Key Questions For Project Scope Definition

No matter how good the team or how efficient the methodology, if we’re not solving the right problem, the project fails.
 Woody Williams

Recently, I have been studying about the best ways to define the scope of Projects. In my experience, failure to adequately define scope is one of the reasons most Projects fail to meet performance expectations. I thought the exercise would be fairly straightforward, but I found it more difficult than expected. While there is any number of references on effective Project management, most articles I read suggest using commercial project management software, but glossed over the Project definition phase (other than to say it is critically important to get alignment on scope and deliverables).

So, I decided to take the lessons of everything I have been reading and develop my own set of Power Questions to ask when establishing a Project. I think I have covered the essence of what is required, but I encourage you to add to the list so it gets even more robust. I tried to identify questions I thought would be reasonable to ask and expect to get answers to.

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  1. Who is the targeted audience? I have often found misalignment on who is expected to either benefit from or deal with the outcome of a Project. Sometimes it is misalignment on the Management level the Project results are intended for. Obviously, the final presentation of a ittos Project will be “packaged” differently if senior management is the target than if the work team is the target. It isn’t a quality of work difference; it is a matter of the questions you’d need to address often being different.
  2. What is the expectation? Knowing how the outcome of a Project will be used often helps you better understand the level of risk that is acceptable in the final results. Also, knowing what the actual deliverable (report, presentation, tool, etc.) is will help you organize the activity stream to ensure it is realistic.
  3. What is the timeframe? It is important to understand what needs to be delivered when. Often, the Project you are working on feeds into a larger set of activities and failure to meet timelines will result in the larger initiative missing the completion date. Knowing the timeframe also helps inform your tactical choices. For example, tight timeframes make community input and alignment a real challenge.
  4. What is the budget? I know managers would like to believe that first you figure out the right way to complete a Project and then you establish an appropriate budget to do it the right way. But, in the real world that is rarely the case. Budget matters and you don’t want to move down a path that will be a budget buster guaranteeing failure. More often than not, budgets are constrained and you need to find the best approach within that constraint to get the Project completed.
  5. What must be covered? Defining the areas that must be addressed helps you think through the activities required. It also helps you avoid a situation where you did a great job on a Project, but it is judged less successful because you missed something Management was expecting. Teasing out the “must haves” up front is a great timesaver on the back-end, and helps ensure you deliver against all expectations.
  6. Who needs to be involved? This one is tough, because the answer typically ends up being a laundry list of people. If you met with each and every one of them, you will never complete the actual Project work. Winnowing this list down to something practical is a huge help. There should be a specific reason why somebody is on the list of people for you to involve. Each person adds a complexity to the completion of the Project, and your goal should be simplification.
  7. Who approves the final results? Identifying the decision maker is hard, because often Management hasn’t thought this question through thoroughly enough. If at all possible, the goal is to get down to one decision maker. I have been on so many Projects where the decision maker was not clearly identified, and the Team spent a lot of time spinning wheels when strategic choices had to be made. Obvious choices are easy, but challenging choices require a defined decision maker otherwise you get stuck with opinions and no clear direction. It is also important to know what the communication process is expected to be for Project updates and final results. Not knowing always leads to Management disappointment even if the Project results are high quality. Process really does matter.
  8. What is already in play? Most of the time somebody in an Organization is already working on the Project you are expected to manage. They may or may not be on your Project Team. Finding out who has worked on something similar, or is currently working on what you are being asked to do, can help you better understand the challenges to success. There is a reason Management decided to formally establish a Project and understanding the background will give you insight into those reasons.
  9. How will success really be measured? Often, the final goal can be easily articulated, but the end-process measure isn’t necessarily the right way to determine if your Project was successful. It is very important to get alignment on a realistic measure. For example, a Project to brand a community should not be measured by the number of jobs created since there are so many more things that affect job growth. Improved perception of your community as a place to live and work may be a better measure since it is a more directly related outcome.


I am confident that I’ve not created a comprehensive list of questions. But, the list of 9 have served me well to date. I also find the discussion required to answer the scope questions helps build confidence and create a platform to probe as deep as needed to get the information necessary for Project success.


