PART 1 – Inadequate Scope Definition

The planning phase is the stage that comes into play immediately after authorization and initiation, and it is critical to the success of your project. During planning, your focus is developing the roadmap your project team follows throughout the project’s duration. In addition to developing a project management plan, this is the time to define scope. It is this piece, defining scope, which seems to cause the most trouble during planning. Inadequate scope definition leads to a host of issues. Read on to discover its impact, solutions, and how to implement those solutions.

Characteristics and consequences

Projects typically run into trouble without well-defined scope. Project scope establishes boundaries, responsibilities, and procedures. Your team remains focused and on task throughout and you avoid the dreaded scope creep, which invariably ties up valuable resources and is easily avoidable with proper planning and communication.

One of the bigger causes of inadequate scope definition is rushing time estimates. Your customer, whether it is internal or external, expresses a high sense of urgency once the project is approved and ready to go. Management, always hoping to demonstrate its responsiveness to the customer, echoes that sense of urgency. The project team, in its desire to make both the customer and management happy, often rushes right past vital aspects of the planning phase of project management.

Particular projects reveal unique difficulties to defining scope. Creating an IT system, for example, presents its own communication issues. IT is what’s known as a high context environment. These are people with extensive knowledge in their field, but it’s an implicit knowledge made up of patterns and processes they often don’t even recognize. This “below the waterline” knowledge makes it difficult for them to offer a step-by-step guide on how they do their job. You may recognize this as the opposite of the project environment, which requires a well-defined process that identifies each piece of the project. Often, when you ask this customer what they want, they become frustrated because defining this often presents difficulties for a group whose thought processes do not work this way.

Here we see the impact on companies that lack definition methodology. Or, companies who have methodologies but who, for a variety of reasons, never implement them. Methodologies specify tasks and typically include a timeline to ensure task completion occurs in the most labor-friendly order. And, of course, methodologies help define project scope.


Companies need to employ two solutions to attack inadequate scope definition: project management methodology and specialized methodology.

Let’s look first at specialized methodology, which describes how you do the work. Referring back to our IT example, in which pulling the definition from the customer may present a challenge, refine a technique to help the customer identify and clarify its needs.

One method involves encouraging the customer to speak at length about their needs and expectations as regards the project. While the customer talks, listen carefully with an ear toward contradictory statements or vague ideas. Seek clarification when this happens. Next, ask the customer to prioritize their needs into Must Have, Should Have, and Nice to Have categories.

Specialized methodologies include system development life cycle, or SDLC, and DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control). Companies typically subscribe to a variety of methodologies, as no single one represents the best choice for any and all situations.

An organization’s project management methodology may encompass all of these specialized methodologies or even serve parts of the company without a specialized approach. Project management methodology tells us how to manage the work, and it must be used across the board team once implemented.

Project management methodology choices are numerous. One popular choice is the Change Management Methodology, which focuses on preparing for change by designing contingencies to deal with it. It allows the team to stop work on a project if a problem arises and make changes before work resumes.

Teamwork and collaboration play a big role in both the Agile and Waterfall methodologies. Agile, in particular, encourages customer involvement in the project and the development of teams. Monitoring the project and responding quickly to change are also key features of this methodology.

Employee pushback

Employees, usually ones who excel in their positions, may test management after the implementation of a new methodology. Typically, this takes the form of questioning the need for the methodology, since he or she always completes work on time and within scope. Consider this test a lesson in psychology.

This complaint of not liking the new methodology typically translates as, “I don’t understand this new methodology.” The smart manager asks the employee to explain what part he or she doesn’t like. Bring the project manager into the discussion and clarify the aspect, or aspects, of the methodology confusing the employee. This should solve the issue and allow full implementation of the methodology.

Project life cycle

Inadequate scope definition is a natural side effect of not having a project management life cycle. Each phase of a project makes up its life cycle. The Project Management Book of Knowledge instructs that this life cycle should tell us four things:

  1. The work to be completed
  2. The deliverables
  3. Who is involved
  4. How to control each phase

The life cycle creates a controlled, systematic process and helps the project manager understand what needs to be completed before moving onto the next phase of the project.

Scope definition happens gradually throughout the life cycle, taking on its final form during the planning project implementation phase. In defining scope, we must identify three things:

  1. Deliverables: What are we going to have in the operating environment after completing the project?
  2. Measures: How can we tell that what we delivered works correctly?
  3. Exclusions: What items were discussed during justification, meaning that the customer may have expectations, but we decided not to do?

We must be very clear about what we are going to do, and what we are not going to do.

Project closeout and scope verification

We signed off on scope in the beginning, so we know what should have been completed by project’s end. This helps confirm with the client that the delivery matches the promise and their expectations. There will almost always be items for us to fix. These go on a punch list. Once we work through each item on the punch list, we close out the project.

Organizations utilizing scope verification invariably have better project closeouts, smoother project closeouts, and faster project closeouts.

For the entire  Ask Cadence  – Project Problem podcast series

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Audience: all people involved in projects
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