My top tips for super-effective scope management in remote environments.

When I first began managing projects remotely, one of the main challenges I needed to figure out was how to communicate the project’s scope effectively. But figure it out I did. And if you follow the wisdom I gleaned along the way, you’ll be able to avoid any of the common pitfalls people encounter, and consistently deliver outstanding projects.

Firstly, I understand how transitioning to a remote project can initially feel daunting. In the real world, you have pens, paper, flipcharts, and boards to sketch out your ideas visually. And your team, beneficiaries, and clients have the same tools to illustrate their points to you.

In the real-world, you have human interaction, not just the act of talking to one another, but all the subtle nonverbal cues that come with it. The hand gestures we use to add meaning. The vigorous nodding of heads that show people completely understand — the tone of someone’s voice from which we can deduce how sure they are. The smiles between one another that show we’re on the same page. And the intuition we feel about how well someone’s personality will fit in with the team and deliver a great outcome.

Remotely, it’s a whole new landscape, in which most of these elements are no longer there — or are at least manifested in different ways. And I freely admit it was a real struggle at first.

My initial challenges

I felt I was often missing out things I wanted to convey, and that I didn’t have enough resources to express myself properly as I could outside of the digital realm. I was finding it a challenge to make sure people understood what I was asking them to do, or likewise: if I 100% understood what I was expected to deliver myself with the project.

It led to a lot of searching to discover how to compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction and the human touch we’re oh so familiar within the real world. At first, I was second-guessing myself, thinking, ‘why on earth is this so difficult?’ Of course, the difficulties arose from the fact I had fewer means of communication, or at least — I hadn’t yet discovered how to communicate in new ways.

The lack of a flip chart took its toll on me, as I’d always loved explaining things visually, as I’m sure many of you reading do too. Also, I felt like I was losing so much time trying to explain everything to ensure it was clear, while in the real-world, fast-paced chats can convey lots of information in a short space of time.

Plus, working with people across time zones, often many hours apart, can sometimes lead to misreadings and misunderstandings when there’s no universal verbal tones or facial expressions to pick up on, especially when different cultures sometimes interpret meanings differently. Words alone don’t have the same feelings as smiles — sure we have emoticons — but yellow smiley faces have their limitations!

In short: remotely, you’re missing the myriad of ways you usually use to express yourself. But there are fantastic solutions.

Be specific!

They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. After a lot of trial and error and misunderstandings trying to get to the deliverable, I finally understood what was missing: being specific.

And I mean really specific.

Specific enough that anybody, at any given time they’re reading that scope can understand it. Specific enough that the meaning will be crystal clear, regardless of what mood they’re in or what country they’re from.

Once I got this skill mastered, it opened up a whole new world to me and catapulted me scope management abilities to a whole new level.

But how do we be specific?

For it to work, we need to have a solid structure in place before we send any information. Take the time to structure initially, and it will save you so much time in the long run.

To structure what you have in your mind, do what I do with my clients when starting a project.

Begin with a high level scope, then write down the requirements in bullet points so you have a solid, skeleton structure in place.

Once that’s down, flesh it out by adding meat on the bones, adding as much necessary information as possible. It means highlighting where the data is coming from and how the application is going to use. Two hugely essential facets that put things in the correct context to aid the delivery of the project.

Once you have the structure, you can share this with the team, who will then have a clear, comprehensive, and organized block of information they can work from. It’s clean, straightforward, and everyone can understand it.

Don’t just write — call

And of course, as new things come to light, situations change, or you suddenly think of something of something new that your team needs, you can simply schedule a video or voice call, which you should also record so you can check back on it later if needed. In this call, you can update the scope and answer any questions that your team members may have on it.

But calls can be used for more than just talking. You, of course, don’t have a physical flipchart at your disposal, but you don’t need to because there are so many online tools to help present what you need in a meeting., Lucid Charts, Microsoft One Note, Realtime Boards — there are a plethora of resources that can aid you, so you can explain the flow with pinpoint precision, showing your vision and what steps should be taken. In a real-world meeting, it may take a lot of time to draw out pictures to illustrate your points, but online, you can simply drag and drop images, and become an artist in seconds, merely conveying everything you need to with visual aids. Bye flipchart, it was nice knowing you!

After the call is over and you have clarified everything with your team, I highly recommend using a tool to record all these changes and track them. For example, if you made the scope in Jira, update it with all the changes you discussed in the call.

Speedy note-taking

Another benefit of working remotely is being able to use your laptop for your note-taking. Often, when you’re in a real-world meeting, it’s considered impolite to have the laptop on display and be noisily taking notes on it. Instead, you write down notes with a pen and paper. But because you’re may not be as fast at writing (only using two fingers instead of ten with a keyboard), you could end up missing a lot of information. So then you try and remember it all in your head, but invariably you don’t unless you have a brain like a computer.

Working remotely skips the admin work required with having to transcribe pen-and-paper notes to the digital world. It removes the possibility of offending anyone by typing in a meeting.

Team effort and progress

Now, once you’ve tracked absolutely everything within the task — your commands, updates, and clarifications — try the progress of your scope delivery. Because scope management is not only about writing the scope, it is also about managing it. And managing scope is something that doesn’t belong to only one person — it’s a team effort.

The team is working on a piece of functionality, and that functionality is marked as progress. And then, the beneficiary of the project will know at any given time what the status is, and it can be tracked very simply towards completion.

When you think about it, this is actually similar to the way you’re managing projects on-site in the real world. We’re specific, clarify everything needed, and track it all. However, remotely, the lack of face-to-face interaction works to your advantage in this respect, because of the number of tools you can use give you the power to be more specific than is possible working on site. These online tools force you to become more organized, and this results in better delivery.

Final words

So, clearly define the structure of information before it’s sent, use a voice or video call for clarification with your team, always update the scope when needed inside your tool, and continue to track progress towards delivery using the correct labels. Follow these steps, and the challenges I faced initially should disappear, leaving you with a smooth, easy-to-run project that your team loves working on with you.

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