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


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.
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.
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.

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. Order Now!

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