5 steps for scoping a project

For many volunteer organisations or community groups, scoping out a large project can be a daunting task. We’ve all been there – when confronted with a massive undertaking, such as developing a new policy or procedure, it can be hard to know where to start.

But learning to outline a project effectively is imperative – having a properly-scoped project will help you complete it on time and on budget. If you’re looking to work with an outside professional, such as a freelance designer, writer or consultant, you’ll also need to have a good idea of what you want before you approach them, because they’ll need to know details and timelines. So here are a few simple steps to make the process easier.

1. Start with the big picture. What is it you want to achieve with the project and why? E.g. “Develop a sexual harassment policy for our organisation to bring us into line with best practices and ensure we meet our legal and ethical obligations.”

2. Break it into chunks. Almost all projects can be compartmentalised to a certain extent – a long document can be broken into chapters or sections, for example. A large project becomes much more manageable once it’s in smaller pieces.

3. Prioritise the most important things. In most projects, there will be some areas that are critical and some that are less so. Figuring out what your priorities are will help you decide which tasks you need to complete first and/or which you need professional help with. This is particularly important if you’re working with a professional but don’t have the budget for them to complete the entire project. You can use a system such as MoSCoW to help align your priorities – list the things you Must do, Should do, Could do, and Want to do.

4. Develop concrete tasks. This is about translating your project from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’ – from a great idea to something that can actually be done. Your tasks need to be as specific and detailed as possible, so that the people doing them know exactly what they need to achieve. This is particularly important if you’re outsourcing some or all of them to professionals, because they’ll be working off what you tell them and any late changes could lead to an increased cost. Take each of the areas you’ve prioritised above and work out exactly what you need, e.g. “500 words outlining the history of our organisation, based on existing documents.” Make sure you think about all aspects of the task, including the amount of research or development that needs to be done, and a realistic timeframe for achieving it.

5. Set deadlines. Decide on an overall deadline for the project, and then work out individual deadlines for each task according to its priority. Make sure you factor in things like final proofreading for written documents, or board sign-off. The deadlines should be realistic, especially if you’re working with a professional, because quick-turnaround tasks will cost more. Note: ASAP is not a deadline!

Scoping a project takes time, and it can be frustrating when you’re enthusiastic and just want to launch straight into it. But it’s worth investing the time at the start to ensure you’ve got a really clear idea of how it’s going to run – it’ll save you a lot of grief down the track and will also help you maintain good relationships with any outside providers you’re working with.

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