Keeping your Eye on the prize: A few tips on scoping projects.

by Ryan Lowers

As the core focus of our training with the Data School is to mold us into highly experienced Tableau and Alteryx consultants, a crucial part of our training outside of the classroom environment, are our weekly client projects. These provide great exposure to varied business use cases and challenge us to apply the techniques that we’ve learned to create innovative solutions that provide real value to clients.

The challenge though is that we are constrained by time as these projects run concurrently to our regular classroom teaching meaning that effective management of time and effort is key. So, in this post I’ll be sharing some advice about scoping projects effectively and planning work ahead of time.

What is scoping?

Quite simply, by scoping I’m referring to framing the work that needs to be completed, whether it be a  large project or a smaller piece of work, identifying the tasks that are entailed and subsequently assigning time estimates, all to create a robust but relatively flexible template on how to proceed. It entails taking a set of requirements or a business use case and using them to create a tangible structure to work from, which states what is an isn’t feasible within the allotted time. While this may seem obvious, when time is a limiting factor, it is all too easy to dive into projects without a clear idea of what needs to be delivered or how long it will take which only serves to make already challenging tasks even more difficult. 

Some of the Benefits

I started alluding to this above, but there are numerous benefits to be gained from taking the time to scope projects effectively, here are some of the ones I’ve found:

  • Trying to set a scope forces you to move from the abstract and towards the tangible. It will become evident which requirements are clear and which are less well defined as you try and convert requirements into tasks that need to be completed.
  • In a similar vein to the above point, it also helps to make work more manageable by breaking larger requirements down into smaller more achievable pieces that when completed incrementally, add up to a larger whole.
  • Having a scope also makes collaborating as part of a team easier because when takes have been clearly defined and broken down sufficiently it is far easier to plan the division of resources and assign to tasks to team members with the appropriate skill sets.
  • Tracking progress is also easier as it’s possible to more tangibly measure the progress towards a goal, by looking at which tasks have been completed and which tasks are still outstanding.
  • Provides reassurance to the client and project team as both have a clear understanding of what is being produced, creating a culture of transparency and helping to build trust between the two.
  • As is the way of life there will always be unforeseen setbacks, and having a scope makes it easier to react to ‘unknown unknowns’ as things can be taken out of the scope where necessary or time estimates can be updated to reflect any changes to requirements.

How to Scope

This can be quite challenging and personally I’m still relatively early on the journey of scoping projects, one size certainly doesn’t fit all and given that no two projects are the same the best approach to take is to have a go and then reflect on what did and didn’t go well. As with all things it’s a learning process and the key to success is applying previously learned lessons to future challenges. With that in mind though here are some tips I’ve picked up from my own experience and from some very sound advice from the coaches at the Data School.

  • Understand the requirements – Make sure that what you thinking you’re making and what the client are expecting are the same thing. At this point on of the best things to do is ASK QUESTIONS.  It’s far better to do this rather than make assumptions that could be damaging later. Doing this will remove ambiguity and potentially even cause requirements to change.
  • Break tasks down – Once the requirements have been more clearly understood break these down into smaller tasks that can be estimated relatively accurately. If any task seems too large to be estimated easily then it is likely that it could be broken down even further. This again helps to move things from being abstract to more tangible and can break down requirements that may seem unfamiliar at first into tasks which are more familiar.
  • Be Realistic – Tip outlined above is very useful but is still susceptible to peoples’ tendency to underestimate how long tasks take to complete. For this reason, is it best to work under the expectation that 75% of the tasks that have been outlined will be feasible to complete and therefore should be included in the final scope. This provides flexibility to deal with unforeseen challenges and in the event of work progressing quicker than expected, makes it possible to add on more features.

While this is by no means a comprehensive guide on how to plan work effectively is should provide a good starting point to anyone wanting to try and work in a more structured way.

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