The importance of scoping projects correctly

For the majority of projects that fail, the route cause lies in three areas:

  1. Poor scoping and requirement definition
  2. Not being able to mobilise the right team with the necessary skills and expertise
  3. Ineffective governance and project controls

In this article we’ll focus on the first of these – poor scoping.

The scoping phase of any project is the most critical. It either sets you up for success or becomes the cracks in the foundation that will continue to destabilise your project.

If projects are not scoped well, it leads to significant wastage in time and money in either patch up work and superficial fixes of the symptoms, or serious invasive surgery to try and cure the problem entirely.

The desire to rush into execution is something that must be avoided. On the client-side this can come from well-intended enthusiasm to get started, a belief that they have already scoped the project or internal pressure for outcomes and action. On the freelancer side it can come because of a lack of confidence to challenge their clients and limited expertise/experience in being able to run effective scoping processes and demonstrating the value of these processes to the client.

The latter is a significant issue as if the client does not value the scoping phase, they won’t be willing to pay for it. Therefore, freelancers are left with either having to do free work or push on through to delivery, knowing they don’t have the necessary starting point to confidently progress and deliver to expectation.

Importance of scoping for clients

  • Helps achieve one version of the truth

Within larger organisations there are always challenges in strategic alignment between both business verticals but also across different functional stakeholders such as Marketing, Risk, Compliance, Sales, Product, Operations, and Technology. When it comes to projects there is always a risk that each of these stakeholders have a slightly different view of the purpose, objective, and desired outcomes of the project. They can also have different priorities and agendas. These differences are often left uncovered and only materialise as the project team is pulled in different directions struggling to keep anyone happy. Scoping can play a powerful role in identifying and exposing these conflicts prior to project initiation and forcing them to be acknowledged, understood and resolved. This requires the facilitator to be brave, direct, and not hide away from raising any misalignments in views. By doing this, an organisation can spend time to achieve ‘one version of the truth’, even if not everyone is getting what they want, at least they are signing up to an agreed way forward. This avoids stakeholders either disassociating themselves from the project and reducing their contribution, because they’re not getting what they want, or becoming difficult to manage and a constant source of scope creep or barrier to progress.

Having an agreed view of a project scope across the business ensures all stakeholders are engaged, gives clarity and confidence to the project team, and makes success easier to measure.

  • Ensure business readiness to initiate the project

Feasibility – scale and complexity vs capacity and capability. The process of scoping allows the target project to be scaled so that prior to progressing further there is an ‘order of magnitude’ understanding of the potential size and impact of the initiative. This can help provide indications on time and cost as well assess whether the business has the bandwidth and capability to support the project. This insight avoids time being wasted pursuing initiatives that later get stopped or paused when realisation hits that the cost or scale are beyond the organisation’s appetite.

Internal impacts and resource requirements. Scoping is the first stage of impact assessment in terms of the people, processes and technology. This is where you can begin to understand what components of the business will have some stake in the project. This involvement can span from being directly impacted, having to contribute or just needing to be aware. This will help define the stakeholders needing to be involved in the project (both internal and third parties), the systems that will need to be considered and the potential cultural implications. If the stakeholders required are already stretched and lacking capacity, the systems involved already going through significant change and the people and processes being effective were recently disrupted, it may not be the right time to pursue the project.

Ability to leverage outcomes effectively. It is essential that once a project it delivered successfully the organisation is able to leverage those outcomes in order to realise the benefits.

Often projects are successful in isolation, however, what they deliver is not ready to be incorporated or rolled out by the business.

Many projects end up delivering outputs that sit on shelves waiting to be implemented or adopted. Significant investments can be made, but if the last stage of fully implementing or realising the benefits are not followed through on then ROI will be limited. Worse than that, things can actually get worse as ‘half deliveries’ leave incomplete solutions that create inefficiencies and workarounds due to legacy processes, products or systems needing to be maintained instead of replaced.

  • More productive engagement with relevant external partners/consultants

Being absolutely clear and aligned on your requirements, what is in and out of scope, the desired outcomes and strategic purpose/objectives prior to engaging any external partners is essential in both building the right execution team with the right capabilities and setting them up for success. The whole process becomes easier from working out what internal and external expertise is required, assessing and selecting these individual or third-party organisation, giving them clarity and focus on what is expected so that they can execute effectively and then governing and managing project progress. This also allows external parties to provide accurate proposals, pricing and timelines and therefore avoids expectation gaps post initiation.

