What's In a Project Scope Document

Reviewing a project's scope
  Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

When you're kicking off a new initiative, the project scope document is a critical piece of information for your whole team. It defines the end product to be delivered to the customer, when it must be delivered, and at what cost.

Essentially, this document defines the boundaries of the work, so that each team member and the customer all understand what the project entails. Just as importantly, they understand what it does not entail.

The Benefits

A project scope statement once shared with every member of the team and the project's customers, is an integral part of project management. Among its benefits:

  • A common understanding among all involved of the expected features, quality, and timing of the project
  • A means of communicating with other stakeholders in the project to gain their support and involvement
  • A tool to focus the team's efforts on the work required to meet the customer's needs

Moreover, if changes are suggested that are beyond the boundaries of the original scope, the statement becomes the basis for estimating and proposing modifications. If the changes are accepted by all stakeholders, the scope statement can be revised. 

Getting Started

The project manager needs to seek input from team members, customers, the executive sponsor, and other key stakeholders to understand and describe the required output from the project initiative. This is often called the deliverable.

The description of the deliverable must include a cost or an acceptable cost range for the project. It also defines the key features to be included and the time-frame for delivery.

Once agreed upon by the customer, the project manager, the project team, and the executive sponsor, any changes to the project statement must be made using a carefully controlled and documented change process. 

A Cascading Impact

Once the scope statement or document has been agreed upon, each part of the team uses it as a basis for their own estimates of the work, timing, and costs involved. The more precise and accurate the scope statement, the more likely it is that the work teams will produce accurate estimates and resource requirements. 

Exclusions Can Be Important

It is not uncommon for a project scope document to list specific items that are to be excluded from the deliverable. For example, a contractor's scope document to build a house might stipulate that environmental permits are to be obtained by the owner and are not the responsibility of the contractor building the house.

What Can Go Wrong?

Lack of clarity is a common source of project stress and failure. A vague or ambiguous scope document leaves many issues open to debate and uninformed judgment calls. These can impact the features, quality, timing, and cost of the project. 

Another pitfall to avoid is known as "scope creep." If the scope statement is vague, the customer is tempted to make demands that are beyond the intent or boundaries of the original plans. 

Adjusting the Scope

While frequent scope changes will delay the completion of the project and may add significant costs, they are sometimes necessary and reasonable. Project managers rely on a "change management" process that identifies the requested change, revises all corresponding time, cost and workload estimates, and reassesses the project for new risks given the change.

The project manager and executive sponsor usually make the final decision on changing the scope only when the situation has been fully analyzed. Changes are documented in a decision log and then communicated to the larger project team.