Nutshell: Plan like an Egyptian: how to scope a project

Catrina P. Smith

The more detailed planning and mapping you do upfront, the more likely your project will be to succeed.

One look at the construction of the Giza Pyramids, and it’s clear that the Egyptians knew a thing or two about the importance of scoping a project. Indeed, there is strong evidence that the master builders of the tallest building in the world for over 4,000 years (until 1874 when the Eiffel Tower was constructed) were also accomplished project managers.

They had an eye for the totality of the construction alongside an understanding of the scope of the project; the complexities, activities and deliverables that must be achieved in order to build the pyramid within its timeframe.

For example, before construction could start, 500 men had to be dispatched 500 miles to Aswan to quarry the massive granite blocks that would take 10 years to be shipped down the Nile, finished and hauled into place. There’s also evidence that blocks were stockpiled in quiet periods of construction to help manage peak demand. Regular Nile floods were factored into the plan, transporting stone by riverboat to a few 100 yards of the construction site.

It almost makes overseeing the implementation of a new health and safety system for your global workforce sound eye-wateringly simple. So, fear not. We’re not suggesting we project manage a Wonder of the World with 2.3 million blocks of stone, over 100,000 workers, within just 20 years. But we can all learn from the Egyptians in terms of the value of scoping a project before you get started.

What is scoping?

Scoping a project happens in the first phase of project management: planning and mapping. The more detailed planning you do in the right way, the more likely the project will succeed with fewer nasty surprises along the way. Think Winston Churchill, UK prime minister during the Second World War, who said: “Let our advance worrying become advance planning and thinking.”

We can probably all recall a moment when we felt we didn’t have time to plan a big project  – whether a loft conversion at home or an urgent task at work. But investing on planning will invariably save time (and stress) in the long term.

Project managers must juggle the constraints of the three core ingredients of managing a project – quality, time and cost, also known as the project triangle. These three elements are intrinsically linked, and if a change is made to one, the impact on the other two must be carefully considered.

And taking the time to map and scope a project carefully is the first, crucial step towards project success. Before any work on a project commences, the triple constraints of time, cost and quality must be measurable, clearly defined and agreed by the project team.

The team at Harvard Business Review identifies five activities during this initial project planning phase:

1. Determine the real problem to solve: note that this isn’t always obvious.

2. Identify the stakeholders: who will be affected? Who will contribute? Who will benefit?

3. Define project objectives: turn stakeholders’ objectives into manageable goals.

4. Determine scope, resources and major tasks: sub-divide complex activities into units.

5. Prepare for trade-offs: remember that quality = time + cost.

Why scoping matters

If we are going to take more time preparing, planning and scoping a project, we need to know why it’s so important.

The thing about scoping a project is that it can pre-empt and highlight any potential pitfalls. It’s the best way to ensure a project runs on budget and meets its deadline. Think of it like checking out a car journey on Google Maps before you set off so you can avoid traffic jams, closed roads and find the best route to your destination.

There’s nothing worse than a nasty surprise at work, a moment when your heart sinks as you ask, “why didn’t we see that coming?” Scoping helps to make this less likely. It also empowers teams to work as efficiently and effectively as possible. Without a scoping plan, there’s a good chance your team is doing work that’s unnecessary to complete the project at hand or even wasting time thinking about what they should be doing next.

The perils of scope creep

Scope creep is one of the main reasons many big projects fail, sending a shiver down the spine of every project manager. It occurs when, almost imperceptibly, little tasks are added to the scope of the project, or changes made, and eventually neither the original timeframes nor budget are achievable.

It can happen for a number of reasons; for example, sometimes stakeholders want the project to do more than they initially predicted and start adding in last-minute requests. This is something we all need to be aware of as leaders. It’s essential to pay proper attention during the scoping of a project and to be very clear about objectives. Adding details requests later on in the project, and making changes, will add time and money to a task, causing problems in that project triangle.

But scope creep can also happen because stakeholders are not consulted early on in the process. The failure of Denver International Airport’s automated baggage-handling system has become a textbook example of this. With an ambitious plan to reduce aircraft turnaround time and bring together three terminals with a fully-automated system serving all airlines, the project, in fact, overran by 16 months, exceeded its budget by $560m and was only able to serve one airline, at one concourse for outbound flights only.

The airlines, despite being key stakeholders, were not brought into planning discussions early on during the project scoping. Once they were asked for their opinions, they required major changes including the adding of ski-equipment racks, different handling for oversized luggage and separate maintenance tracks for broken carts  – all requiring major and expensive redesigns on completed portions of the project.

Watch out, too, for ‘gold-plating’; this is when scope creep is our fault. It’s when someone on our team starts over-delivering, which may threaten to take the project over budget. We can spot early warning signs, as soon as colleagues start asking things like, ” Can we just…”, “Could you do me a small favour?”, “One little thing….”. Beware of scope creep.

Larson & Larson, two American academics, believe there are five top causes of scope creep and suggest what we can do to avoid them.

  1. Ambiguous scope definition: use a work breakdown structure (WBS) to define detailed scope.
  2. Lack of any formal scope: formally communicate and review to get all requirements approved.
  3. Inconsistent process: develop clear scope with key stakeholders and requirements.
  4. Lack of sponsorship and stakeholder involvement: engage sponsors and demonstrate how deliverables are happening.
  5. Project length: keep projects short, focused and divide into smaller sub-projects.

How to write a Scope of Work

Scoping is best executed through the preparation of a critical document called a Scope of Work, sometimes called a Statement of Work. It outlines the details within a project and is essentially an agreement on the work that lies ahead. There are many different ways to write a Scope of Work. Project managers must walk the tightrope between adding enough detail to ensure the document is thorough, and avoiding so much detail that writing the Scope of Work becomes an overwhelming project all by itself.

