You must—I repeat, must—get all of these variables nailed down before you sign a contract or start a stitch of work. I will go into the details of contracts in another column, but suffice it to say that making the effort to determine the specifics ahead of time is always worthwhile, to ensure your contract clearly defines and establishes the terms of engagement with your client.
I’ve used the equation in my title quite purposefully: Needs + Resources + Location + Schedule + Budget = Scope. If you reduce any of the variables of your project, you must also reduce the overall project scope—and vice versa. A smaller budget, smaller scope. Fewer resources, smaller scope. Better location, bigger scope. Greater needs, bigger scope. To best understand this synergistic relationship, let’s go through each variable one by one.
The very first questions you must answer when considering working with a new client are: Why does this project need to happen? Why does the client want to hire you? Why is now the time they want to start this work? Why are your core skills necessary to help resolve the problems the client is facing?
Some clients may come prepared with a long list of business requirements they’ve gathered from a variety of stakeholders throughout their organization. They might even have prioritized them for you. However, those items may just be on someone’s wish list—not really requirements that are based on the needs of their customers. Has the client done any research? Who is determining the organization’s internal strategy, and what are their motivations? While you might not be able to explore the details of some of these questions until the project kicks off and you can conduct stakeholder interviews, it is still important to ponder them during this initial project-definition process.
Remember, you are the one who has better knowledge of what is actually feasible to achieve—and do well—and the tools to determine whether it really should be done. When a client presents the desired goals for a project, you shouldn’t necessarily take them at face value. You are the expert. They are hiring you precisely because you know more than they do in this particular area, so don’t shy away from the responsibility of providing input based on your knowledge and experience. Take the time to ask the right questions and figure out what the wiggle room is.
It is essential to analyze why a client wants to engage you on a project in the first place. Don’t enter into an agreement with the client before wholly understanding the project’s purpose and intent. You don't want to be blindsided down the road by a newly revealed ulterior motive or a wild change in priorities. Of course, this sometimes happens anyway, but you needn’t encourage it.
Resources: Who and How?
Once you know why a project is important to a client, you must consider who is going to help you get all of the work done and how. Here are three things to chew on: Who is on your team? Who is on their team? How will the two teams collaborate?
Let’s start with you. What people do you have pegged for your team? What are their skills and availability? How well do you expect all of them to work together? How much management will they need? You shouldn’t commit to a project before you have your team lined up, because you don’t want to be the cause of delays. Plus, it’s the strength of your team that largely determines the extent of what you can accomplish.
If you have a consistent team in place for all projects, that’s great. You might already have a lot of these kinks worked out. But if you’re piecing together a new team just for a project, particularly a team that has never worked together before, you don’t really want to be working out your problems on your client’s dime, do you? Review all of your options before making what could be an irreversible decision.
In some cases, you may be a team of one. Often, I work completely solo on my projects for clients. That raises a whole different set of questions. What is my availability? How many projects am I juggling? Am I equipped to take on the required set of tasks? Do I have the expertise and experience to do so successfully? How can I supplement my skills to provide better service to my clients? As the sole resource, your responsibilities may be extremely varied—and often in conflict with one another—so it’s best to go in prepared with potential solutions in case you find yourself in a tough spot.
Now that you have your team assembled and have considered the consequences of taking on a project, turn your attention to the client. Who will your client dedicate to making the project a success? Who will be coordinating meetings? Who—likely a different person—has final approval on your work? You may also need access to some subject-matter experts in the client’s organization. Who are they, and are they aware of the project? What is their level of commitment? Might there be some company politics to navigate?
You need to fully understand the time commitment the client is prepared to make before you can determine the appropriate amount of work to take on and a realistic schedule in which to get it done. While you might be on time with each and every deliverable, if the client takes a week to get back to you and delays the project, it’s still your deadline that gets jeopardized. You need to go into the project with all the necessary intelligence to craft the best plan of action.
Finally, evaluate the last aspect of resources that needs to be on your radar screen: How is your team going to get everything done? Having the people in place isn’t enough to ensure they have the means to collaborate and produce their work.
What tools are at your disposal? Are you comfortable using them, or do you need training? If you don’t currently have the necessary tools, do you need to acquire them on your own, or will your client provide you with access to them or funding for them? The answers to these questions affect the budget, the timeline, and the human resources you need for a project, as well as what is feasible to produce and the location in which the work will get done.
Where a project takes place is another critical factor in determining the appropriate project scope. Your office is here. The client’s office is there. How will the distance between you affect the outcome of the project? Will your client require you to work on site? Will you need to travel a significant distance? Will satellite offices be in play?
Remember, travel time is still time you’re dedicating to a project, because it takes away from the time you could be spending on another client or on yourself. Travel becomes tiring and will likely extend your schedule. There are also cost implications and the accommodation of your resources to consider.
Recognizing the location or set of locations for a project also forces you to determine how much of your or your team’s time you need to allocate to the project. This issue is related to, but somewhat different from the project schedule. You aren’t noting just when you’ll get things done, but how often your client will expect you to do them. Working on site at a client’s place of business means you’re working on their time. Attempting to do work for a client at another client’s office isn’t just tricky to pull off—it’s pretty unethical.
To avoid putting yourself and your team in a compromising position, you need to be clear ahead of time on how the work locales will affect your productivity, performance, and timing. To ensure you don’t commit your resources to something the work environment simply won’t allow, adjust your scope of work accordingly.