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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