project scope

Project scope is the part of project planning that involves determining and documenting a list of specific project goals, deliverables, tasks, costs and deadlines. The documentation of a project's scope, which is called a scope statement or terms of reference, explains the boundaries of the project, establishes responsibilities for each team member and sets up procedures for how completed work will be verified and approved.

During the project, this documentation helps the project team remain focused and on task. The scope statement also provides the team with guidelines for making decisions about change requests during the project. Note that a project's scope statement should not be confused with its charter; a project's charter simply documents that the project exists.

Large projects naturally tend to change as they progress. If a project has been effectively "scoped" at the beginning, then managing these changes will be easier. When documenting a project's scope, stakeholders should be as specific as possible to avoid scope creep, a situation in which one or more parts of a project end up requiring more work, time or effort because of poor planning or miscommunication.

Effective scope management requires good communication to ensure that everyone on the team understands the extent of the project and agrees upon exactly how the project's goals will be met. As part of project scope management, the team leader should solicit approvals and sign-offs from the various stakeholders as the project proceeds, ensuring that the proposed finished project meets everyone's needs.

The importance of defining a project's scope

Here are the benefits a project scope statement provides to any organization undertaking a new initiative. It:

  • articulates what the project entails so that all stakeholders can understand what's involved;
  • provides a roadmap that managers can use to assign tasks, schedule work and budget appropriately;
  • helps focus team members on common objectives; and
  • prevents projects, particularly complex ones, from expanding beyond the established vision.

Project managers generally find that establishing project scope ensures projects are focused and executed to expectations. The scope provides a strong foundation for managing a project as it moves forward and helps ensure that resources aren't diverted or wasted on out-of-scope elements.

How to define the scope of a project

Defining project scope requires input from the project stakeholders, who together with project managers establish the key elements of budget, objectives, quality and timeline. To determine a project scope, project managers must collect requirements for what the stakeholders need from the project -- this includes the project's objective or the project's deliverables, when the project needs to be completed, and how much they can pay for it. The goal is to gather and record precise and accurate information during this process, so that the project scope effectively reflects all requirements and thus improves the chances for project leaders to deliver products that meet stakeholder expectations on time and on budget.

How project scope fits into an IT project proposal
See how a project's scope fits into an overall project proposal.

Writing a project scope statement

A project scope statement is a written document that includes all the required information for producing the project deliverables. The project scope statement is more detailed than a statement of work; it helps the project team remain focused and on task. The scope statement also provides the project team leader or facilitator with guidelines for making decisions about change requests during the project.

The project scope statement also establishes what is not included in its initiatives, either implicitly or explicitly. Objectives and tasks not listed in the project scope statement should be considered out of scope. Project managers can also list specific work that will not be part of the project.

As such, this statement establishes the boundaries of each specific project. Project leaders need to take those requirements and map out what should happen and in what order those items need to occur. This generally leads to the creation of a work breakdown structure (WBS). As the name states, the work breakdown structure breaks down the totality of planned work into smaller portions and required tasks.

A well-articulated scope statement is considered a critical part of effective project management; project scope should be determined for every project, regardless of what project management methodology is used. Stakeholders for the project should have the opportunity to review the project scope statement, revise it as necessary and then approve it.

Once the project scope statement is completed and approved, project managers can effectively assign tasks and give their teams directions on what they each need to do to meet the target timelines and costs.

Scope management and planning

Project managers should anticipate the need for updates and changes as projects progress, carefully control what changes are made to the established project scope and document all changes made during the process. This requires strong project management skills. It also requires project managers and stakeholders to adhere to the project scope statement by recognizing what pieces are within the project scope and what requests are out of scope.

Project managers should rely on change management processes that determine how such requests should be evaluated while considering updates and alterations to the project. The ability to distinguish between which requests are truly needed and which are out of scope allows organizations to avoid scope creep. Scope creep happens when more and more work is tacked onto projects as they're underway. Scope creep frequently adds extra costs and unnecessary work while distracting from the objectives and threatening the quality of the intended deliverables.

Project scope vs. product scope

Project scope should not be confused with product scope. Product scope defines the capabilities, characteristics, features and functions of the end result of the project. Project leaders should create a product scope statement and they should use both the project scope and the product scope statements to support each other and establish for their organizations a clear understanding of what every project aims to achieve.

This was last updated in April 2020

Continue Reading About project scope

Dig Deeper on Enterprise ITIL and ITSM

Join the conversation


Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.

Well explained.
What is the hardest part of defining a project's scope?
I always create project scopes based on the mid-term goals I have. Measuring for a long-term success with a pre-determined project scope is never possible. We always have great intentions, but forecasts do not always stand. For example, the Forex market can have a detrimental effect to our bottom line, and also have an influence on how accurate our project scope may be...this is why we focus on working towards a quality mid-term growth.
I am not a project manager but as part of a development team, I participate in project planning.

I agree with Steph that defining scope for a long-term project is nearly impossible. Frequent re-evaluation during the project is necessary, and a simple measurement like a burn-down chart helps give everyone a visual indication of the progress. 

Priorities will usually be constantly changing during a project. That's ok, but project managers and stakeholders need to keep in mind that while priorities are changing, either the project scope or the project end date must be flexible. 
When project is very lengthy, I think the unforeseen risk factor can affect the scope.
Work Breakdown Structure is Margaret the hardest part. To divide the Work.
Whenever I see a project that is slated to run over the course of a long period (read, a year or more) i cringe, because I realize just about any scope definition we provide will be meaningless within the next three to six months. Yes, I get that an overall picture needs toe be developed, but I'd be happier and feel more confident with a series of smaller projects and more focused scopes that ultimately add up to a larger but more deliberately blurry target. That allows for teams to adapt and learn along the way, and in the process adjust their target, which may well have moved in the interim.
Creating the WBS must be the hardest part, yet also the most critical (in my opinion).
You see, to come up with detailed WBS, the team need to be able to visualize the final outcome of the project all the components that make it up. This is a challenge when you have nothing to go by except the requirement definition from stakeholders.
That said however, once the WBS is created successfully and accurately, then the rest of the planning becomes relatively straight forward.
A project scope is an end-product of a project planning phase and it is being determined by listing and clarifying the limitations of the following inputs: Project goals & objectives, deliverables, budget and costs, risks assessments, constraints.
How can we define scope of software project management?
Regarding the project life-cycle, identify and describe each phase in the product life-cycle and why it matters to the development of the product?
Every project has its own stakeholders hence there are mechanisms to manage such stakeholders, outline the process that is involved in stakeholder management...