Project management in practice: scope - Veterinary Practice
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Project management in practice: scope

Ensuring that you understand the scope of a project and how this can change and evolve over time is an essential first step to project management in practice

Project management in practice: 2 of 3

In this three-part miniseries, we are exploring some of the essential principles and tools you can use to help you manage a variety of projects in your practice. In the first part, we looked at roles and relationships in practice. In this second part, we’ll explore project scope – how it is set, monitored and managed.

Defining the scope

The scope of a project defines the work to be accomplished: its inputs and outputs, outcomes and boundaries. This is usually presented as a “scope statement”, which is defined by the Project Management Institute as “the narrative description of the project scope, including major deliverables, project objectives, project assumptions, project constraints, and a statement of work, that provides a documented basis for making future project decisions and for confirming or developing a common understanding of project scope among the stakeholders.”


FIGURE (1) The “triple constraint”

The scope is often defined in terms of the “triple constraint”, considering a project’s cost, timescale and quality (Figure 1). These three parameters will always define the scope of a project, and each parameter will always influence the others. For example, if a project’s deadline is shortened (reduction in the time factor), then either the work will have to be done less well and less thoroughly (reduction in the quality factor) or more money will need to be spent to get there (increase in the cost factor). If a project’s budget is cut (reduction in the cost factor), then there will need to be either a drop in quality or an increase in the time it will take to complete.

You will find that for most projects, at least one of these factors is fixed. For example:

  • Fixed time, such as working to a specific deadline
  • Fixed quality, such as meeting an external standard
  • Fixed cost, such as working to a specific budget

Establishing the scope of a project

In the early stages of project planning, establishing and agreeing on the scope of a project is crucial. Ask structured questions to those on your stakeholder list who you have identified as needing to input and ensure that the project sponsor signs off on the final agreed scope (Figure 2).

FIGURE (2) “NPO”, or need, problem or opportunity. This defines the reason you’re planning the project in the first place

The five whys

To really understand the purpose of a project, you need to ask yourself (or your client, if you have one) why the project should be delivered. Insist that the question is answered with “in order to…”.  Follow this answer by asking why that is important, which should also be answered with “in order to…”. Repeat this for as many whys as you need until you get to one of the organisation’s fundamental missions or purposes.

To really understand the purpose of a project, you need to ask yourself why the project should be delivered

As a general rule, if you cannot get there in five “whys”, the project is likely too far from the organisation’s purpose (Figure 3). If this is the case, serious thought should be given to whether or not it is worth pursuing.

FIGURE (3) An example of a “five whys” process. A fundamental value was reached in three whys, meaning this project is a valid goal for the organisation to pursue

Managing “scope creep”

“Scope creep” refers to small incremental changes that “creep” into a project rather than the large-scale changes that need a complete rethink of the project plan. Although often minor changes, scope creeps can add up to a serious impact on the project, so they need to be addressed. They can cause overloaded work schedules, confusion or frustration among the project team, increased costs and delayed completion. Good management is, therefore, critical.

Although often minor changes, scope creeps can add up to a serious impact on the project, so they need to be addressed

1. Clarity is key

Of course, the best management technique is to avoid scope creep in the first place! Good, clear communication is fundamental to keeping a project on track – if a task is vague or unclear, scope creep is much more likely. Unclear expectations are open to interpretation, meaning that an output might not be as expected, and vague boundaries mean team members might spend too much or too little time on a particular element. 

2. Too many cooks?

Scope creep can occur when too many people are involved – or want to be involved – in the project! Even with small-scale projects, if you have to wait for approval from several different (very busy) people before you can move on, or if you need a group of people to agree on something, the schedule will slide. Try to ensure that approval processes are streamlined and limited to those with a direct interest in the project. Using project management methodologies, like the Agile methodology, will help with this.

3. People-pleasing

As project managers, we naturally want our clients, sponsors and end users to be happy with the outcomes of the projects we run. However, by doing so, we run the risk of saying “yes” to additional requirements or demands without proper consideration of the project plan. If additions or alterations are requested, ensure that their impact is properly assessed and understood by all parties before reaching an agreement. Saying “Yes, but we will need another two weeks to incorporate this” or “Yes, but we will need to add an additional marketing person to the project team at a cost of…” will ensure that the requester is clear about the impact their decision will have.

4. Circumventing

A deliberate request for a change in project scope can sometimes be made directly to a team member rather than a manager – asking someone to “just include ‘x’” or “can you add ‘x’?” for example. Depending on the relationship and power balance between the two individuals, it can be very difficult for the team member to say no. Ensure that everyone on the team is empowered to respond to requests with a polite but firm request to take the additional demand to the project manager.

Ensure that everyone on the team is empowered to respond to requests with a polite but firm request to take the additional demand to the project manager

5. “Gold-plating”

Gold-plating is the process of adding features that seem interesting or valuable but were not in the original plan. Ensure all changes (and their associated costs) are cleared with all stakeholders prior to accepting any suggestions to gold-plate the project. While you want to foster a culture of creativity and innovation, this is usually confined to the planning stages, where ideas can be submitted for what the output will look like and how it will be achieved. You will need to decide where this balance sits for your project.

Communicating change

With even the best intentions and plans, all projects will naturally evolve. As a project manager, it’s your job to keep on top of these changes and make sure everyone is on board. But what can you do?

  1. Define the change. Establish the exact change that is needed/being requested and agree to it with everyone involved (including the project sponsor and project client, if you have them) in writing. This will ensure that everyone understands the nature and need for change
  2. Assess the impact. This might be just a quick check-in with one or two people, or it might require a new feasibility study
  3. Update the project plan. Account for any changes in outcomes, budget, time, risk, personnel and other resources required
  4. Communicate the updates. Ensure everyone is completely clear about any changes to their allocated work and expectations

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