Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 12;   March 19, 2014: Why Scope Expands: I

Why Scope Expands: I

by

Scope creep is depressingly familiar. Its anti-partner, spontaneous and stealthy scope contraction, has no accepted name, and is rarely seen. Why?
The Bloomingdale's store in Stamford, Connecticut in January 1955

The Bloomingdale's store in Stamford, Connecticut, in January 1955. The store closed in September, 1990, in the midst of the bankruptcy of Bloomingdale's parent company, Federated Department Stores. Federated filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection shortly after it was acquired by Robert Compeau in what is widely regarded as a bidding war that left Federated over-leveraged. Extensively renovated, the structure is now part of the University of Connecticut. For more about the Federated Stores bankruptcy, see M. Goozner, "Campeau's U.S. Stores File For Bankruptcy," Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1990.

Photo from the Gottscho-Schleisner Collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.

The term scope creep describes a gradual expansion of an effort's scope, often outside the awareness of the people involved. They do recognize that the effort has become more ambitious, but they usually express surprise and shock when they finally appreciate the size of the resource shortfall. Curiously, the word creep doesn't connote growth or expansion — it carries instead a sense of gradual change with no direction implied.

That raises several questions. When scope creeps, why does it expand much more often than it contracts? Why don't we ever wake up one morning shocked to find enormous budget surpluses resulting from the gradual ebbing of scope that took place outside our awareness? Why do we never finish projects under budget and early because of out-of-control scope ebbing?

Downscoping does happen, usually when we trim goals to get out of trouble. But downscoping is consciously planned. Scope creep is neither conscious nor planned. The real question is: Why do so many unplanned changes of scope lead to scope expansion instead of scope contraction?

Two classes of mechanisms might explain the dominance of expansion over contraction. First, when we make scope change decisions, we might systematically fail to investigate — or even consider — suggestions that contract scope. Second, when we make such decisions, we might systematically favor alternatives that expand scope.

Because cognitive biases often provide intriguing explanations of behavioral phenomena that seem unrelated to intent, here is Part I of a short catalog of relevant cognitive biases, emphasizing systematic biases inhibiting adoption or consideration of scope contraction strategies.

Sunk Cost Effect
To investors, the term sunk cost describes costs already incurred and not recoverable. The sunk cost effect [Staw 1976] is a bias that tends to make us unwilling to terminate an effort, because of the difficulty of accepting failure, even when continuing the effort will only lead to greater losses.
Irrational Escalation
Irrational escalationWhy don't we ever wake up in the
morning shocked to find enormous
budget surpluses resulting from
the gradual ebbing of scope
that took place outside
our awareness?
bias can cause us to commit increasing levels of resources even when evidence strongly indicates that doing so is foolish. Unlike the Sunk Cost Effect, this bias can take hold even before resources have actually been expended. Mere commitment of resources is all that's required. For example, in bidding wars, the bidders eventually increase their bids well beyond the value of the items sought.
Endowment Effect
This bias affects how we value what we possess relative to what we don't. We tend to ascribe greater value to what we have now than we would be willing to pay to acquire it. In the business context, this bias might account for overvaluing work already performed, which could enhance both the sunk cost effect and irrational escalation. We might also overvalue the opportunity to continue work already underway, relative to any work we might do instead.

These three biases can contribute to failure to consider scope reduction alternatives. Next time, we'll examine biases that might make us more receptive to scope expansion. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Why Scope Expands: II  Next Issue

[Staw 1976]
Barry M. Staw: "Knee-deep in the Big Muddy: A Study of Escalating Commitment to a Chosen Course of Action". Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 16(1):27-44, 1976.

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. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmcwOzQZcUSLsvNwnner@ChacyJmOpmpxEgMGkWumoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

The Cone NebulaShining Some Light on "Going Dark"
If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes a top priority problem. What can you do?
The Samuel Morse Telegraph ReceiverRemote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: III
Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings (meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video) can make life much easier for everyone by taking steps before the meeting starts. Here's Part III of a little catalog of suggestions for remote facilitators.
Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and an early pioneer in the field of Public RelationsCommunication Traps for Virtual Teams: I
Virtual teams encounter difficulties that rarely confront face-to-face teams. What special challenges do they face, and what can we do about them?
An artist's conception of a planetary accretion diskWhy Scope Expands: II
The scope of an effort underway tends to expand over time. Why do scopes not contract just as often? One cause might be cognitive biases that make us more receptive to expansion than contraction.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportRisk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep?

See also Project Management, Emotions at Work and Cognitive Biases at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Mistletoe growing in abundance in the Wye Valley, WalesComing April 25: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VI
Narcissistic behavior at work distorts decisions, disrupts relationships, and generates toxic conflict. These consequences limit the ability of the organization to achieve its goals. In this part of our series we examine the effects of exploiting others for personal ends. Available here and by RSS on April 25.
A shark of unspecified speciesAnd on May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenuyUJjHXzKdXBUmRLner@ChacLEMUUXRrcgfVEyJnoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.