I would love to have your input so we can collectively create a robust list of questions that ensure effective Project planning.  Additional questions based on practical experience would be genuinely appreciated. Please leave a comment with your thoughts.

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36 Comments so far

  1. Tim Stansky

    October 10, 2011

    Very good structure. There is probably some form of summary developed for the stakeholders and anyone involved in approving funding a project. I’ve always been a proponent of written recaps for clients that include proof of performance/execution, anecdotes of progress, specific sales generation and tangible business built along with recommendations and renewal or next project options.

  2. JeffBach

    October 11, 2011

    I’m a big fan of hearing someone say or reading the explicit phrase

    “the problem is”

    Your list of nine does not explicitly include a section, really it could even be a sentence, where the reader/listener encounters a short sweet simple description of the problem that the speech or paper or proposal attempts to solve.

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  4. Heather B

    May 29, 2013

    Good list. I would add:

    -What is specifically out of scope. It can be as important to know what the project “is not” as it is to know what it is.

    -What are the exit criteria…ie. how will you know when the project is done?

    These are related to the above and important to consider to avoid scope creep.

  5. Craig Lindberg

    May 30, 2013

    Excellent list and topic. I might add a slightly different slant by adding to the measurement/analytics discussion, “what are your success criteria both qualitative and quantitative?”

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  10. jessica

    October 2, 2013

    Hi. Thanks for this list! I always find your articles so helpful and relavent. This is kinda off topic but im very interested in finding out how to measure and improve “perceived perception of your community” that you mentioned in #9. I tried googling it but no luck. Lol if anyone has any info on that topic or just steer me in the right direction i would be so thankful! 🙂

  11. jessica

    October 2, 2013

    Correction… Improved perception of your community

  12. Ed Burghard

    October 3, 2013

    Jessica – Read my posts about the American Dream Composite Index. It is a quantitative way to assess resident perception of how well they are achieving the American Dream. It is currently available at a state level. But will soon be available at an MSA level.

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  14. Rami Izadyar

    October 16, 2013

    I think it is important to find out in advance who is going to benefit by the actions taken or get hurt by it. Of course it should not affect the findings or recommendations but it will help in managing the situation.

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  16. Paul Lewis

    October 17, 2013

    It may be implicit in some of the above, but I’d add:

    What are the key gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the issue?

    Too often people dive into solutions mode without having fully assessed what’s missing from the information available.

  17. […] “The Burghard Group | Strengthening Brand America:”;  […]

  18. […] “I think it is important to find out in advance who is going to benefit by the actions taken or get hurt by it. Of course it should not affect the findings or recommendations but it will help in managing the situation.”  […]

  19. Sam Driggers

    October 18, 2013


  20. […] “Amen!”  […]

  21. […] Great tips on project development here: The Burghard Group | Strengthening Brand America:  […]

  22. Yiannis Diakos

    October 20, 2013

    All these questions are important but 20 years ago we have developed CBAs (Current Best Approach) on various areas like CQV (Commissioning, Qualifying, Veryfing) projects. The starting point in P&G back in the 90s was to define for the management the OGSM (Objective, Goals, Strategies, Measurements) for alignment. Once this was done, we had a methodology in Chartering Teams. Of course part of my work in P&G ETC Brussels was to train everybody on the project so everybody was fully align. The 9 questions that was posted on this article is just a few of the things that needed to be asked.

  23. Edward

    October 20, 2013

    Yiannis – Totally agree that there is a significant difference between strategic planning and project management. The nature and scope of strategic questions required to determine where to play and how to win are more expansive than tactical project questions. To your point, AG’s book – Play to Win – provides details on the strategic planning process you refer to and the OGSM output document.

  24. […] Questions You Should Answer Before Taking On Any Project 

  25. […] Questions You Should Answer Before Taking On Any Project

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  36. Janice

    December 5, 2016

    Very interesting information regarding the definition of project scope.
    I am trying to get some specific open ended questions to ask the to be able to define the propjet scope.

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