Happy International Project Management Day, everyone! Today’s a great day to give a project manager a high five. You may even want to thank them for managing scope so you don’t have to! Let me tell you why.

Scope management lies at the very foundation of every project that has ever existed. The scope defines the what, when, where, why, and how of any project. Continuing our analogy of project management and the spaghetti dinner, the scope defines what success looks like and what work and resources are allowed to go into it. Some scopes are incredibly detailed, some are not, but it is the project manager’s responsibility to make sure that any work going in delivers on the definition of success.

It reminds me of the story of Air New Zealand flight 901. In 1979, flight 901 crashed in the side of Mt. Erebus in Antarctica. It was a tragic event that that was the result of a few failures, including the failure to communicate a known error to the flight plan 19 days before that fateful day, as well as a minor modification to the flight coordinates by only two degrees the night before. The two-degree change put them off course by approximately 28 miles. When the pilots descended lower over Ross Island, the white of the snow blended with the white of the clouds making it look as if they were above flat ground, when, in fact, the ground was rapidly rising toward them. They had no idea they were approaching a 12,000-foot mountain. By the time the low altitude warning signals alerted the pilots, it was too late, and all 257 passengers lost their lives.

While this tragedy might be an extreme example when talking about project management, it is an important reminder of how a small change in scope, and a failure to communicate, can have a severe impact on the end goal if it’s not identified, controlled, and more importantly, communicated in a timely manner.

In the real world, scope changes are inevitable and can be expected during the life cycles of most projects. Scope changes stem from multiple factors, including loose definitions of what is to be accomplished during the initial planning, not really knowing what the targeted goal is, or knowing the target but not understanding the components to get there. Once a project is kicked off, making these decisions along the way will alter the course of the project and make it difficult to stay on course.

Here are four things to keep in mind while managing the scope of your projects:


Many projects start off with a specific goal or outcome in mind and by the time the project is “closed,” the course of direction has morphed into something completely different. Having a purpose provides motivation, and motivation produces results.

Large projects that span several months to several years suffer from motivation because the purpose gets obscured and people lose motivation. Burnout and high turnover can plague a project’s success and wreak havoc on schedule and budget. It is important to take time out to step back and reinforce the sense of purpose to keep everyone’s focus tuned into the reason why they are engaged in the project in the first place.


Project success or failure is determined by countless factors, many of which lie outside of the project manager’s control. There’s nothing we can do about those, so it’s best to stop fretting about outside influences and focus on what we can control. This control takes discipline because saying “no” can be difficult and we don’t want to let anyone down.

When a request comes in to add a small task to a packed schedule, as the project manager it is in everyone’s best interest to protect the scope, schedule, budget, and team members from disruptions that could derail progress.


IT projects in particular suffer from the dreaded “scope creep” as new and better technology is always being released. Stakeholders want to take advantage of faster networks, bigger storage, and better virtualization. This makes managing scope very difficult because everyone wins from enhanced infrastructure, but at what cost?

Adding agility to project management means to plan for what you know, and allowing room for what you don’t. Agility is important when there is a level of uncertainty going into a project.

There are specific methodologies for implementing agile project management that are too detailed to be discussed here, but the essential practice is to break the end deliverables into smaller scale phases or iterations lasting from two weeks to no more than a month. The work to be accomplished in those iterations is firm and unchangeable, and work is reviewed at the end of the phase. At that point, changes can be introduced for the next phase. This practice allows for much easier control.


The importance of communication is something we talk about a lot. Scope management relies 100% on the objectives, changes, and risks to be effectively communicated. Like the tragedy of the New Zealand flight, great intentions can have catastrophic consequences if not communicated effectively.

Projects can fail because of they lack these keys to scope management. Defining the sense of purpose, protecting the project plan, being agile in scheduling, and communicating constantly can ensure that all projects see their goals reached and stakeholders satisfied.

Be sure to check back here regularly for the next installment in our series, 5 Keys to a Successful Project: Time Management.

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