Reining in Scope and Budget: Defining and Tracking Project Deliverables

BY MARK VAN LEEUWEN, ON MARCH 26, 2020

Forget coffee, these statistics on project deliverables will jolt you awake.

According to the Project Management Institute, only 57 percent of projects are completed within the original budget.

In a Harvard business study, the average IT project ran over budget by 27 percent, and one in six project budgets swelled by an eye-watering 200 percent.

If you’re breaking into a cold sweat, there’s also good news. Strengthening your project deliverables is one of the best and most practical defenses you have against budget overrun.

The reason is simple: Deliverables are the foundation of your budget. They map out all the criteria for project delivery, making them the natural starting points when fortifying your projects against prime budget inflators, perhaps the most famous (and feared) being scope creep.

Right now, we’re going to dig into how clarifying project management deliverables before your project hits the work floor helps to keep both scope and budget from growing legs and running away. We’ll take a close look at what the purpose of a deliverable is, why it’s important to track and how to flesh out a reasonably creep-proof deliverable.

What are the deliverables in project management?

In a project, the deliverables are the tangible or intangible products the business provides to the client. Essentially, the work you agree to do for the client is a deliverable.

For services agencies, deliverables refer to intangible products: the services they provide, which can range from legal, to creative, to technological.

Types of deliverables

If you run a professional services business, the types of deliverables you create will largely depend on what kinds of services you offer and what your clients come to you for.

If you’re an advertising firm or marketing agency, your typical deliverables may include:

  • Documented marketing strategies
  • Logos
  • Forms
  • Web copy
  • Promotional videos
  • SEO analytics reports

For software companies and IT service businesses, deliverables could typically cover:

  • Mobile app software
  • Server maintenance
  • Design outline documents
  • Source code
  • A progress report

What are examples of deliverables?

So far we’ve skimmed the surface of deliverables. Let’s dive a little deeper into a practical example you might find marketing agencies using.

deliverables examples

Marketing deliverables examples

Here’s a hypothetical situation: You’re putting together a social media campaign for Nike. What you’re creating for Nike is a social media content strategy as well as the content.

Your deliverables will break the project down into manageable chunks and might be represented this way:

You may have noticed that each deliverable builds on the last. You can’t make the content before you scope out the project and make a content strategy that Nike approves of. This is typical in services projects as you’re not simply creating X number of products for the business. It’s more nuanced than that, requiring project managers to decide which deliverables are reliant upon others.

What are deliverables in project scope?

If the project scope is the project road map, deliverables are the directions. While the scope describes the project journey and final destination, deliverables explain what project teams need to do (and when) to arrive at the final destination: delivery of the project.

The scope may include project timelines and objectives, but without deliverables, you’d have no explicit directions to make good on your agreements with the client. In reality, you’d have no clear idea of what to give the client or how to go about doing it.

Arguably, this is why deliverables are the primary elements of project scopes; if you don’t know what you’re doing, elements like timelines and objectives are meaningless.

Why are deliverables important?

We’ve just discussed why deliverables are important, but we haven’t addressed a very significant, if not sometimes overlooked, underlying question: Why are well-defined deliverables important? In our driving analogy, we might ask: Why are detailed directions important?

Simply put, because bad directions will get you lost.

A well-written deliverable is your GPS. It’s what’s going to get you from point A to point B without adding hours of driving and fuel expenses, clueless you just missed the turnoff from the highway.

So, what are well-defined deliverables? Just to cover the basic information needed to fulfill them, they require qualitative descriptions that articulate:

  •   The pertinent details
  •   Start and end dates
  •   Statuses
  •   Associated tasks
  •  Related resources and assets

These are the minimum requirements. To enter well-defined territory, deliverables should incorporate:

  •    Task deadlines
  •   Who’s assigned to which task
  •   How many hours each task will take
  •   A breakdown of how much deliverables will cost your business
  •   How much money they’ll bring in

Combatting project scope creep

It’s every project manager’s nightmare: endless add-ons and ever-changing project parameters. They sneak up on your project plan, push the schedule back and bloat the budget. And scope creep, as this phenomenon is appropriately named, is on rise as projects become increasingly complex to meet modern demands. PMI reported an upward trend of projects experiencing some to an uncontrollable level of scope creep from approximately 45 percent in 2014 to 52 percent in 2018.