Importance of scoping for freelancers

  • Avoid expectation gaps and ambiguity

A common source of conflict between clients and external partners is expectation mismatch. Therefore, one of the key benefits of the scoping process is to bring clarity and ensure alignment on what the purpose of the project is, how it should be run and what it should deliver.

This manifests right from the proposal stage.

A good scope enables consultants to develop detailed and relevant proposals that are accurately priced and sized.

It also allows them to address any gaps in experience or expertise. A lot of time is saved developing multiple versions of the proposal as requirements become clearer. The fact an accurate proposal can be created also allows consultants to assess and test the appetite and seriousness of the client at an early stage instead of wasting time pursuing an opportunity which is unlikely to get signed-off. By providing an early indication of cost and size there can be no excuses later on from the client.

The scope also serves as the foundation document which can always be referred back to during execution. Once a projects starts the original drivers can be forgotten, having an agreed and documented scope allows you to keep course correcting as you go, avoids deviations and provides a useful way to resolve future disagreements on whether the project is delivering or not.

The scope also allows for the ‘current state’ to be baselined. If the starting point is not defined, then the ability to demonstrate the benefits and progress the project has delivered becomes difficult. It is important for any KPIs or success criteria that are being set to measure the impact of the project, that the relevant ‘as is’ data is collected before initiating work. This way there can be no debate or subjectivity around whether the desired outcomes were achieved. Having this creates focus for the project team and avoids any uncomfortable discussions where energy is deployed on evidencing progress as opposed to delivering it.

  • Scope creep and unearthing internal conflicts

The establishment of clarity and alignment is not only restricted to client and consultant, the scope also serves to align internal stakeholders within the client organisation. Individuals from different business verticals and functional areas can often have varying agendas, requirements and priorities. Flushing this out through scoping is essential in getting buy-in from all critical stakeholders, avoiding the creation of disappointed and disengaged stakeholders who don’t feel they are getting what they want from the project and reducing the risk of scope creep.

The scoping process brings transparency and helps unearth potential internal conflicts within the client’s organisations that could later emerge and become highly damaging.

By involving the right people in the scoping process and doing it collaboratively these issues can be discussed, debated and resolved. Consensus building is a critical part of what the scope needs to do, not every stakeholder will be happy, but everyone needs to be given the opportunity to have their voice heard before making any compromises. If individuals feel they have been acknowledged, then they are more likely to be supportive and engaged once the project begins.

  • Show your value, build rapport and create shared accountability

The achievement of consensus through collaborative scoping workshops with the client (involving all relevant stakeholders) creates shared accountability and avoids future finger pointing. It builds rapport and creates a team relationship as opposed to one of client and supplier. The client is forced to think, engage, contribute and be part of the project as opposed to sitting on the outside. Running these sessions also allows a consultant to demonstrate their knowledge, expertise and cultural fit. Being able to run highly engaging, interactive and productive scoping is a major differentiator. This is not a skill that is prevalent either within large organisation or in the external market.

Scoping meetings for clients and consultants – before, during and after

In summary: What makes a good scope?

Content

  • Context / as is state / background
  • Purpose and objectives
  • Activities and requirements in scope and out of scope
  • Structure/phasing
  • Client sponsor and involved stakeholders
  • Success criteria / deliverables / outputs
  • budget, desired timelines
  • Technical information and data as well as narrative
  • Examples of desired outputs
  • Stimulus such as relevant market trends or example case studies
  • Expertise/capability is needed to deliver the scope
  • Next steps, what will happen after the project is delivered

Characteristics

  • Tells a story, answers the key questions of Why? What? and When? The How is what the proposals should cover.
  • Structured and framework driven
  • All relevant stakeholders involved and contributing
  • Final consensus achieved
  • Co-created with client and formally signed-off
  • Concise and clear language – avoid death by PowerPoint
  • Identify challenges identified, potential risks, assumptions made

Scoping is an art that is difficult to master, but if you start implement some of the key points we have gone through in this article you are on your way. A good scope, where you have clarity and alignment between clients and consultants, is half the battle won when it comes to delivering successful outcomes. Afterall, that’s what all stakeholders want at the end of the day.