Scoping Playbook

The Art and Science of Scoping Project Work as a Professional Services Organization


Scoping – determining what is to be delivered, the effort it will take to deliver, and the cost – is unique in a Professional Services firm because it’s typically all about your Intellectual Property. For each customer, you’re delivering something a little bit different and unique each time, rather than an off-the-shelf product. In Episode 6, we discuss our thoughts and approach to scoping software implementation and development projects, revealing that for us, estimation is still part art, part science. Common themes continue to emerge: the importance of relationships, active listening, and guiding customers rather than taking orders.


Our Top Plays for scoping:


  1. Rather than starting with a list of requirements, take a step back. Start with business objectives, talk about what success looks like. Discuss business processes, and why they do what they do. The last step is mapping requirements to what the technology can do, never the first.
  2. Get to know the organization beyond their “About Us” section in their press releases. Understand not only how they are structured, but how they make decisions. Factor in their culture, and their ability to be agile or their desire to be more predictive. Understand their expectations and how they realistically work. If they take weeks and many meetings to make decisions, this will impact scope and cost.
  3. Practice active listening. Develop a core set of questions you have learned to ask in similar types of projects. Share those questions with others in your organization (both sales and delivery) and have them collaborate on this core set of questions. But go beyond these questions when scoping. Ask open-ended questions and questions you don’t know the answer to. Let  go of preconceived notions. And ask good follow-up questions, rather than stopping at what they say initially. Ask lots of why questions, not just what.
  4. Lead the customer. We never want to go in as order takers. Customers have hired an outside firm for their expertise and wisdom earned through having worked with other customers. Avoid only being prescriptive and parroting back the things heard from the customer. The art is in taking what you hear, translating that into deliverables that are meaningful.
  5. Start risk profiling during sales, and carry forward into delivery. This approach is hard to enforce, but we believe it’s a great way to start managing risks, and determining where to spend more time both in the sales cycle and right out of the gate in delivery. It also helps the delivery teams prioritize requirements and resources.
  6. Balance detail with flexibility. Some level of detail on requirements, including the beginnings of a work breakdown structure, help customers organize their thoughts. But too detailed, and you risk losing the transformational possibilities of your project. Look at scope as more directional. Understand that requirements are gathered at a point in time. Sales cycles are long, the landscape changes. Statements of Work are critical in ensuring agreement on direction and outcomes, and well written ones allow you to allow for change. Back this up with an adaptive delivery method. Those highly custom items that were needed to address customer specific processes? They are often not necessary once you dive into the detail.  
  7. RFPs have limited usefulness. They are good (and often required) for large organizations to filter out potential services partners, but in our experience, RFPs and responses alone don’t really get you close to developing a good solution. That requires dialog and relationships and rfp questions often only provide a small window into what and how a project will be delivered.
  8. Both Sales and Delivery perspectives in scoping are necessary, but sometimes at odds. If scoping is too much weighted towards delivery, you’ll see too many problems and risk areas and want to ask too many questions before committing. If scoping is weighted too much weighted towards sales, you tend to oversimplify. There should be a healthy tension between the two groups, and when the right level of trust exists between them everyone (especially the customer) wins.
  9. Build a team that can provide a blend of the critical skills in successful scoping. Look for: the ability to determine what all the components of the work to be performed are (scoping), the ability to visualize how to put the pieces together (solutioning), and the ability to do some hand waving and educating (evangelizing). It’s hard to find this in one person, so build a team with people who complement each other.
  10. Ensure a smooth transition between sales and delivery, by involving delivery in some capacity during sales. Be deliberate about weaning the customer away from any pre-sales solution architects, but be careful not to throw over the wall and let delivery fend for themselves.
  11. Be intentional about learning from previous engagements and factor those lessons back into scoping activities. Start small, as this undertaking is hard! The easiest way to start is to use people who have done it before, capture the many variables, involve delivery in sales, and over time, build out your framework for capturing relevant data and feeding back into the sales cycle.