Now, to a certain extent, scope creep is tamable, as we explain in our post about successfully combating scope creep. But the kind of scope creep that makes projects never-ending and cost twice as much as anticipated is what keeps most PMs up at night. And it easily happens when you don’t define the deliverables adequately.

Suddenly, “new” requirements pop up mid-project. These may come from the client because a) your definition of the deliverable does not align with the client’s expectations, or b) you’re inadvertently leaving room for the client to tweak what was originally agreed upon. Vague descriptions open the door to additional requests. Ultimately, you end up tacking on more work, resources, time and expenses outside of the original scope and budget.

Clear, detailed deliverables are a kind of vaccine to prevent uncontrolled scope creep from infecting your projects. They’re specific enough to avoid confusion, ambiguity or misinformation about project direction. The more information your client and team have about how a project will take shape, the smaller the likelihood that you’ll have missed critical steps or boundaries that will come back to haunt you in do-overs and last-minute requests.

Understanding goals and objectives

Deliverables should reflect the project goals, or what the project aims to achieve. For example, a business may come to your advertising firm to develop an ad campaign with the objective of generating leads. The deliverables, then, should be developed with that intention as their focus.

Here’s what a few might look like:

  • A strategy document with an implementation guide that outlines how lead capture and tracking will work
  • 25 researched and tested keywords (plus research findings) that will drive the target market to the company’s channels
  • 10 conversion-optimized landing pages with forms that garner details needed to generate leads for the business
  • Ad copy for 20 ads that offer value through a special offer or solution tailored to the target market

That way, as a project manager, you ensure that each deliverable is necessary, as in not something that will eat up valuable time and money going nowhere as it doesn’t have any real value to the customer. Deliverables are great tools to reflect and reinforce the original objectives, ensuring that projects don’t deviate from the appropriate course (i.e., invite runaway scope creep).

budget deliverables

Building your budget

It’s far from a comfortable situation to find yourself with no other option than to try to renegotiate the budget in the middle of the project. The desire to avoid this situation at all costs alone is a great motivator to design a budget as close to accurate as possible.

The role of the project manager is to carry the bulk of the responsibility for the project’s success, which is why when PMs budget, they’re careful to include all predicted costs and margins to determine how lucrative the project will be.

When you’re writing deliverables, you’re doing so much more than stating what you’re going to do for the client. You’re also creating an opportunity to pinpoint the costs, time and resources you’ll be investing, and if you’re really savvy, the margins. Getting down to a more molecular level, factoring in the individual cost rate for each resource will facilitate an even sharper budget. It should be mentioned that all of this can be done automatically with the right software.

Data is your friend here, and making sure you have the right data to budget your deliverable comes back to how well-developed the deliverable is (and how capable your software is).

Providing the parameters your team needs to succeed

Remember our driving analogy: Your team needs good directions.

clear deliverables

Consider some of the typical issues that can (and likely will) impact budget if you aren’t clearly defining deliverables to steer the project team in the right direction.

For starters, a knowledge gap puts you and your team at risk of handing the client something that just isn’t what they wanted. Whether the quality is not up to snuff or it’s not what the customer envisioned, that probably means a redo, at your expense. Or, project team members with different expectations might be individually working toward separate goals or outcomes, leaching time and maybe material costs until you realize that everyone’s got their own idea of what the deliverable is. Up go the costs, and out the window goes your budget.

Clear communication should be at the core of every deliverable. If you’re adding the key elements of a well-defined deliverable, you’re effectively communicating everything your team needs to know every time they check the deliverable.

How do you track deliverables?

An organized deliverable tracking system is crucial to your effectiveness as a project manager. Just imagine if you needed to sort through eight different apps and spreadsheets just to find out what the budget burn is, who’s performing which task and how the schedule is progressing. This is why professional services automation software exists.

Professional services automation software is designed to house your essential business and project processes from quote to cash under one roof. In a good PSA platform, from the creation of an opportunity to the invoicing stage, projects and their deliverables are planned, managed, tracked and ultimately measured for performance analysis with real-time data, charts and reports. It’s all right there in the software, which means tracking deliverables requires no more than a few mouse clicks.

