Project Scope Management: How To Set Up Successful Projects From the Start

Scope is a crucial element in determining the outcome of a project. Learn steps and best practices to get it right.

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Are you ready to set your project up for success? If you're a project manager, it all starts with effective project scope management.

Scope is a crucial element in determining the outcome of a project, and understanding how to manage it is vital to your success. But as project management methodologies evolve, so do the definitions and considerations of scope.

We'll uncover the secrets of scope management below, including the four essential steps in the process, and explore the critical considerations project managers often overlook. Let's get started!

What is project scope?

At its core, a project scope defines what you must deliver to achieve the project's goals. It's a critical element of project planning where you and your team decide what you'll be doing within the project's parameters and what you won't be doing.

Think of scope as forming one side of the project management iron triangle, alongside budget and time. If one of these elements changes, the other two must change with it. For instance, if the scope increases, you must adjust the time and budget accordingly. Keep this concept in mind using this handy visual tool.

Scope setting in waterfall

The scope baseline is locked in from the beginning in traditional waterfall project management. As an agency, you'll define a set of deliverables, establish a fixed budget, and agree on a deadline with your client.

However, if your team underestimates the time required to complete the work, the additional costs must be absorbed. Being too rigid can make it harder to adjust the project scope management plan, so you need to be confident that you're on the right track early on.

Scope setting in agile

On the other hand, agile project management has a more flexible approach to scope setting. At the beginning of the project, you'll have a high-level idea of what you want to accomplish.

As you progress, the scope will evolve based on new insights into what the stakeholders want. You'll conduct research, create prototypes, test, and iterate to determine what needs to be done. Each sprint moves the team closer to the end goal.

When working with clients, both parties share the risk of changing scope. If the scope increases, the client must adjust their budget and timeline accordingly.

Why is managing scope important?

Managing scope is crucial for project success as it ensures the team is protected, the project stays on track, and the end product delivers value.

When scope is not managed correctly, it can cause stress, affect quality, and lead to inefficient use of resources. A project with a tightly controlled scope is more likely to be feature-rich and deliver a quality end product.

Project managers need to have the superpower of saying "no, but" to ensure that the project stays within the defined parameters and that the team can deliver a successful outcome.

Four steps in the project scope management process

Here are four crucial steps to managing project scope:

1. Invest in discovery

Through your discovery phase, you'll uncover what needs to be done to meet the project's goals. You'll almost certainly have started with a brief from the client or project sponsor, but this needs exploration, challenge, and validation.

You'll often be conducting user research, talking to stakeholders, digging deep to collect requirements, and understanding the rest of the moving parts—like third-party software integrations (which might be out of your control but need to be factored in).

2. Agree on the goals of the project

Goal-setting builds a solid foundation for project scope planning. With your stakeholders and team, you'll define what the users need and what your client needs to achieve goals (and not just what they want) and keep their business infrastructure intact. Crucially, goals will help you inform what is out of scope.

Each project objective should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. From here, you should have a list of deliverables to break down into smaller tasks with your team.

3. Set project governance

During the project governance stage, you must set expectations for everyone involved. Look for answers to these questions:

  • Who needs to review work?
  • How long do they need for feedback rounds?
  • Are any big chunks of annual leave coming up to be aware of?
  • How often will you be catching up with the client or project sponsor?
  • Who is your direct point of contact?
  • How will you communicate?
  • Are there any working hour patterns or time zone differences to be aware of?

Understanding details like working hours, time zones, and holidays can help you manage the project effectively. You can field unexpected requests, pause the project if the client misses feedback deadlines, and set the pace for delivery.

4. Put pen to paper

In the final step, you must document everything you have learned, what you're doing, and how you deliver on the project goals. It's essential to put all project scope elements (including every project requirement) and how you'll handle changes, such as formal change requests, in writing.

You should create a comprehensive project plan as well. While this document can evolve throughout the project, it is critical to ensure alignment from the start to set expectations and create a shared vision.

Scope statement: Use this template to include necessary elements

There are lots of different ways to document your scope of work. But it should always include what's in and out of scope and capture the governance details you agreed on.

The project scope statement templates I like have version control and can be signed off on. Here's one template to help you set up your scope statement.

A view of a template for project scope management

➡️ Make a copy of the scope management plan in Google Docs

➡️ Download the project scope document to your computer from File > Download

You can also check out our free project charter templates—the project charter is where you can define scope and other important parts of your project plan.

Five tips for managing scope properly

Properly managing a project's scope is crucial for its success, and following the established steps is just the beginning. There are several best practices to remember to ensure that your project stays on track.

Here are five practical tips to help you manage project scope like a pro:

1. Keep an eye out for scope creep on your team

When managing a project, it's crucial to remember that your project team likely consists of specialists who can sometimes get caught up in the details. As a project manager, your role as a generalist is to see the bigger picture and exercise proper scope control to ensure the project stays on track.

Scope creep is a common issue when specialists focus too much on a particular aspect of the project, leading to unnecessary work and wasted resources. Maybe they want to explore an ambitious search function, but you already agreed that you'd use the native search function within the CMS. Suddenly a day's worth of work has become a week, and it hasn't added any value to the project!

To prevent this and control scope, it's essential to keep a watchful eye and ensure that your team stays aligned with the project's goals and scope.

2. Get sign off by essential stakeholders

Make sure the scope is signed off by the client or the most important stakeholder. I recommend reviewing this document with them on a call to ensure they've read and understood it.

They'll be able to ask questions and provide feedback, giving you a chance to make any necessary adjustments before the project begins.

3. Keep people aligned

Congratulations, your beautiful scope of work has been approved! But the work doesn't stop there. As time progresses, changes to project requirements will inevitably arise, and managing them smoothly and effectively is crucial.

Keep your documentation up to date and make sure that the appropriate stakeholders  approve any scope change to ensure everyone stays aligned and focused on achieving the project's goals.

4. Organize out-of-scope items

One way to ensure that everyone on the team knows what is out of scope during the project is to add a column on your project management task board called Icebox. It's a simple yet effective technique to help your team stay focused on what's important while keeping track of the ideas or features that might be useful in the future.

Keeping items on ice doesn't mean they can never be delivered; instead, it helps maintain momentum and prioritize project goals without losing sight of potential additions.

5. Create a repeatable process to avoid chaos

Project scope management cannot be seen as a nice to have strategy, or things will quickly spiral out of control.

Utilize each project as an opportunity to learn and improve your approach, iterating on your scope management plan template to continually refine your process. This will help you avoid mistakes and increase your chances of delivering a successful project!



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Get a live view of your team's schedule to plan capacity and assign work that's agreed on. Streamline workflows and scenario plan with tentative tasks and placeholder roles.

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