Some Causes of Scope Creep
by Rick Brenner
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."
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? Top Next Issue
If 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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More articles on Project Management:
- The Weaver's Pathway
- 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.
- Nine Project Management Fallacies: Part II
- Some of what we "know" about managing projects just isn't so. Identifying the fallacies of project management reduces risk and enhances your ability to complete projects successfully.
- Project Improvisation as Group Process
- When project plans contact reality, things tend to get, um, a bit confused. We can sometimes see the trouble coming in time to replan thoughtfully — if we're nearly clairvoyant. Usually, we have to improvise. How a group improvises tells us much about the group.
- Managing Non-Content Risks: Part II
- When we manage risk, we usually focus on those risks most closely associated with the tasks at hand — content risks. But there are other risks, to which we pay less attention. Many of these are outside our awareness. Here's Part II of an exploration of these non-content risks, emphasizing those that relate to organizational politics.
- On the Risk of Undetected Issues: Part I
- In complex projects, things might have gone wrong long before we notice them. Noticing them as early as possible — and addressing them — is almost always advantageous. How can we reduce the incidence of undetected issues?
See also Project Management for more related articles.
Forthcoming Issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 11: Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates. Available here and by RSS on March 11.
- And on March 18: Suspense Is Not Your Friend
- Most of us have to talk to other people at work. Whether to peers, subordinates, or superiors, sometimes we must convey information that can be complicated when delivered in full detail. To convey complicated ideas effectively, avoid suspense. Available here and by RSS on March 18.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
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