military contractors, even by Rolls Royce. Somebody mentioned that he worked with a team on such a project some years back. This got all your engineers excited! The technology is already available so it won’t take too much of your time, you agreed. You could build the aircraft, meeting all the client’s requirements – but work on this ‘on the side’—so you could really ‘Wow!’ the client on delivery date.  Fast-forward to the delivery date, you had 60% of the airplane completed, and 75% of the vertical take-off plan completed. But you had no airplane. The client told you they never needed vertical take-off capability since they would build airstrips in the islands they would service.

This project, of course, is all hypothetical. But that, in essence, is how important keeping to scope in project management is.

Think of it as the project team’s boundaries. In a general way, it includes all the elements, features, functionalities, and details of a project or product that a team has to deliver, as well as the work needed to get these done.

It could either be:

  • Product scope—the features and functionalities of the product or deliverable.
  • Project scope—all the tasks that must be done to produce, complete, and deliver the product.

The two concepts are integrally related but different. And it is worth noting this.
With this basic understanding of “scope” as the boundaries—whether of the product specifications or of the entire project, whatever falls within product scope and/or project scope is deemed “in-scope.” And everything else is “out-of-scope.”

“Project scope” definition need not be more complicated than this.

cost of failed IT projects

How important is project scope management?

By keeping an eye on deadlines and the timely completion of tasks according to Project Schedule Plan, a Project Manager is able to move a project forward systematically and consistently.

But the accurate day-to-day decisions that a project team makes on whether a task is in-scope or out-of-scope can keep the entire team focused, more productive, and move the project forward to completion faster.

To slack in this crucial responsibility could only lead to wasted resources, higher costs, and, yes, project failure.

A Good Start

Here is a common enough occurrence: project managers and members end up spending more time, budget, and resources than they had committed to do. It usually happens this way:

A company bids for a project and wins the contract – say, a water main pipe construction project for an industrial complex. The deliverables and the specifications of these were detailed in the project quotation and bid: the kind of water pipe to be used, the thickness of the pipe wall, the diameter, and the total length of the project. When Day 1 of the project begins, the biggest concern in the project manager’s mind is the deadline and how he could take the project ‘there’ from ‘here.’ Timelines are drawn up and all project resources are assigned so as to finish the project according to specifications and on time.

A Small Change

And then the unexpected and unplanned for happens: the client realize their failure to take into consideration the slope of the area and requests for ‘slight’ adjustments to the contractor’s construction design. The client tries to convince the project manager to agree to the changes which would “just take a few additional days to implement.” The project manager, who thinks pleasing the client is his topmost priority, agrees – without computing for the additional cost in terms of manpower, pipes, and equipment rental. He also doesn’t inform the owner of the construction company who will be shouldering all these additional costs. He tells himself that he has the best interests of both his boss and the client in mind. What’s important is that his men get paid, his boss gets paid, and the client gets what they want. Everybody goes home happy.

Too Late to Back Out

But a direct result of neglected and unmanaged scope is that productivity takes a hit as manpower is reassigned from the original tasks to the new additional tasks. Additional man-days are logged. Pipes and other resources are reallocated as well, entailing additional costs. The owner, who is paid by client progressively, is surprised why the partial payment he received barely covers materials and labor costs that he has to pay for in a given period. Upon realizing what the project manager had done, the owner feels he has no choice but to honor what his manager had already committed to do – with one caveat. He chooses to cut his losses by using inferior materials instead and speeding up the work, sacrificing quality and his reputation in order to save on labor costs.

A Lose-Lose Situation

The end-result is that the client thinks he got a good deal because he got more than what was stipulated in the contract. The project manager thinks he’s helping his contractor boss get paid faster by avoiding the possible delays and hassles of renegotiation. However, the owner knows his ROI will be much lower than their original projections. In the end, no one gets what they wanted.

But a direct result of neglected and unmanaged scope is that productivity takes a hit as manpower is reassigned from the original tasks to the new additional tasks. Additional man-days are logged. Pipes and other resources are reallocated as well, entailing additional costs. The owner, who is paid by client progressively, is surprised why the partial payment he received barely covers materials and labor costs that he has to pay for in a given period. Upon realizing what the project manager had done, the owner feels he has no choice but to honor what his manager had already committed to do – with one caveat. He chooses to cut his losses by using inferior materials instead and speeding up the work, sacrificing quality and his reputation in order to save on labor costs.

The end-result is that the client thinks he got a good deal because he got more than what was stipulated in the contract. The project manager thinks he’s helping his contractor boss get paid faster by avoiding the possible delays and hassles of renegotiation. However, the owner knows his ROI will be much lower than their original projections. In the end, no one gets what they wanted.

