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Understanding the Importance of Context and Scope in Projects

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By: Dave Van der Westhuizen

Both context and scope form an integral part of a project’s success, working together to form a complete, well-formed project. While most projects seem to have a clearly defined scope, you also need to understand the context in which that project will operate in order to properly define the scope. Failure to understand the context could result in serious consequences for the project.

What are project context and project scope?

Generally speaking, “context” means “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood” [Oxford Dictionary]. Context in projects refers to understanding the bigger picture and defining the holistic/end-to-end view of a project. In other words, identifying all the entities (inputs, outputs, functional and discipline areas, and interfaces) needed.

Scope is derived from context, and can include either the full context or only a portion thereof. Scope sets boundaries for the project. A fixed and a well-defined scope keeps the project resources focused and ensures delivery of the project.

An example: ‘Company A’ wants to implement a functional Project Management Office and a Project Management Information System (PMIS). Context includes all Project office departments and sections interfacing with project office, and interface to and from other system, whereas the scope could only be to implement the “PMIS” and training of the users and administrator. The inputs become a dependency and interfaces to other systems could typically be out of scope.


The benefits of defining project context

Defining clear context sets the scene for all the stakeholders involved in a project. It creates a solid platform to discuss the scope and allows synergy between all stakeholders.

Some key benefits for developing a detailed and appropriate context:

  • Creates a holistic picture and boundaries at a glance
  • Defines all the role-players in the solution (internal and external stakeholders)
  • Defines all interfaces, both incoming and outgoing
  • Defines existing and new services, functions or systems
  • Defines data flow at a high level
  • Clarifies the scope of the project
  • Does not assume technical content (keeps the focus on the “what” and away from the “how”)

Context should be created for every project, regardless of size, to ensure all aspects of the project are considered. It provides a sense of security and comfort when all areas are covered and scope can be clearly derived. Creating clear context also allows for proper identification of the integration requirements, which drives the successful implementation of projects.


Oxford Dictionary “Definition of context in English”. Accessed 11 September 2013.

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