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Libby Marks

How to Define a Project Scope in 6 Simple Steps: A Guide

Your step-by-step guide to successfully scoping projects. Become an expert in this underestimated project management essential.

According to the PMI, 34% of projects experience scope creep - the insidious addition of out-of-scope activities that threatens profit margins, project success, and client satisfaction.

One way to prevent and control scope creep is to have a well-defined project scope to start with. 

A project scope is an essential step in project planning, resource scheduling, and change management. 

And yet - in the rush to deliver projects and realize revenue - many PM professionals neglect to create one.

Here’s how to create a cast-iron project scope to control the creep, align expectations with reality, and reduce risk to your projects. 

What is project scope? Project scope definition

A project scope is a bit like the moat around a castle. It contains everything that matters - and keeps unwelcome intruders out. As a project manager, you’re in charge of building the moat and operating the drawbridge. You get to decide what’s included and what’s kept out. 

In project management speak, your project scope describes the specific objectives, deliverables, costs, constraints, and assumptions associated with a project. You achieve your project scope by consulting with all relevant stakeholders in a project. And you document it in a project scope statement, which details exactly what the project will deliver. 

Once your scope is defined, you use it to monitor the progress of your project and protect it against pitfalls like scope creep, deviation, and ad hoc changes. It’s also a helpful foundation for creating your project roadmap, resource scheduling, and more. 

Three project scope terms to understand before we start

As we go through this article, you’ll see the following terms a lot. Here’s what we mean by them.

Scope creep

Scope creep is the gradual addition of project deliverables or features, beyond what you initially agreed. It occurs when changes are introduced without proper approval or consideration of their impact on project resources and budget. 

Scope creep occurs without you realizing it - especially without a defined project scope. A tweak here. A favor there. Each change is small - but they add up.

Scope creep causes projects to go overbudget, overschedule, or fail altogether. It also risks project delays, resources being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and deviation from a project’s original objective.

Some leading causes of scope creep include lack of clarity, poorly defined initial requirements, and unmanaged direct contact between clients and team members. So be alert. 

But remember, scope creep doesn’t just come from outside. Internal scope creep can happen when dedicated project teams push too hard for perfection and go above and beyond the agreed plan. 

Project scope statement

A project scope statement is a written document that describes the scope of the project. Project managers create this document in consultation with the project stakeholders - including the client, your project delivery team, any funders, etc. 

It outlines project acceptance criteria (the basis on which the client will accept and sign-off the project), as well as project aims, deliverables, and constraints. The project scope statement is the foundation of your project success - ensuring clarity and transparency while establishing boundaries. 


After you’ve defined your project scope - and written your project scope statement - you can confidently say whether an activity is in-scope or out-of-scope. Clearly defining what is in and out-of-scope helps prevent misunderstandings and scope creep. It’s the foundation stone of effective project management.

  • In-scope - Project deliverables, tasks, or objectives that the team is committed to completing as part of the agreed scope - within the agreed project budget and schedule.
  • Out-of-scope - Anything that is not in the agreed scope of the project. Tasks that are not part of the project's defined boundaries and will not be addressed within the current scope of work.

Why is defining project scope SO important?

What if we told you that there’s something that can make your life as a project manager a whole lot easier, help you deliver on time and budget more often, and keep your stakeholders super happy.

That’s exactly what properly establishing a project’s scope can do. 

By accurately setting out expectations from your project from the get-go - and clearly communicating that with stakeholders - you’ll lay the foundations of project success. 

Here’s why establishing the scope of a project isn’t just important, it’s essential. 

Planning is more precise 

Projects can be nebulous at the start. People kinda know what they want but they’re not always great on the details. Maybe this, maybe that…oh, that could be good too. This lack of clarity can undermine your project plan - setting you up to fail before you’re even off the ground. 

Defining your project scope makes sure you’ve got the details pinned down. It forces stakeholders to think about what they really want. Then you, as project manager, can create an accurate project schedule to deliver that - establishing a realistic schedule, budget, and project roadmap.

Execution is easier 

A project scope creates clarity. Not just at the planning stage but execution too. A clearly outlined scope ensures all team members understand their responsibilities and tasks, which reduces the risk of confusion or clashes during project execution.

