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Project scope: Black & white or Shades of grey?

By 17/01/2017October 28th, 2019 No Comments

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According to established project management theory, one of the most important aspects of running a successful project is a clear and well-understood scope (ideally documented somewhere). Normally it’s up to the Project Manager to truly establish and define what the scope of the project is (especially seeing as you’re the one going to be managing it!).

So capturing the specifics and writing them down is something we all need to be good at, don’t we?

Well, not necessarily. In fact, what I strongly suspect you need as a Digital Project Manager is a loose enough scope to be able to give you some room to maneuver and adapt as the project progresses.

So, why might a grey project scope be better than a black and white one?

Because even if you think it’s black and white, it might not be to your client

If you write the scope in ‘agency-speak’ (which unfortunately is often unavoidable with digital projects), then there’s a good chance your client won’t necessarily understand the nuances and the finer points.

e.g. ‘The design phase will consist of 3-page templates delivered as Sketch files and will include 2 rounds of amends – 4 days’

That sounds pretty clear doesn’t it? Except there are a couple of issues: what is a ‘page template’ anyway? Is it a layout or a page type and does it have to have the final content in it? You’ve said you’ll do 2 rounds of amends but on what? And what happens if the client still doesn’t agree that the design has met the brief when you deliver the finished files after 2 iterations of incorporating feedback?

Because clients don’t always read the scope

Just because you’ve gone to the trouble of documenting the scope doesn’t necessarily mean that your client (or their important and highly-paid stakeholders) will have, or take the time to, read and understand it. And if someone doesn’t understand the scope then it’s very likely that you will have conversations that start like this: “Well, I assumed that…”

That said, documenting the scope isn’t a waste of time even if may not have been read by the key people. Just the process of writing it down helps the PM understand the project better and ensures that you know when something is or isn’t done.

Because a scope isn’t a contract

Unless you’ve got a law degree it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to document a scope that will stand up if it comes to a legal fight. Ultimately if the project goes wrong and the relationship deteriorates you might find the scope is less clear than you actually thought…

Because you might need to be able to ‘interpret’ the scope later in the project

Having the scope too specific (especially when it comes to deliverables) may make it hard to ‘interpret’ it if you need to for whatever reason e.g. if you find that you need to deliver something in a different way to protect the overall budget because a previous element of the project has over-run.

I once got accused of ‘Creatively adjusting’ a project plan during a weekly status update. In fact, all I’d done was add a couple of new tasks and reword something now that I knew the details of what it was. Because the level of trust between the two parties in the project was so low at that point it rapidly became an issue. Imagine if I’d ‘Creatively adjusted’ something in the scope with this client! However, if I had left something open to interpretation then I could have chosen to interpret the scope (within reason) in a way that benefitted the delivery of the project.

Because projects ALWAYS change

As a Digital Project Manager you’ll know this. It doesn’t matter how short or long or simple or complex a project appears from the start there will always be things that crop up as the project progresses – unless you’re fortunate to have clients that accept everything you produce and stakeholders than don’t have any opinions or agendas.

Is a greyer scope the way forward?

I’d like to suggest that if you strategically leave some room for the scope to be interpreted then it can lead to:

  • Positive discussions between the agency and the client about what’s meant and what’s really required or important
  • A shared understanding of how the scope relates to the project’s overall objectives
  • Better project karma because of the conversations you’ll have
  • Opportunities to educate and inform the client when it comes to areas they’re less familiar with

In terms of how best to persuade a client or stakeholder that a looser scope might be appropriate, I think it very much depends on what role they fulfill within their organization and the strength and longevity of the relationship between your two organizations.

If they’re also a Project Manager it’s likely they’ll instinctively want a well-defined scope because then they’ll be able to easily track the status of the project and understand what’s ‘done’. However, if they’re an experienced PM then the chances are they’ll have seen projects evolve and shift and be open to the idea that a more flexible might have benefits for both parties.

For non-PMs such as Marketing Managers, in my experience, you’ll probably have less of a problem. For someone driven by results or ROI then what they need is certainty of outcome and I think there’s a good case for arguing that some degree of flexibility is essential here (after all, how many projects can you honestly say have never had any new requirements or information come in part way through). If the scope is geared around the activities you’re going to do rather than the things you’re going to deliver then it’s probably also an easier sell.

Ultimately, the most important thing about documenting a scope is about setting a baseline of understanding and generating a level of trust. That trust may already be in place if there’s an existing relationship or it may need to be earned as the project progresses. Without a level of trust running the project becomes much more difficult proposition and that’s why communication and discussion around the project and it’s scope is so essential. Whilst it’s important that the Project Manager retains ‘control’ of the project we also have to recognize that it’s about delivering a successful outcome for all. Often the experience of working together is as important for the future of the relationship between the two parties as the product or service that’s produced.

Moving to a less black and white scope can, and will, require skill and a degree of cooperation that will take time to get right. But there are a number of potential benefits. And best of all, you might even find that your agency-client relationship is stronger than you thought.

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Ian May

Ian May

Ian has been working in Digital for nearly 20 years. He's been a Developer, a Designer and a Project Manager but now he advises agencies and teams on how to solve their project management problems and grow their organisations. He hangs out in all the usual places: Twitter, Slack and occasionally Oxford.

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