Identifying a clear scope, target to increase achievability

Without a clear scope and a clear target to shoot for, time and money are likely to get used up on the wrong tasks.


After 24 years of implementing controls projects, I’m something of a control freak. I have this expectation that I’ll know what I’m required to do for a particular project. It’s not always a realistic expectation.

Some projects I’ve worked on have had the (unofficial) scope of, “We’re going to do stuff! And make the plant run better!” On one level, this is very appealing. It’s a scope that can almost certainly be met. Failure is unlikely, if not impossible.

On another level, this kind of scope is appalling. A phrase often quoted is, “When performance is measured, performance improves.” Measurement is useful. It tells you if you’re on schedule, if you’re meeting deliverables, if you need more hands on deck. It provides an informed opportunity to make corrections.

Unfortunately, the “We’re going to do stuff” scope promotes another mode of operation: “When performance can’t be measured, performance can’t be judged.” The character Wally in the Dilbert comic strip exemplifies this mode. In a project, it leads to wasted opportunities.

Without a clear scope and a clear target to shoot for, time and money are likely to get used up on the wrong tasks. Granted, doing “some stuff” is better than doing “no stuff,” but making the best use of resources requires up front planning.

People who have clearly defined goals tend to achieve them. People who have clearly defined goals and write them down are much more likely to achieve them. The same is true for projects. If the goal, the target, or dare I say the scope is clear and well defined, it’s likely to be achieved.

So what’s an engineer to do when a scope is vague?

One option is to do it yourself. Create a list of objectives and document why they make sense. Then create a plan for reaching the goals and a preliminary schedule. Communicate your plan to your customers, whether they’re another part of your business or external to your company. It’s interesting to see how easy it is to get people to edit a plan they didn’t create.

If your customers help you refine the working scope, that effort should lead to greater satisfaction with the results—yours and theirs. Worst case, if your customers don’t have any edits, you get to work on what you think is important.

What other strategies have you used to cope with unclear scopes? 

This post was written by MayAnn Stroup. MayAnn is a senior engineer at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading automation solutions provider offering industrial automation, strategic manufacturing, and enterprise integration services for the process industries. MAVERICK delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, business process optimization and more.

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