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What can the tale of the blind men and the elephant teach us about defining scope?

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In a well-known Indian parable, a group of blind men examine an elephant from different perspectives, each only perceiving a fragment of the animal. When asked to describe the elephant, each comes up with a wildly different answer based on his narrow experience of examining a specific part of the animal.

Considering this idea through the lens of project management reveals the profound importance of defining scope and unravelling the fundamental question of ‘What?’

Like the elephant, projects are intricate entities. One needs a holistic view to understand clearly their structure, direction and scope. Without a well-defined scope, delivering the right project outcomes can become elusive, with the adage ‘on time, on budget, wrong outcome’ surfacing for poorly scoped projects.

Scope definition in project management provides us with a roadmap to navigate the project’s challenges. It ensures that all stakeholders share a common understanding of project objectives, deliverables and limitations. By establishing a clear scope, we set realistic expectations, optimise resource allocation and set up the backlog/work breakdown structure effectively for the implementation/executive phase.

The disciplined approach of defining scope allows us to prioritise and allocate resources efficiently, fostering a better understanding of the project’s constraints and opportunities. Moreover, it empowers us to:

  • Make informed decisions.
  • Allocate time and effort effectively.
  • Maintain a clear focus on the desired outcomes, anticipated benefits and the business value that the project is expected to deliver.

Let's consider what steps project managers should follow to work through the complexities of their projects and answer the crucial question of ‘What?’

  1. Stakeholder identification: project managers need to identify the stakeholders who hold a vested interest in the project. These stakeholders represent different perspectives, needs and expectations, and their inclusion is crucial for understanding what the project should entail.
  2. Requirements gathering: project managers also need to engage with stakeholders to gather their requirements, just as the individuals in the fable sought to understand the elephant's features.
  3. Scope statement development: Armed with the knowledge obtained from stakeholders, project managers must then craft a comprehensive scope statement. This statement acts as a map, outlining the boundaries, objectives, deliverables and constraints that define what the project encompasses.
  4. Scope documentation: the scope documentation serves as a reference document, capturing the essence of the project’s scope. It includes the scope statement, requirements and any relevant assumptions or constraints.
  5. Scope verification: project managers also need to verify the project scope with stakeholders. This process confirms that the defined scope accurately reflects stakeholders' expectations and requirements. It ensures a shared understanding of what the project seeks to achieve.
  6. Scope control: finally, project managers must also establish a scope control mechanism to maintain focus on the project's intended outcomes. This process involves vigilant monitoring and assessment of proposed changes against the defined scope, guarding against the risk of straying from what was initially agreed upon.

Returning to the elephant fable, which highlights the significance of curiosity and the pursuit of knowledge through the exploration of various perspectives, we encounter individuals embodying different viewpoints and posing interrogative questions: what, why, when, how, where and who.

These questions play a crucial role in our project planning endeavours. However, it is essential to address the ‘what’ question first. Without a clear understanding of what we are dealing with, we will encounter difficulties in finding answers to the remaining questions. Neglecting this initial question can potentially transform the elephant into a rhino.

So, in summary, the significance of defining scope in project management is fundamental to project planning and execution. Scope definition provides a roadmap, aligns stakeholders and minimises the risk of not meeting the expectations of the key stakeholders. By following a structured approach to scope definition, project managers can navigate complexities, prioritise resources and achieve successful outcomes.


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