At a bare minimum, it should include information on deliverables, timeline, milestones and reports. Let’s take the example of a product launch and just focus on one aspect that needs organising to unpack what a scope of work might look like. For example, if we were writing a Scope of Work focused on the market research to test ideas for a product launch, this is what we’d need to include:

Deliverables: shortlist agencies, appoint agency, write brief, approve brief with internal stakeholders, confirm brief, set deadlines for research and final presentation.

Timeline: Jan 1 – shortlist research agencies; Jan 20 – appoint agency;  Feb 1 – write brief; Feb 20 – confirm brief; March 20 – conduct research; April 1 -–agency presents findings.

Milestones: appoint research agency; agree research questions; conduct consumer research; research presentation.

Reports: check on status of research brief approval; stay in touch with research agency for progress; check agency to confirm agreed deadlines

A Scope of Work might also include an overview, detailing what the project aims to achieve, plus responsibilities and key stakeholders, especially who has approval, as well as a WBS, which we’ll explain in more detail below.

The internet is awash with sample templates for scoping a project. Here are just two examples:

We might also borrow from the creative industries and include some more qualitative things, for example:

  • Why does this project matter?
  • What difference will it make?
  • In what ways does it matter differently to different people?
  • What preconceptions/ assumptions exist?
  • How will we know when we’ve done a brilliant job? (What are our key performance indicators?)
  • How do we want people to feel about the outcomes?

Using Gantt’s work breakdown structure to scope your projects

Henry Gantt was an American mechanical engineer and management consultant who worked on major projects such as the Hoover Dam and the Interstate highway system. The Gantt Chart, a timeline that tracks start and finish dates on a calendar, was invented in the 1910s. These charts are also the basis for developing a WBS. This tool helps the process of determining scope and tasks and developing estimates. The underlying concept is to sub-divide complex activities into their most manageable units. This process helps project managers estimate how many people are needed to complete a project, as well as how long the project will take.

The HBR Guide to Project Management outlines three steps to create a WBS:

  1. Ask, “what will have to be done in order to accomplish X?”
  2. Continue to ask this question until your answer is broken down into tasks that cannot be subdivided further.
  3. Estimate how long it will take to complete these tasks and how much they will cost in terms of money and hours.

Showing projects in a visual way through a WBS can aid understanding among different stakeholders and also help the project manager quickly see what is required. As we said, there are many different templates to borrow to scope a project, but they all end up looking something like this:

Be specific

The most important tip for a well-written Scope of Work is ensuring that it is as specific as possible. Everyone involved in a project from a sponsor to the stakeholders and the team making it happen must have a common understanding of what is expected of them, who’s doing what and when, and what things mean. This will reduce the likelihood of misinterpretations, confusion and potential dispute later down the line, not to mention costly reworking.

We’ve all been in situations when colleagues suffer from selective amnesia in terms of responsibilities or even expectations of what a task might achieve. A Scope of Work helps prevent this.

As George Bernard Shaw said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Indeed, lack of sponsor, stakeholder and user involvement are ranked the top reasons for project failure, according to 2020 research into US software project failures from Standish Group.

Stakeholder mapping and communication will help us identify the key people to involve and enroll. Once these stakeholders are identified, they should be involved in the project as early as possible to establish shared objectives and responsibilities, signalling agreement by signing the Scope of Work.

Lessons from the Death Star on managing change

As world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson said: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

We can all learn from the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon in the Star Wars franchise. For those of you unfamiliar with George Lucas’s space adventure of ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’, the Death Star was a moon-sized space station with the ability to destroy a planet.

But the project managers and stakeholders of Death Star were so focused on building a world-breaking weapon that they forgot to mitigate against risks such as attack from spaceships captained by Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca and his gang. An effective scoping process would have prevented this by outlining potential risks and changes ahead, as well as considering how unforeseen circumstances might be dealt with.  

In some cases, change within a project is not always a bad thing as long as it’s managed effectively. Every project manager should aim to reduce the number of unauthorised changes to a project’s requirements, and can keep in control of change by:

  • regularly updating the project’s scope of work when change requests get approved
  • efficiently processing, documenting, and communicating any scope changes, as well as timelines, with all relevant stakeholders
  • collaborating with project and team leaders, sponsors, clients, stakeholders, and end users.

Conducting a pre-mortem

The death of the Death Star might also have been avoided had the project manager and sponsor had taken part in something research psychologist Gary Klein calls pre-mortem planning. It’s a method that revolves around prospective hindsight, which research suggests improves our ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by up to 30%.

A pre-mortem involves imagining a worst-case scenario, a future fiasco that might derail a project. It could take place in a kick-off meeting between stakeholders and empowers a project manager to identify blind spots and hidden risks they might need to prepare for.

Gary Klein’s process involves four simple stages:

1. Accept the plan has failed

2. Consider reasons for failure

3. Assess and prioritise reasons for failure

4. Strengthen the plan to address potential points of failure.

Think of a pre-mortem as another tool your project managers can use to strengthen the likelihood of a successful outcome.

Plan like an Egyptian

Back to those Giza Pyramids. This project had an achievable objective (build another pyramid), clearly defined timeline (around 20 years before Pharaoh Khufu died), an engaged and motivated sponsor (the Pharaoh himself) and a knowledgeable team (from a nation with over 200 years’ experience of pyramid building).

Moreover, the precision and efficiency of the construction project suggests that there was no room for mistakes – implying a detailed Scope of Work. If the base was off by a few centimetres and not perfectly level it would be off by metres at the top. Quality planning at the forefront avoided costly mistakes later on. Indeed, the entire 13.1-acre site is not a centimetre out of place, comparable to accuracy only achieved today with laser levelling technologies.

So, plan like an Egyptian. There is no better historical proof of the power of planning.

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