A scope statement - and change control process - also makes project implementation faster and easier. That's because ad hoc requests can be pushed back confidently. And any out-of-scope work can be appropriately budgeted and staffed. So you’re less likely to fall behind or experience project failure due to scope creep.

Resources are optimized 

To hit that Goldilocks resourcing spot - you know the one, not too many resources that you’re overspending, not so few you’re underdelivering - you need to know what lies ahead. Project scope can be the basis of your resource management plan - helping you begin planning tasks and accurately scheduling people, which supports resource optimization.

Plus, knowing what’s out-of-scope helps you say no to ad hoc requests that could push your team over the edge. Keeping a project in scope is essential for preventing burnout, bottlenecks, and budget problems.

Expectations are managed

No one wants to disappoint a client. But if the client is expecting something you never planned to deliver…? It’s guaranteed. In fact, it's one of the major project management challenges 🙈 That’s why you need to manage expectations with a clear project scope. 

Co-creating a project scope with your client - and any other stakeholders - is good practice. Getting them engaged helps you understand their priorities and objectives, which leads to better results. 

Plus, a project scope defines what a client can and can’t expect from the project. It eliminates unhelpful assumptions on the client side of the table. And it also ensures everyone on your side knows exactly what’s expected.

And so are changes

Even with expectations clearly defined, client needs can change. It could be that everyone sits around a table and comes to you with a major change. Or it could be a slow drip of small changes from different client contacts, that end up as a deluge of work.

Having a project scope lets you assess which changes are in scope and which aren’t. This doesn’t mean you refuse to make the change. It just means you can make the case for more money, resources, or both. 

How to define project scope: Step-by-step

Step 1. Understand project objectives

Your path to project scope success starts by understanding the project’s goals and objectives. And not just having a fairly good grasp on them. By gaining a comprehensive understanding of exactly what the client - and project - need to achieve. To do this, you’ll need to clarify the purpose and desired outcomes with any stakeholders. This takes us sideways to our next step…identifying who those stakeholders are.

Step 2. Identify project stakeholders

Compile a list of key stakeholders involved in - or affected by - the project. The obvious ones are the clients, the delivery team, and senior management. But there could be more. For example, is the project being externally funded? Does the client have partners that are also invested in the project’s success? You need to get input from all stakeholders to accurately define a project scope. 

Step 3. Conduct meetings and/or workshops 

Put the kettle on and bring out the biscuits, it’s time for a kickoff meeting. A kickoff meeting brings relevant stakeholders together to officially launch the project and get the ball rolling. This is your chance to start understanding project goals and stakeholder expectations. 

If you have a large, complex, multi-stakeholder project, you may need more than one meeting. In fact, you might need to run workshops to complete this phase. Workshops can help identify potential project components, risks, and constraints, leading to a more thorough requirements analysis and understanding.

Step 4. Create a project scope statement

After your stakeholder meetings, you should have a good idea of the project scope. It’s time to document it. Develop a project scope statement that includes project deliverables, objectives, constraints, assumptions, acceptance criteria, and any other relevant information. 

This project scope document serves as a reference point for all project stakeholders - and provides a clear overview of the project’s boundaries. It’ll help you with scope management in the future. So although it seems like a time-sink now, it could be a major time-saver when it helps you push back against out-of-scope additions.

Within your project scope, consider including a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). This hierarchical chart visualizes tasks and deliverables, providing a detailed understanding of what the project actually entails. Also, take time to define in-scope and out-of-scope elements. Clearly explain what isn’t included in the project, to avoid misapprehensions and assumptions further down the line. 

Step 5: Communicate to stakeholders

Share the project scope statement with all stakeholders. Don’t just attach it to an email. Consider having a meeting to discuss your scope and ensure everyone has the chance to ask questions or submit amends. 

Make sure everyone knows what to do if something arises that is out-of-scope. 

For example,

  • Clients need to know what the change management process is and who to contact
  • Team members need to know how to log and process change requests if they receive them

Step 6. Monitor and manage project scope

Equipped with a clearly articulated project scope statement, you’re in a great position for managing project scope throughout the project lifecycle

Reviewing the project against the agreed scope - and schedule and budget - to make sure no scope creep or deviation is happening. 