We live in an age where automation is rapidly replacing tedious manual tasks and freeing people up to focus on important, and often more rewarding, aspects of business that only humans can do.  When it comes to tracking, you want the software to do it for you so you and your team can get back to the strategizing and creative stuff.

Why tracking your deliverables is essential to project success

Imagine sitting down with your client, establishing a thorough project scope, outlining the deliverables and your budget with surgical precision, and then putting on a blindfold while you wait for the project to be completed. OK, that wouldn’t really happen, but it’s analogous to what you’d be doing if you were to leave the deliverables totally untracked.

Tracking allows you to monitor the progress of the project as it develops. You’ll know whether tasks are on the path to timely completion, if deliverables are on course with the overall project schedule and, without any extra work, if the budget is going over, going under or right on the mark. In essence, you’re checking in on how healthy the project is.

In fact, it’s almost difficult not to track some aspects of your deliverables with PSA software systems as they typically utilize some type of timeline or reporting system to show you how your deliverables are doing. What you want is to know exactly what to track ahead of time so that you can ensure the most successful outcomes.

What you should be tracking

A disclaimer: We admit that our criteria for what is critical to track is a bit biased. It can’t really be helped—as a professional services automation provider and as a services business, we’ve seen what has worked well and what hasn’t, both for us and for our clients.

From our experience, here’s what you should track:

  • Deliverable timelines
  • Deliverable tasks and resources
  • Schedule
  • Estimated and actual hours
  • Budget costs and sales
  • Margin

Deliverable planned and current completion status

Most project managers look for timeline tracking to keep tabs on project progress. Schedule and completion status indicators are also convenient since they can tell you how close the deliverables are to the finish line. If you can track task statuses and assigned resources along project timelines, you’ll gain valuable foresight that will make it easier to limit potential bottlenecks.

If you really want to know how well you stuck to your budget on a deliverable, make sure you can compare estimates to actuals in terms of hours, costs and sales. You should be able to drill down and see how much of the budget has been spent per deliverable, and the margins will tell you how profitable the deliverable is in one tidy number.

How do you ensure quality deliverables?

First and foremost, ensuring quality requires good communication between stakeholders. Project managers should be clarifying not only what the client is requesting, but also whether their organizations have the means to provide it. As we discussed earlier, internal communication between team members is also paramount to curb creative interpretation of what’s being delivered to the client.

It probably goes without saying that defining your deliverables well is part of the equation. So is creating a realistic timeframe, scope and budget that you can track as the project takes shape.

Bottom line: The key to delivering quality project deliverables comes down to good planning, communication and tracking.

How to write project deliverables step by step

  • Communicate with the client to find out what the client is looking for and what the objectives are.
  • Create a project scope that delineates the course and boundaries of the project.
  • Sketch out the services you plan to deliver and make sure that they align with project goals.
  • Add thorough descriptions to deliverables.
  • Determine the timeframes of the deliverables.
  • Add the tasks that will need to be done to complete each deliverable.
  • Determine the hours each task will take to complete and who will be responsible for it.
  • Add any costs associated with the deliverables.

Adding automation to the process of writing project deliverables will make it faster, smoother and less likely to miss indispensable details. Choose a software that allows you to write and track deliverables in a way that makes sense to you. Ultimately, you and your team are going to be using the software. If it isn’t intuitive for you, it isn’t going to be of much help.

Summary

The thought of taming budget overrun and scope creep can be daunting. These are real problems that afflict a great number of projects, but yours don’t have to become one of the frightening statistics. By clearly defining your deliverables with all time, money and resource information factored in, you ensure that projects can be budgeted according to reality and not just vague guesstimates and eliminate the confusion and ambiguity that breed scope creep.

Tracking deliverables is the way to ensure that projects and deliverables are going well and staying with the original budget and scope framework. Professional services automation software can help you write and track deliverables in a way that’s both easy and comprehensive.

Make automation your friend and your project management will almost take care of itself.

Want to start writing better project deliverables right now? See how VOGSY makes developing and tracking projects and deliverables easy with one quote-to-cash tool.

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