A DeLorean DMC car. This represents scope of project management
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What Is Scope in Project Management?

10.23.2023 • 9 min read

Bryan Hernandez


Learn about scope in project management. Read why it matters as well as a step-by-step guide for defining it.

In This Article

  1. What Is Project Scope?

  2. Why Is Defining a Project Scope Important?

  3. Project Scope Statement

  4. How Is Project Scope Defined?

  5. Learn More About Project and Business Management

If your friend asked you to go on a sea voyage anywhere you wanted, where would you go? Lisbon, San Juan, or perhaps Reykjavik? What would you bring to make sure you made it there safely—and comfortably? When would you leave and expect to get there? Is there any seasonal weather you need to consider to ensure smooth sailing?

These are all questions that scope in project management can answer. While you may not be leaving anytime soon for an overseas adventure. (If so, please invite us.) Chances are you’re more likely to coordinate the implementation of a new CRM software or even overhaul an outdated file processing system. (Still just as exciting, in our opinion.)

What Is Project Scope?

Scope in project management is a way to set the boundaries of your project and establish the goals, deliverables, and requirements ‌your team will be working towards.

You wouldn’t embark on a sea voyage without charting a course. The same is true for project scope. You wouldn’t begin a project without establishing project scope.

Project scope should not be confused with product scope. A project scope may include a product’s scope, but a product scope specifically illustrates the features that go into a product. A project plan can be more directly attributed to project scope.

When creating a product, a project scope dictates how a product is made. Although the difference can appear small, product scope and project scope are important to distinguish—this is the single best resource to help build a basic understanding of project management.

Scope is 1 of the 3 main constraints of any project:

  1. Scope

  2. Cost

  3. Time

Successful projects strike a delicate balance of these 3 constraints to control quality, price, and timeliness. Quality is always crucial, but we don’t want a deliverable that is too expensive or delivered too late. Similarly, we don’t want a poorly made deliverable.

The 3 constraints of project management are not unique to project management. Similar constraints can be found throughout the foundations of almost all business practices.

Why Is Defining a Project Scope Important?

The concept of project scope can feel restrictive, but it also provides clarity. When we feel tempted to change course, we can remind ourselves we agreed to a set schedule and destination.

You can find endless examples of poorly constructed project scope that caused projects to crash and burn. The DeLorean DMC-12 was a vehicle with a stainless steel body and gull-wing doors as made famous by the film, Back to the Future. The vehicle portrays a time-travel machine in the movie and spurred tremendous interest after the movie’s release. Unfortunately, the car failed to maintain momentum due to rampant production issues.

John DeLorean, the founder, insisted on keeping all manufacturing in-house, which accumulated significant overhead. He possessed very little business knowledge and almost entirely refused to discuss collaboration with business people. He also believed that the popularity created by Back to the Future was enough to carry sales, rather than lean on design consultants to explore market needs.

Establishing project scope and practicing scope management helps for 3 major reasons:

  1. Set expectations

  2. Reduce risk

  3. Reduce scope creep

In the DeLorean DMC-12’s case, a well-defined and maintained project scope would have helped the DeLorean manufacturing team set expectations for the manufacturing overhead. Market awareness and outsourced manufacturing could have been identified as needs during the scope definition process. When project scope is not defined or maintained, all stakeholders suffer.

Defining Stakeholders

Stakeholders represent anyone with some form of vested interest, or stake, in the project’s outcome. They can be internal—such as customers or the project team itself—or external, like suppliers, government entities, or even the general public.

Creating a project charter can ease external stakeholders’ minds. A project charter outlines the aims and benefits of a project plan. Stakeholders can reference the project charter throughout the project life cycle, like a marketing tool to justify the project.

Setting expectations with stakeholders through project scope ensures ‌all vested parties understand what the project aims to achieve and what the project will not achieve.

Now, you may be wondering why the project scope defines what the project won’t do. Let’s reference our ship’s course again. Our ship’s crew may be used to taking one of 2 different ships: an 1800’s-style clipper ship with huge sails or a modern cargo ship. Either ship will get us to our destination, but the voyage will prove to be much different.

In this example, our ship’s crew are our internal stakeholders, and our project scope dictates that we take the modern cargo ship. Our crew will likely be much happier that they won’t have to navigate sails or go without modern air conditioning.


Setting expectations also challenges assumptions that may be fairly easy to make due to lack of experience with part of the project. Let’s use the construction of a new public park as an example.

If a community surrounding the location of the new public park begins to become restless after 3 months of hearing construction noises, the community members may be relieved to know that the typical construction of a new public park takes 4 months. A well-communicated project plan can ease stakeholder concerns.

Establishing a clear project scope management plan can also reduce risk by reminding stakeholders—especially the project team—what the project aims to achieve and how the project should meet its objectives. Remember, a project is short term, so the limited amount of resources have to be used wisely. Failing to have a clear scope in project management can contribute to scope creep.

Scope Creep

Scope creep is the uncontrolled growth or change of a project’s scope, such as:

  • The addition of unexpected features

  • The client requesting multiple deliverables instead of just one

  • The end goal of the project changing

While the project scope may allow for a predetermined amount of change, the quantity of change must be controlled by the scope management plan in order to accommodate the other 2 core constraints of project management: cost and time.

The more features are added—i.e., the scope increases—the more that either the price or timeline of the project increases, or perhaps both.

Imagine going 1 degree off course when steering a ship. While 1 degree may not be much in the short-term, 60 miles of navigating just 1 degree off-course results in being a mile away from your intended destination.