Regularly review the project scope with stakeholders and the project team, so you can make any adjustments that might be needed as the project evolves - see below. 

Project scoping best practices

Now you know basic project scoping how-to info, let’s raise the bar. Here are six project scoping best practices to help you become a project scope master, controlling creep and delivering enviably on-target projects. 

Define your project scope from the get-go

Hopefully, it’s clear that you need to define the project scope straight away. This isn’t a job you can defer until you’ve got things started - even if you and your clients are desperate to dive into the work. 

Establishing a project’s scope is one of the very first things you need to do, if you want to avoid pitfalls later in your project. Like scope creep, schedule slips, sub-par resource utilization rates, and unhappy clients.

Involve stakeholders in project scoping

You know the old saying - when we assume, we make an ass of you and me. Don’t do it alone when it comes to defining project scope. You need to engage your stakeholders from the very start. 

Only your client knows what they want. Only your team knows what they can realistically deliver. Getting these people involved and agreeing on the project scope is going to make the project more realistic, achievable, and ultimately successful. 

This collaborative approach enhances the accuracy of scope definition, aligns expectations with reality, and creates a sense of ownership and agreement between all parties. 

Use the right techniques and tools

Project managers have so many tools and techniques at their disposal. It can be hard to know what’s the right approach. Some useful tools for scope definition and project scheduling include:

  • A thorough requirement analysis to establish needs and expectations (see below)
  • A Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) to capture the necessary components of the project
  • A project roadmap - once you’ve nailed down your scope
  • A milestone chart to establish and monitor key checkpoints in the project 
  • A formal change control process for considering out-of-scope activities
  • Appropriate project and resource management tools - and we don’t mean spreadsheets 

Engage in scope management 

Just defining project scope and writing your project scope statement isn’t enough. Throughout the project lifecycle, you should check you’re sticking to scope - this is called scope management. Regular scope reviews help you to identify deviations, address issues promptly, and make considered decisions about any adjustments. 

Your project scope statement is one of your arsenal of tools available to track project progress, monitor any issues, and correct your course if you’re straying. This keeps your projects on budget and schedule, meaning better margins, happy clients, and a positive reputation. 

Say no to scope creep

This is a non-negotiable. So it’s time to pull up those big-girl or big-boy pants and stand your ground. If scope creep is happening, here’s how to take back control. 

  • Ask for intel - Your team should be aware of what’s in and out-of-scope and know how to deal with out-of-scope requests. Ask them to flag potential creep ASAP.
  • Assess the creep - Record any scope changes and clearly outline how they have impacted - or will impact - timelines, resources, budget, and ability to meet original objectives. 
  • Discuss with stakeholders - Communicate your concerns with stakeholders. Explain the implications of any proposed out-of-scope activities. How do they want to proceed? 
  • Formalize the change - Get formal approval for the scope changes from the project sponsor, PMO, or whoever else is responsible for change management - so everyone is on board.
  • Adjust the plan - Update all plans to reflect the approved changes. Adjust timelines, resources, project budget, etc. 
  • Communicate the change - Ensure that the project team is aware of the modifications and understands the new expectations. Update and circulate any relevant documentation - like the project roadmap. 
  • Learn and improve - Conduct a post-project review to understand the cause of scope creep and improve processes for future projects. 

Prioritize power skills

This one is for the senior leaders. Want to avoid scope creep? Invest in power skills. According to the Project Management Institute’s recent Pulse of the Profession report,‘ organizations that do not place a high priority on power skills are at a higher risk for projects that do not meet business goals, that experience scope creep and that lose more budget if the project fails.’ Serious stuff.

So what are these power skills? Communication, problem-solving, collaborative leadership, and strategic thinking.

‘When power skills are an organizational priority — communicated clearly by leadership and reinforced through professional development offerings and individual and team assessments — organizations can expect better project performance.’

Spot - and stop - scope creep with Runn

Using a resource management tool like Runn can help you keep projects on track - with intuitive tools for timeline, project, and people management. 

  • Confidently plan projects and build roadmaps fast
  • Monitor progress against schedule and budget
  • Track KPIs like utilization rate and schedule variance
  • Allocate and optimize resources 
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