I was having a glass of wine with a girlfriend last week and we got to talking about the holidays. She and her husband are talking about a trip sometime after Thanksgiving. Their kids aren’t coming home for Christmas and so, they were discussing a trip before the weather gets too bad. They want to celebrate New Year’s Eve in NYC and watch the ball drop.
As we got to talking, it became clear that her options were almost unlimited, as her work and financial situation allows both of them a lot of flexibility. So, should they just drive to NYC, or should they plan a cool trip on the way up?
Her situation is not too different from any business project. The boss comes in and says that the company wants to open a new retail location, completely rebuild the website, develop a new product launch, invest in a new customer relationship management tool, revise the employee handbook, or create a new advertising campaign. It doesn’t matter. They all sound like projects. The question is, where do you begin?
Starting a project wisely is the key to success. And yet, so few folks stop and really think through the project. They start listing things they need to do. They might use Excel, Trello, or Microsoft Project. The project management geeks might even build a Gantt chart.
In an earlier blog on how to start smart, I outlined the six steps to starting a project. The first step was to define the overall objectives so your team is energized, excited, and empowered. In this blog, I want to dig into that first step and offer some ways to get clarity on project scope.
For the non-project managers, project scope is what you plan to do in your project. Project scope is a bit different from product scope, which is a more detailed documentation of the features of your product or service. In an IT world, it might take the form of a requirements document.
Ultimately, you will need to understand both your product and project scope but getting there will be very different when dealing with a lot of unpredictability, ambiguity, confusion, or chaos.
Project scope starts with your objectives. What are you trying to accomplish? Why are you doing this project? What benefits do you plan to realize from the project? Regardless of the level of predictability or ambiguity, I argue that you should know the answers to those questions before you go gangbusters.
I’ll go a step farther and suggest that you not only need to understand what you are going to do, but also, what you are NOT going to do. Sometimes figuring out what you are not going to do is the easier place to start.
Start with what you are NOT going to do.
When the sky is the limit, so to speak, you need some boundaries. In the NYC trip idea, scope inclusions might include things like:
- We’re not going to include any visits with our kids. It’s too complicated.
- We’re not going to do an elaborate road trip in the northeast, because weather problems will likely result in us having to change our plans too much.
- We’re not going to fly anywhere. The airports are too crowded during the holidays.
As you pursue discussions, you might revisit the idea of visiting with the kids. This effort to find project scope clarity can be rather circular. OR, you might begin thinking about a train trip? The sky might be the limit, but you can begin to develop project scope clarity by ruling out things that you aren’t going to do.
Then, ask yourself why you want to do this project.
Normally, I suggest that teams start with the why, but I’ve gotten a lot of blank looks over the years when I’ve asked that question. Starting with scope exclusions is a way of easing a team into these discussions.
In the case of the couple, do they want to do this trip to have fun, create some romance, see friends or family, explore some new destinations, try some new foods, or hear some new music? Understanding your why will drive your discussions down very specific paths, which will make it easier to develop project scope clarity.
The same is true if you are talking about a business project. Take for example, a project to open a new retail location. Do you want to do that to serve a new geographic market, replace an existing location, introduce a new product line to a demographic you don’t currently serve, or provide some new administrative offices in a new location? Is this move being driven by declining sales or increasing sales? Are you worried about competition with a particular company? Are you finding it hard to attract good staff?
Understanding why you are doing a project is critical, and there is no way to do that without asking. Don’t assume you know why or think it is so obvious that you need not ask.
Don’t focus on the how yet.
As you begin to plan a project, the many things you need to do will jump into your brain with great frequency. Yes, you can record those thoughts. But I’d challenge you to keep your focus on the what and not the how.
If you are working on opening a retail location – what kind of location do you want? What geographic area should it be in? Will other offices be included in that location?
If we are thinking back on that NYC trip, what kind of trip are you talking about doing? How long do you want to be gone? What’s important to you, as a couple? Do you want to be on the run the entire time, or relaxing for longer at each stop?
Get clarity on the what before you spend time on the how to avoid wasted time.
Document your scope.
As you begin to identify your why, and your scope exclusions, it should be easier to come to some kind of an agreement on what you are doing. Write it down in very clear language so that there is no ambiguity. Here are some ideas, though I don’t pretend that they are a final scope statement. These things often evolve as you continue your discussions.
We will open a new retail location in the Minneapolis area with a square footage of about 10,000 feet. It should include about 250 parking spaces plus bike storage for about 25, and administrative offices for 50 people.
We will do a train trip that starts in Richmond, VA near the end of November and culminates in NYC on New Year’s Eve. Our stops will be in large cities, with a heavy Uber presence (so no rental cars) and at each stop, we plan to check out the food scene. We want to stay in most of the locations for about five days and will explore VRBO options in addition to suite hotels because we just want more space than a standard hotel offers.
Add a ‘So that…’ statement to your scope.
I love user stories. I think the IT world is on to something in the way they create user stories.
A user story is an Agile technique that is used to clarify scope. The basic format for a user story is this: As a ___, I want ___, so that ____. The phrase “so that” is very powerful. Try it out and see if it helps you.
Next week, I’ll will follow up with a blog on how to manage your project scope. The first step is to define your scope. In the meantime, if you need help, give me a call.