The lesson is, small changes add up down the road. Effectively stating a clear scope in project management helps control the amount of change that must be dealt with later.

Establishing a project scope with stakeholders that have decision-making authority helps create a binding agreement among project members and the customer. If there is any deviation from the project scope, the customer can hold the project team accountable.

On the other hand, the project team can help ensure that they are not overworked or pressured to add project deliverables that were not originally agreed upon.

As mentioned before, scope creep can increase project scope at the expense of increasing cost and extending timelines. Maintaining project scope can help maintain a project’s costs within budget. If the customer agrees to a budget increase in order to accelerate a timeline or add features to the deliverables, increasing costs may not be a big deal. Otherwise, the project team has to shoulder the costs.

Project Scope Statement

A project scope statement, also referred to as a statement of work, openly establishes the boundaries of the project. The key components of a project scope statement include:

  • Project Scope Description

  • Project Justification

  • Project Objectives

  • Project Exclusions

  • Project Assumptions

  • Milestones

  • Deliverables

  • Cost Estimates

  • Constraints

Together, these components create a clear picture of how the project will be completed, what resources will be used, and what the deliverables should look like upon project completion. It’s the equivalent of choosing the right map for a voyage. It means the difference between arriving in Turkey or Vietnam.

How Is Project Scope Defined?

So, how do we scope a project? Now that we understand the importance of a defining project scope, it’s important to thoughtfully craft the scope of a project that will serve us well throughout the project. The process looks like this:

  1. Set goals and objectives

  2. Collect project requirements

  3. Make a resource plan

  4. Draft your scope statement

  5. Define deliverables

  6. Get approval from stakeholders

  7. Set a change control process

1. Goals and Objectives

This may seem like a straightforward step. We may say that we want to build a treehouse or deliver a shipment of artisan plant vases to Nicaragua and leave it at that. But we can maximize the use of the project scope statement by taking a few extra steps.

We should break down our objectives into the tasks necessary to complete the main deliverable. Then we should continue to segment our tasks into the smaller activities necessary to complete the tasks. Once we have finished, we have a visual representation called a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS).

Our WBS is a powerful tool we can use to:

  • Assign tasks and responsibilities to project team members

  • Define deadlines for each task to align with our ultimate timeline

  • Break down the costs associated with the project’s completion

2. Project Requirements

Once we create a WBS, we collect project requirements to make sure our deliverables match the customer’s needs in a validating process:

Identify stakeholders Interview stakeholders Gather and document requirements List assumptions and requirements Confirm requirements with stakeholders Prioritize requirements

Next, we create a resource plan to assign resources to our project. The plan must consider the 7 types of resources in project management—all of which are limited and must be used wisely:

services labor equipment materials money time space

3. Resource Plan

In creating our resource plan, we must consider which phase of the project each resource will be used in, as well as how long they’re needed. After all, resources that are allocated too early may result in unnecessary costs, and resources that are allocated too late may result in time delays.

4. Scope Statement

Let’s check in on where we are in defining our project scope. We’ve set goals and objectives, collected project requirements, and made a resource plan. Now we have enough information to draft our scope statement. Our inputs will dictate how helpful our project scope statement will be. Remember, our project scope statement illustrates the boundaries of our project.

5. Deliverables

After crafting our project scope statement, the project deliverables must be defined. This step can be a bit tricky, but it’s crucial for creating acceptance criteria. Sometimes the deliverables may be difficult to define, especially if the project is either conducted with limited institutional knowledge or if the deliverable is a unique product or service, such as creating a new customer relationship management system to fit the client’s specific needs. In these cases, the success of the deliverables is defined by what the deliverable achieves, or the project goals. Defining the deliverables may require recurring meetings with the customer. There may be some contingencies built into the project budget to allow for ongoing changes. We’ll discuss the change control process soon.

6. Approval From Stakeholders

Even though we have checked in several times with our project stakeholders throughout the scope definition process, we still need approval from our stakeholders of our project scope before we can kick off our project. This stage can vary, but it’s important to have buy-in from all stakeholders, especially our customers.

Securing buy-in from our stakeholders ensures that our project has the best chance of success by ensuring that the project needs are understood and accepted.

7. Change Control Process

Change happens. Even the most experienced crew has to correct course every now and then. Or perhaps they find an unexpected shipment has to be picked up mid-voyage.

Change must be controlled to either prevent or mitigate loss of time, resources, and quality of deliverables, especially during complex projects. Change control is integral to the project scope management process. An approval process must be created to approve change requests, such as changes from customer feedback. At times, reserve funds can be built into a project budget for changes that require use of extra resources.

Caution should be used not to deplete these extra resources in case more necessary changes come up. As such, changes should be approved by key stakeholders, such as project managers and the customer.

Learn More About Project and Business Management

Scope is just a fraction of the fascinating world of project management, which can be a rewarding career.

Effective project managers are flexible and organized, have effective communication skills, and receive enjoyment from a job well done. The average salary of a project manager in the United States is $87,410, according to Indeed.

Often, a project manager can find entry into the career field easier with a business degree, which provides financial, leadership, and team-building skills necessary to excel in project management.

And the Degrees+ program powered by Outlier.org is a convenient way to get your business degree online.

In just 19 months, you can earn your Associate of Arts in Business Administration from Golden Gate University, plus a professional certificate in Project Management from Google. All for half the cost of traditional college.

Whatever your career goals, make sure to keep a steady course and a well-defined scope.

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