And all this happened because the project manager was not vigilant enough to guard against “scope creep”—meaning, the slow, insidious creeping into the project implementation of tasks and specifications that are clearly “out-of-scope.”

What is “scope creep”?

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) Guide defines “project creep” as “adding functionalities and features without addressing their effects on time, resources, cost, or without customer approval.”
According to the 2018 Project Management Institute (PMI) Pulse of the Profession Survey, over half of all projects experience scope creep.

Project Management Institute, Pulse of the Profession Survey (2021)

In his paper on “Direct Cost of Scope Creep in Governmental Construction Projects in Qatar” where he conducted a survey and interviewed 70 project managers and public officials, Osama Hussain paints an even bleaker picture for Qatar’s public sector construction industry, and reports that 92% of respondents witnessed scope creep in one or more of the projects that they implemented. (Global Journal of Management and Business Research, 2012)

According to the survey-based study, the top 10 reasons for scope creep are:

  1. Ignorance of key stakeholders until the project is underway
  2. The project is executed after years of completion of the study and scope definition.
  3. Scope definition is done by the wrong people.
  4. Government officials are always “ambitious” and unrealistic regarding the outcome of projects.
  5. Intervention by politicians and senior government officials.
  6. The data was not enough when the scope was defined.
  7. Bad management of project changes, and absence of scope management and control systems.
  8. Most managers focus on major scope changes and ignore small changes that could lead to bigger scope creep problems.
  9. In government projects, it is not easy to differentiate between what is included in the project and what is not included.
  10. Conflict in different government agencies’ interests.

Hussain attributes the variations between the original budgets and final costs of projects to the above factors that collectively introduce scope creep.

Hussain, O. (2012)

What is a project management scope statement?

While the Project Plan maps out the entire project (like a blueprint) and its timeline, the project management scope statement is the solid foundation on which the project must be built—or else it will teeter-totter from one direction to another, lacking firm groundwork.

The PMBOK Guide gives a straightforward definition of “project scope management”: being “primarily concerned with defining and controlling what is and is not included in the project.” The first step towards this is to draw up a well-crafted “project scope statement.”

How to Write a Project Management Scope Statement

Understanding the meaning of “project scope” and keeping in mind what you want to accomplish in project scope management will help you craft a good project scope statement.

To clarify, the project scope statement is not—as it may be interpreted by some—a single statement. It is, in fact, a project document comprising of several pages (depending on the size and complexity of the project).

The scope statement is a detailed description of all the work that must be done to deliver the output of a project—according to product scope, within budget, and on time.

In order for the project scope statement to be as effective and reliable as the project team needs it to be, it cannot be the output of a single person. Although the project manager typically drafts it, it should include the client, major stakeholders, and sponsors in the deliberations and finalization. It should be a roadmap that everyone agrees on. Otherwise, each goes his own way.

scope creep statistics

Whether the project is a skyscraper, a computer software, an automobile, or an advertising campaign, a project scope statement should answer these key questions:

1. Why are we doing this?

Why was the project initiated in the first place? The rationale for a project could be any of the following scenarios:

  • a competitor company just came up with a similar product
  • software clients have been requesting such a functionality
  • an opportunity to generate recurring revenue has presented itself

2. What are the targets we want to hit with this project (business objectives)?

Follow best practices in setting SMART goals.

Some examples:

  • Double our recurring revenue within two years after project completion
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3. What do we need to deliver to the client? (deliverables)

Because these have to do with what the client expects to receive at project completion, they need to be part of this discussion. Deliverables can include:

  • the product itself (as per specifications)
  • software manual of instruction
  • marketing materials

4. What do we NOT need to deliver (i.e. project exclusions)?

At the very outset, there will be tasks, product features and things in a client’s wish list that we obviously do not need to deliver. We should explicitly state these, especially if there’s a risk of client demanding to get these out-of-scope items.

  • software functionalities intentionally excluded because these are scheduled for a later project update
  • landscaping which is not included in the construction blueprint

5. What are the project constraints within which the team must work?

  • money (budget)
  • time  (i.e. this coming Christmas season)
  • scope (adding e-Commerce functionality to a website)

6. What are the assumptions with regard to different aspects of the project?

The project plan and timetable may have been drawn up based on several assumptions – which may or may not take place, or may or may not be true under different circumstances. These have to be clearly identified. Otherwise expectations may not be met. Some examples:

  • The software development team will work only for 30 hours per week on this project
  • “Public holidays” are those declared as such by the government in the year 2020
  • There will be no change in prices of cement for the first quarter of 2021

7. What procedures should be followed when uncertainties are encountered? Some things to decide and act on:

  • Who needs to know?
  • What is the timeframe to discuss and resolve emergent issues?
  • Document the incident and decisions made

percentage of projects going over the budget

Project Scope Statement Examples

The above items are a list of information and explicitly made statements that a project scope statement should have, according to the Project Management Institute. But every document will vary and should be customized according to the needs of the project, the project owners, stakeholders, the clients, and the rest of the team, even as you will find several good examples of project scope documents online.

