How to Achieve Alignment on Your Project Scope

I was eight years old – admittedly a while ago – but I remember it like it was yesterday. My mother wanted one wall in our living room to be wallpapered with a particular paper she had her heart set on. The wallpaper was almost canvas and had printed trees standing at around five inches tall. The paper was cream and the trees green. Each of the trees were replicas and depicted a tree in winter – stripped of its leaves. My mother explained her idea to my father; she wanted to stagger the trees when applying the paper to create a diagonal effect moving up or down the wall, whichever way your eye saw it. She was very particular about what she wanted and when she left for work early in the morning, she went to great lengths to ensure my father could explain it correctly to the painter and decorator.

The next day I came home, and the paper was on the wall. I was more interested in my action man figure, a popular toy at the time (I feel I might have to explain this for our younger readers!) so I paid little attention. My mother came home about an hour later and burst into the living room with a look of excitement plastered across her face. I remember the next part of this story as though in slow motion. Under her breath, she cursed both the painter and decorator then my father; she then calmly walked over to the wall, bent down and searched for a corner of the wallpaper. She found one, and with one pull ripped a whole sheet from the wall – remember it was like canvas so wouldn’t just tear. She repeated this exercise until every strip of it had been removed. Then, gathering the bundles, she took it all to the front door (for maximum drama) to greet my father when he arrived home. She never did get the paper she wanted on that wall; her next project was using feathers mixed with paste… that one didn’t last too long either.

Misalignment affects project scope and delivery as much as it can affect home decorating. In a recent piece of research with a large client we found that 88% of their projects failed to meet the scope that was thought to be required at the outset. When we work with a client on project scope, we always begin with an exercise. Each person in the team responsible for project scope is handed four post-it notes. They are each asked – without consulting each other – to write the answers to four questions:

  1. What problems do you believe the project is trying to solve?
  2. What is the end point of the project?
  3. What is the purpose of the projects?
  4. What’s most important about delivery? (i.e., is it speed? Cost? Quality? Or something else?)

We have run this exercise with project teams for many years now, and not one team has written the same answers on their post-its! We repeatedly see organisations fall into the same pitfalls when attempting to build scope documents.

  1. Typically, one person (e.g., the business analyst) builds the project scope document.
  2. Often, it is massive – running thirty to forty pages.
  3. The document is too technical for everyone to understand.
  4. It is circulated via email, and everyone is asked to provide input into the scope.
  5. Only those with time or the ‘super diligent’ take the time to respond.
  6. The whole process takes weeks – if not months.
  7. Even then, there is still misalignment!

We suggest a different approach; something more akin to my mother meeting the painter and decorator herself and staying until he had put up at least the first two strips of wallpaper.

  1. All leaders responsible for the delivery of the project must attend the scope session.
  2. First, we check alignment across the major outcomes by running the exercise outlined above.
  3. Then we walk through the requirements, making sure that everyone is clear on what is in, what is out, and what is meant by each one. We spend as much time making sure there is clarity on what is not being built as we do for what is being built.
  4. Next, we explain how the project will be delivered and make the leader’s role clear.
  5. We do the same with measurement (more on this in the next blog post!)
  6. We agree on all roles and areas of accountability; and agree the escalation process for if the project starts to run late or team members become blocked.
  7. We need to explain to the leaders that once we have planned out the project, we will expect them to be back in the room to walk through the major elements of the plan and agree to the timeline.
  8. Finally, we attempt to put all of this onto a one-to-two-page document that can be revisited if there are disagreements on scope at a later date.

Leaders have reported that this process is insightful, collaborative and solves alignment issues. Furthermore, teams feed back that establishing a clear goal and being sure of the requirements makes the planning process much easier.

If I could travel back to my childhood, I might have done the same exercise with my mother, father and the painter and decorator…

By Stuart Corrigan. ©2022, Goldratt UK

If you found this article insightful, make sure you are following Goldratt UK’s LinkedIn as our blog updates are posted there. If you’d like to have a free conversation with Stuart, or another of our Project Management experts, you can organise it via email ([email protected]).