Project Definition: Establishing Scope, Vision and Work Effort

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Image of dictionary page with the word 'idea' highlighted to remind one to provide a project definition.

In order to have any realistic shot at a successful project, (delivered on time and on budget) the overall vision and work effort must first be fully defined --- i.e. broken down into small, manageable and actionable parts.  This article provides a practical overview of the definition process, putting "project definition" into context and perspective.  Read on for more.

Consider the alternative. Taken as a whole, no project could ever be completed --- the task would just be too massive and undefined. For that reason, projects must be broken down into elements that translate "big picture" needs into actionable components that can be planned and constructed. The process of breaking a project down into manageable components is the most basic element of project management. Every successful project must begin with a clear specification of goals, requirements, deliverables and overall purpose. The reason for this is clear. In order for project work to be realized and meaningful results to be achieved, all stakeholders must be fully aware of what they are working towards, why it matters, and the expected results. This is the process of "project definition".

Getting Your Projects Fully Defined

During the definition stage, projects are “defined” in specific, actionable terms designed to make execution possible and to facilitate informed actions and decision making. Definition is essential to secure stakeholder buy-in and acceptance, to negotiate priorities and to ensure that proper expectations have been set regarding the work effort that lies ahead and the results to be produced.

While it can take over (30+) variables to fully define a project, at a minimum, viable project definitions should incorporate the following elements:

  • Project Vision: Every project should have a specific set of goals and associated benefits.... what are you trying to accomplish, and why? The right set of goals can ensure that your project suits a true business purpose, and it creates a common purpose.
  • Project Scope: Project scope is defined as the body of work (overall tasks, activities and decisions) that must be completed in order to ensure that project goals and deliverables are met. Scope should be clearly defined and limited to the work that must be done to meet the goals at hand.
  • Planned Deliverables: Project deliverables are defined by the tangible result or outcome of a given project, whether physical (hardware and/or software) or logical (performance improvements, policies and procedures, etc.).
  • Negotiated Success Criteria: Project success criteria are needed to establish consensus amongst project participants (managers, staff and end-users) as to the definition ofsuccess, establishing the terms for acceptance and minimizing the risk for false expectations. When defining success criteria, you need to consider all project elements ....results, process, budget and timeliness. Success is not one-dimensional, and you may be able to achieve "success", even if all project elements are not met to everyone's satisfaction.
  • Phases, Tasks and Activities: While your initial project definitions will establish "what you are trying to accomplish and why you are doing it", phases, tasks and activities will define what you need to do to get the job done.
What's the best benchmark and guide for getting your projects properly and fully defined?  Aside from having standardized definition guidelines, "past experience" is the best measure available.  That's why it's always smart to properly identify and record viable project lessons learned.
How to Fully Define a Working Project Scope  What is project scope?  It's the totality of the purpose, vision, and work effort for a given project.  Once it is defined and approved, project scope provides a working "template" by which projects are planned and executed.  To achieve successful results, project scope must be clearly stated in specific, measureable terms, ready for stakeholder negotiation, acceptance and approval.

Undefined Projects are Risky Projects

Undefined projects are risky projects, and this risk offers little reward.  When left undefined, the odds of missed requirements, lost opportunities, ineffective deliverables, unrealistic expectations and unhappy customers increase. Further, improperly defined projects open the door to wasted time, effort and money, and can cost the performing organization hard won credibility. Project definition, in and of itself, will not guarantee success, but it is an essential management step, and can serve as an insurance policy against these types of unforced errors.   (Also Read:  Analyzing Project Risk)

Stick to the 5 Keys of Definition Success

In order to realize all the expected benefits (and avoid the risks), standardized project definitions, for projects large or small, should adhere to the following five (5) production guidelines:

  1. Explicit. Project definitions should be stated in terms that are explicit and unambiguous, to clearly state requirements and establish shared expectations.
  2. Measureable. Project definitions should be stated in terms that can be measured, so that results can be tracked and quantified against established benchmarks.
  3. Relevant. Project definitions should be relevant and realistic, to ensure that results can be attained and are in synch with business needs.
  4. Timebound. Project definitions should be framed according to established deadlines for completion and progress measurement.
  5. Flexible. Project definitions should be sufficiently flexible and adaptable to provide the basis for approving required change and limiting unwarranted change.

As you can see, project definition is a complex process.  A defined project is a "picture" assembled from multiple puzzle pieces, organized to present a unique image suited to the project at hand.  Continue with the suggested content below to learn more.


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