There’s a trick to hitting project milestones that doesn’t demand a series of all-nighters. If you’re worried about missing a hard deadline, you can cut the scope of a specific task. This is especially true if your milestone includes some nonessential tasks.

This advice might seem counterintuitive. After all, delivering what you promise is a key aspect of project management. But there are times when de-scoping project tasks isn’t just acceptable, but necessary to meet milestones.

Business owners pay a high price for projects that don’t deliver. Research from the Project Management Institute shows that businesses waste $97 million for every $1 billion invested in projects. Meanwhile, the expectations for project delivery are higher than ever before. “Go live” is no longer the main metric; “advance business strategy” is.

But if your project team hasn’t nailed the basics (including hitting your project’s milestones on time), it will be tough to save money and avoid wasting it. If these things don’t happen, you’re unlikely to lead projects that will grow your business. This is where de-scoping project tasks to meet milestones can play a crucial role.

What are project milestones?

Milestones denote significant aspects of a project. Since projects vary in length, milestones help teams mark the start and end points of crucial phases.

The number of milestones in a project will vary depending on that project’s length. But as a rule of thumb, having one milestone per month is a good goal.

Milestones mapped out in Wrike project management software
Milestones mapped out in project management software (Source)

A key characteristic of a milestone is that it doesn’t take up time. Unlike tasks—which roll up to milestones and do take time to complete—a milestone’s duration is zero. That’s because milestones mark specific end points within a project.

Each milestone comprises tasks. For example, let’s say your project milestone is to get rid of a bug in your software. You’ll need to complete a series of tasks before you meet said milestone.

How to de-scope project tasks

If you’re at the point of needing to de-scope project tasks, then you’ve likely passed the project planning and scoping phases. These phases define a project’s goals and estimate how much time it will take to achieve each goal, respectively. By the time you need to de-scope project tasks, you’re likely in the project’s execution phase.

But this doesn’t spell doom for your deadline: De-scoping should be part of your software project’s execution phase. To know if your planning and scoping phases were accurate, you must measure how long it’s taking you to finish a task compared to your estimate.

1. Analyze the task

Before you involve anyone else, your first step is to review the task you want to de-scope. You’ll need to accurately analyze its impact on the milestone and project before making your case. During the analysis, ask yourself:

  • How essential is this task to the milestone? Is it “must-have” or “nice-to-have”?
  • Why should this task be de-scoped over others? Is there a better option?
  • Does anyone other than yourself want this task de-scoped? If so, what’s their motivation?
  • What impact will de-scoping this task have on the other tasks in this milestone?

Poor communication causes one-third of projects to fail. So, you’ll need to make a clear case for why your team should de-scope this task and how it will increase your team’s impact on the business strategy.

2. Align user needs with the task’s goal

Once you’ve written your case, you’ll need to explain how this task—and de-scoping it—will improve your users’ experiences. For example, let’s say that your project and the milestones within it roll up to a larger product. In this case, the “task” you must de-scope might be a feature request from users.

To assess if you should de-scope this task, read your analysis in relation to users’ needs for this feature. Has this feature been requested by multiple users? Alternatively, did you recently pull it from your backlog as a “nice-to-have” addition to the milestone?

The latter task is an ideal one to de-scope. If you’re on a hard deadline, nonessential tasks should move to the back of your queue.

3. Use idea management to learn if the task is high-priority

Aligning user needs with tasks during your de-scoping process will go much more smoothly if you practice idea management—the process of collecting, curating, and prioritizing ideas from colleagues and customers. In this case, you can confirm if the feature was previously prioritized and, if so, where it falls in the hierarchy.

If you can explain your de-scoping request in relation to what colleagues and customers want, you’ll make a much stronger case. Idea management software (or project management software that includes idea management) should help you visualize this task in relation to the other ideas that your project team is managing.

If you can prove that stakeholders prioritize certain tasks, you can make a case for directing all resources to achieve those. As a result, you can de-scope tasks that take too much time from achieving the most crucial tasks for the milestone at hand.

4. Confirm the level of effort vs. stakeholder value

You’re not out of the woods even if your case checks out. Once you know that the task you want to de-scope aligns isn’t a priority for stakeholders, you still need to know the level of effort that de-scoping project tasks will take from your team.

Remy Kouffman, CEO of Knockout.AI and former VP of Product and Business Development at Destini Global, defines this as the effort your team must produce versus the actual value delivered to your stakeholders. Since you confirmed this task’s lack of stakeholder value in the prior step, your next job is to assess how de-scoping will change your team’s work.

“[A method to determine] this is called the ‘Stack-Rank Method,'” Kaufmann explains. “This method ranks each feature on a scale of [one to five and] each potential task by the level of effort (LOE) with the customer value (CV).

“The total score can be tallied and then compared with all the other tasks or features to identify which ones are the most critical,” Kaufmann continues. “It’s also a more public way to share your decision-making process with the rest of the team to ensure you are on the same page.”

5. Ask your project team for feedback

The Stack-Rank Method is a strong lead-in to the next phase of this process. Before you de-scope the task at hand, you’ll need to convene your project team and stakeholders.

In this meeting, you’ll explain your rationale for de-scoping one task in favor of focusing on others. Your team and stakeholders will also expect you to have done your work assessing this task’s priority (or lack thereof) relative to the level of effort you’re asking your team to give.

But take a pause if you think this meeting’s all about you. Once you’ve presented your part, you should ask your team for feedback. Cerila Gaillard, PMO CSM, is a project management consultant who suggests asking your team:

  • How will this affect the other tasks in our project plan?
  • Will de-scoping this task increase costs? If so, will those costs impact this task or others?
  • Is de-scoping this task feasible? If not, what will we prioritize instead?
  • Does de-scoping this task add risks to the project? If so, what are they?

This is especially crucial if you’re asking other members of your project team to de-scope this task as opposed to doing it yourself. You’ll need to know how your request will impact your team members’ daily work. We all have blind spots that affect our objectivity. Keeping your team in the loop will give them the chance to help you see what you’re missing.

6. Own the final outcome

Once you’ve collected everyone’s feedback, it’s time for you to decide if de-scoping this task is still the best option.

Perhaps your analysis found that even if you should de-scope this task, the team effort to do so is more than you expected. Maybe a stakeholder shared in your meeting that de-scoping this task would add risks you hadn’t thought of during your analysis.

So, the final step before you choose whether to de-scope this task is to review all your data and decide if your instinct was correct. Important as it is to get feedback from your team, the final decision falls to you.

Even small teams can crash to a halt if projects don’t have clear leaders who make big decisions. As the project manager, your job is to make the most informed choice about what’s best for your team, project, and stakeholders. If everyone trusts that you have the group’s best interests in mind, you’ll earn goodwill for this and future projects.

7. Write all the details down

One final tip: If you choose to de-scope the task at hand, don’t delete any details from your project management software. Even if you’ve de-scoped this task to reach an imminent milestone, there’s a good chance that you’ll need to include the task in a future milestone.

The old adage to document everything applies to de-scoping tasks as well. If your software solution has document storage or space for wikis, use either option as a place to write down details of your de-scoping process (when the task was de-scoped and why, which future milestone you’ll attach it to, etc.).

Don’t be put off by the thought of needing to change this task in the future. Even if you have to change some aspects of this task when you implement it, you’ll have a strong starting point. In the meantime, take solace in the fact that you’re one step closer to a project milestone! Your team and stakeholders will thank you.

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