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September 4, 2002 Volume 2, Issue 36
 
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Some Causes of Scope Creep

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When we suddenly realize that our project's scope has expanded far beyond its initial boundaries — when we have that how-did-we-ever-get-here feeling — we're experiencing the downside of scope creep. Preventing scope creep starts with understanding how it happens.

Mort finally got to the punch line. "We just didn't anticipate the difficulties of the consolidation," he said, "and now it looks like we'll have to take a three-month hit."

US Space Shuttle Launch

A night launch of the Space Shuttle. Photo courtesy US National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Just last quarter, Jack had okayed the consolidation of Marigold into Metronome, based on the promise of schedule savings from eliminating duplications and from better coordination. Now he sat stunned, wondering how they had reached such familiar territory so quickly.

By consolidating the two projects, Jack had unwittingly expanded their scope, because the combined team suddenly had a new task: consolidation. They became victims of a problem that afflicts many projects — scope creep.

To manage scope creep, begin by understanding its causes. Here are some of the more common sources of scope creep.

The unknown
Projects are ventures into unknown territory. Sometimes we underestimate the complexity of the problem we've tackled.
Perfectionism
We sometimes forget that good enough is good enough.
Placating conflict
We'll do almost anything to avoid dealing with conflict directly. We'll even expand project scope to satisfy all conflicting parties. When we placate conflict, we create a project that nobody can execute.
Acquisition
We sometimes forget
that good enough
is good enough
To secure resources, a failing project sometimes acquires another project on the basis of "natural fit" or "efficiencies." But consolidation isn't free, and the efficiencies are often illusory.
Career advancement
By commandeering more resources, the sponsors or leaders of a project can enhance their organizational power. Senior managers must learn to recognize these tactics, and approve scope expansions only on the basis of sound management principles.
Lies and self-deception
Sometimes we lie to others or deceive ourselves about what's really involved. We can do this to secure approval for the project, or to persuade ourselves or the implementing organization to agree to tackle it. Lying to others is unethical. When it occurs, the perpetrators must be held accountable. Deceiving oneself is tragic.
The union of all misunderstandings
If scope isn't clearly defined at the outset, misunderstandings result. When that happens, to preserve consensus that the project should continue, we might have to expand the project scope to include the union of all initial understandings. Making things painfully clear at the outset is worth the effort.
The Donald Crowhurst effect
Donald Crowhurst was a participant in the 1968 round the world single-handed sailing race sponsored by the London Sunday Times. As described in a 1970 book by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall, his life pattern was to tackle ever-larger projects, concealing a pattern of failure. Like Donald Crowhurst, some projects expand their scope to avoid acknowledging failure. Failure or restart must be realistic options for any project manager.

Do you know which of your projects are afflicted with scope creep? How did they get there? Go to top Top  Next issue: Marking Grief  Next Issue
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Order from AmazonIf you're dealing with scope creep, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst is a captivating read.

For more about scope creep, see "Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep," Point Lookout for July 18, 2012; "The Perils of Political Praise," Point Lookout for May 19, 2010; "More Indicators of Scopemonging," Point Lookout for August 29, 2007; "Scopemonging: When Scope Creep Is Intentional," Point Lookout for August 22, 2007; "The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Strategy," Point Lookout for June 29, 2011; and "The Deck Chairs of the Titanic: Task Duration," Point Lookout for June 22, 2011.

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Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

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When projects near completion, we sometimes have difficulty letting go. We want what we've made to be perfect, sometimes beyond the real needs of customers. Comfort with imperfection can help us meet budget and schedule targets.
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Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress might be underway?
A recently reclaimed property near Buffalo, New YorkThe True Costs of Cost-Cutting
The metaphor "trimming the fat" rests on the belief that some parts of the organization are expendable, and we can remove them with little impact on the remainder. Ah, if only things actually worked that way...
A Strangler Fig in AustraliaProjects as Proxy Targets: Part I
Some projects have detractors so determined to prevent project success that there's very little they won't do to create conditions for failure. Here's Part I of a catalog of tactics they use.
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Work can be boring. Some of us must endure the occasional boring task, but for many, everything about work is boring. It doesn't have to be this way.

See also Project Management for more related articles.

Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout

U.S. Troops in Viet Nam, 1961-1968Coming February 10: Patterns of Conflict Escalation: Part II
When simple workplace disagreements evolve into workplace warfare, they often do so following recognizable patterns. If we can recognize the patterns early, we can intervene to prevent serious damage to relationships. Here's Part II of a catalog of some of those patterns. Available here and by RSS on February 10.
A dense Lodgepole Pine stand in Yellowstone National Park in the United StatesAnd on February 17: Conversation Despots
Some people insist that conversations reach their personally favored conclusions, no matter what others want. Here are some of their tactics. Available here and by RSS on February 17.

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AlthoHigh-Voltage Brainstormingugh most of us are very familiar with a technique known as brainstorming, many overestimate its effectiveness. Serious research indicates that, as commonly practiced, brainstorming produces results that tend to overlook some brilliant ideas, and might even include ideas that actually have little promise. In this eye opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides us as we explore the sources of the deficiencies of brainstorming, and then suggests concrete tips for mitigating those deficiencies. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:

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