Project Scope

The Project Scope for larger, complex projects must include the “reach” of the project. “Reach” states how far the project reaches out in defining its overall deliverable. Let’s look at an example of what I mean by Project Scope “Reach.”  Let’s say your boss calls you into their office and talks about a project to fix the supply room. The boss says, “The supplies are a mess and we need to get them straightened out.”

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
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Many project managers would just say, “Okay!” and get to work cleaning up the supply room. But a well-trained project manager would ask the sponsor about the acceptance criteria they will use to judge if the project is a success. In answer to the question about acceptance criteria, the boss might say, “I want all the supplies on the shelves in order by UPC (universal product code).”  The project manager might nod their understanding and begin work because the desired result is now clear. Project Phases Main Page

A project manager with even more training will say to the boss, “Just so I understand the big picture, why do you want the supplies on the shelves in the UPC order?”  The boss frowns and says, “So our employees can get the supplies they need faster.” This project manager replies, “Then maybe we ought to reach a little further with the scope and aim at improving the speed of supply retrieval.  The project acceptance criteria might be something like, ‘90% of employees can find their supply in less than 2 minutes.’ If we just put the supplies on the shelves in UPC order, I’m concerned that we might not have an impact on how long it takes employees to find their supplies.”

Project Scope – Not Reaching Far Enough

Problems result when the Project Scope doesn’t reach far enough. The team can meet the smaller scope but have no impact on the larger problem that initiated the project. Asking the boss a polite question about reach, as our project manager did in the example, is always a good technique. It lets you understand more about the real problem the boss is trying to solve. That’s the key to being an outstanding project manager.

Project managers who ask these Project Scope Reach questions do a number of things for themselves and the organization. The sponsor begins to see the project manager as a strategic thinker, not just a supervisor who runs the project team. The sponsor avoids initiating projects that aren’t likely to give any business benefit to the organization, no matter how well the PM manages the effort. The PM gets the opportunity to run projects that deliver more significant benefits to the organization.

A “best practice” for a project manager during the project initiation phase is to first think about the scope the sponsor mentioned. Next, think about scopes with larger reach and more business benefits to the organization. Then if the opportunity arises, the project manager can have that strategic reach discussion with the sponsor.

We often see the organizational impact of projects with a reach that is too small. These are the real project disasters. The organization launches what is the same project every year to solve a problem that prior projects failed to solve. Although there are many contributing factors, executives often plan these projects without consideration of alternatives to the Project Scope Reach.

Some projects do not reach beyond the boundaries of the sub-unit where the team members work. Other projects reach out and measure their success in the customers’ eyes. If the reach of a project is incorrect for the organization’s business situation, top management will not be satisfied with the project and its manager. This is no simple issue. The thinking process is as complex as the factors that you must consider.

Project Scope – Reaching Too Far 

Sometimes the planning process can yield a Project Scope that reaches too far. It brings in too many variables and risks that are beyond the control of the sponsor and project manager. As an example, let’s say the company’s  customers are dissatisfied with their customer service. An executive may talk to you about a project to cut customer telephone hold time. That is one thing about which the customers complain. Defining acceptance criteria for a 5% reduction in hold time is relatively straightforward. You can use data from your phone system to measure if you reached that Project Scope.

However, if you are a savvy project manager thinking about this project, you might wonder if a reduction in hold time is going to solve the customer dissatisfaction problem. You might look at the data and see that customers are also upset about needing to call back repeatedly to resolve the same problem. That is a somewhat larger Project Scope Reach and a potentially more significant problem to solve. You could define a deliverable like, “Less than 1% of customers have to call back about the same problem.” Again, you can use your internal phone system to measure if you delivered that business result.

To reach even further, you might think about an alternative Project Scope of measuring success through the customers’ eyes. A simple measure of the overall customer satisfaction might be “60% of the customers who have called in, rate the service as excellent.” The project to deliver that business result might include both the hold time and the accuracy/completeness of the answers customers receive.