The end result of a well-written project scope statement should be that there will be no surprises come implementation time. The scope has been so well-defined that it’s easy for the team to identify whether some new suggestions from programmers, requests from clients, or instructions from even the higher-ups in the company are “in-scope” or “out-of-scope.”

Who defines scope?

At this, point, it is important to bring into the discussion “who” determines the project scope and how the participation and the voice of stakeholders can strongly affect project outcomes. Traditional wisdom points to “scope definition” and “stakeholder management” as two separate fields of concern.

But in a study presented at the 26th IPMA World Congress, researchers M. Fageha and A. Aibinu looked at the massive Saudi construction industry in the public sector as a good case study on how stakeholder support of a project can strongly influence its outcome.   This, in the face of increasing incidences of resource wastage due to changes in the scope of work, rework, and even project abandonment by contractors. One contributing factor that has been identified is the “inappropriate involvement of parties.” According to their paper, “Managing Project Scope Definition to Improve Stakeholders’ Participation and Enhance Project Outcome,” a politically charged project might depend on the favor of several stakeholders within the client’s organization, and even outside of it. (Fageha & Aibinu, 2012)

The researchers recommend that:

“Project managers and decision-makers need to develop a well-defined project in a manner that reflects stakeholders’ expectations, and accrues the benefits of their contributions, without compromising the purpose of the project.

Thus, all stakeholders should have adequate opportunities to have their voices heard so that no element of the project scope definition is missed. Thus there is a need for a project scope definition process that takes into account each stakeholder’s perspectives and position if the conflict is to be mitigated. The stakeholder’s input should thus be taken in accordance with their particular concern on different project definition elements so that their involvement reflects the degree of their importance and relevance to the project.”

Hence, it’s important to remember that scope definition and management is not only concerned with buildings or software that are their output but also need to manage the input and expectations of parties who can shape and influence the project outcome.

The project scope statement will require additional time to draft and close coordination with stakeholders and key implementers of the project. But the ability to pre-empt long discussions and facilitate quick decisions will enable project managers to focus on project plan implementation, quality control, and timely delivery. It will be time, not just well-spent but the valuable time saved.

Inter-relationship of Scope and Project Management Terms

Just a word of caution—one will find that in the field of project management, you will have many terms that appear to be the same, but are not. In the real world, even experienced project managers sometimes use these terms interchangeably. These are all expounded on and differentiated in the 756-page “PMBOK Guide: A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge” – the closest thing to a project manager’s bible.

We will tackle just a few of these interrelated terms here to avoid the common confusion attendant to these.

Project scope vs. scope statement

“Project scope” is a project management concept that refers to all the work involved in a project.

“Scope statement” (or “project scope statement”), on the other hand, is a document that describes the product scope, major deliverables, assumptions, constraints, and other project details.

Project Scope Statement vs. Scope of Work

In contrast, the “scope of work” is an outline of the agreement between a contractor/consultant and a client which contains basic information of the work to be done, such as:

  • Deliverables
  • Project timeline
  • Milestones

It is not a detailed plan, however (unlike the project scope statement). It is just a section in a larger project document called the “statement of work.”

Scope of Work vs. Statement of Work (SOW)

The “statement of work” spells out every step and detail of project planning—including scope of work, expenses, legal compliance and even performance metrics. Because of this extensive detail, the SOW is a legal document and often used as a binding contract between customers and service providers.

You can check more examples of scope of work online. You can customize these to suit your client’s and project team’s needs.

Defining and Defending Your Boundaries

All these concepts and documents stem from the all-important concept of ‘scope’. It defines boundaries that should make it clear to all project participants what should and need not be done so that finite resources such as time, money, and effort are maximized. A well-crafted scope document that involves all stakeholders and key team members will identify all the lines that need to be drawn and the holes that need to be plugged.

Studies and global experience have shown that when scope creep happens and is allowed to change the course of a project, the consequences are uncontrolled project costs, productivity loss, low returns on investment, and ultimately, project failure.

 

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