Keep in mind that when you define a Project Scope that reaches to the customer, you add factors over which you have no control. As an example, if other companies that your customers use are also instituting service improvement projects, you may find that your improvements are insufficient when compared to other organizations. There are other sorts of external influences that can affect your ability to produce the deliverables of a Project Scope with a big reach. You need to identify these risks and make a realistic assessment of how much they could affect youProject Scoper ability to deliver the Project Scope the sponsor has set.

Let’s investigate the typical process that organizations use for conceiving projects. Then we’ll explore the Project Scope reach techniques.

Project Scope – Conceiving Projects 

Most organizations have a new “Holy Grail”project every three years or so. Organizations that are more schizophrenic have a new Holy Grail every six months. The Holy Grail might be improving customer service, reducing costs or headcount, gaining market share or launching a particular new product. Perceptive sponsors and project managers know that linking their new project to the current Holy Grail project is the easy path to project approval and lavish funding. Therefore, organizations see many project proposals that talk about how they will contribute to, help or give functionality to the current Holy Grail project.

The organization usually approves dozens of these projects. Executives hope that somehow this mess of uncoordinated projects will deliver the Holy Grail they seek. If the Holy Grail is to improve customer service, projects for new customer service systems, improved training, more/better new hires, enhanced compensation systems and customer-oriented re-structuring emerge from every department. Each project justifies itself by singing about the Holy Grail of customer service. Their Project Scope reach is merely to “install the new customer service system,” “conduct the training,” “make better hiring decisions,” and so on. No one actually practices strategic project planning. That is, they don’t conceive a Project Scope whose goal is to improve customer service.

Project Scope – Strategic Project Planning

None of the project managers or sponsors in the above example justified their project by saying, “Today, 31% of our customers rate our service as outstanding. When we complete our project, 75% of our customers will rate our service as outstanding.” This Project Scope, the measure of success, has a big reach. It is an example of strategic project planning. It spans departmental boundaries and reaches out to define its success through the eyes of the organization’s customers. Projects with a big Project Scope Reach are difficult to manage. They touch on many people’s turf. They require the PM to integrate the efforts of the “geeks” from IT with the “flakes” from Sales and the “drones” from Operations. And most shocking of all, strategic project planning may even require that people talk to their customers to find out what they actually want. What a novel approach!

The other challenges of defining a larger Project Scope Reach are “controlability” and the amount of organizational change you have to manage. First, if you pick a deliverable that is too big, you buy into a host of external variables that may not be within your control. Second, strategic planning of large Project Scope Reach projects usually entails significant degrees of organizational change. That’s a high-risk element. So you have to balance three ideas:

1.) Scope reaches out far enough to deliver a strategically significant result

2.) Don’t include an unacceptable level of uncontrollable factors and

3.) Avoid so much organizational change that there is no chance of success.

It’s much easier to talk in vague terms about “delighting” the customer, providing required functionality, enhancing employee skills and streamlining delivery systems. Everyone agrees that projects with these mushy deliverables will deliver no strategic value. However, since they promised nothing measurable, the organization can’t identify success or failure. Sadly, organizations often don’t measure anything except how the project’s actual duration and budget compared to the plan.

Project Scope – Summary

When organizations and their executives finally tire of funding dozens or hundreds of projects that never deliver strategic results, they begin to seek projects and project managers whose efforts reach into and affect the outside world. However, the question is how do they weed out the weak and identify the strong, highly focused projects?

Organizations must insist that project managers and sponsors engage in the conceptual thinking required for strategic Project Scope planning. That means planning projects based on the end result they will deliver, that is their measure of success. This is much more difficult than merely planning the activities the project will include. When organizations adopt this approach they can clearly define the Project Scope to deliver projects that change performance as measured by the outside world.  The Project Scope reach lets them focus projects on measured results, subdivide these measures of success into clear assignments, and hold the PM and team members accountable for their delivery.

You can learn these techniques in our online courses where you work 1-to-1 with your instructor. We offer courses for people who manage IT, construction, healthcare, general business and consulting projects.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on