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Inside Project Management: Scope Creep or Progressive Elaboration?

People frequently use the term “scope creep” to refer to project anomalies that cause them to change their plan and/or budget.  Sometimes scope creep is even blamed for being over budget or behind schedule, as though this absolves the project manager from being responsible (which it doesn’t).  The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) defines scope creep as, “the uncontrolled expansion to product or project scope without adjustments to time, cost, and resources.”

But in project planning, when is it scope creep and when is change a healthy part of the process? Consider a recent home improvement project that morphed but still managed to defy the label scope creep.

My wife and I recently decided to replace the 20-year-old floor covering in our home.  Since we had the summer free and around $6,000 to spend on the project, our initial project statement was, “Replace the floor covering in our kitchen, family room, foyer, utility, hallway, and bathrooms by September for a cost not to exceed $6,000.”  We chose to exclude the other rooms to give us a place to store our furniture and to live in during the renovation.  These areas will be a future project.

Project Definition

Our project objectives were:

  •  Eliminate signs of wear and tear
  •  Upgrade to a more modern style
  •  Reduce future maintenance
  •  Maintain or improve comfort and acoustics
  •  Capture any opportunities to improve energy efficiency

With these objectives in mind, we headed to a flooring supplier to learn what types of flooring were available, their advantages and disadvantages, and to investigate pricing.  We learned that we could save money if we did prep work ourselves by removing furniture, appliances (including the toilets), baseboard, and the existing carpet, padding, tack strips, and vinyl.  We could leave the actual installation to the professionals.

Armed with this information, we started building our work breakdown structure.  As we did, we decided that after pulling out our aging toilets, we should just replace them with new, water-saving units. In addition, with the baseboards off the walls, it would be easier to remove old wallpaper and paint all the walls. So we added two toilets, some wallpaper removal and repainting to the plan.

At this point I started thinking that the decision to replace some flooring had expanded, and it seemed like a classic case of scope creep. But I realized that at this point, I was still in the process of defining the scope; we had yet to determine the resources required and had not finalized the budget or set baselines.  Our growing project did not meet the PMI definition of scope creep and was probably better defined as “progressive elaboration.”

It was clear that all of this work was both necessary and sufficient to meet the original project objectives, so we modified our original project statement to “Update our kitchen, family room, foyer, utility, hallway, and bath rooms by September for a cost not to exceed $6,000.”  We specified that kitchen appliances, cabinets, countertops, and lighting were out-of-scope.

We were pleased to learn that the quote to purchase and install the new flooring and to buy two new toilets and painting supplies was under $6,000.  The installer was available in mid-July so we had plenty of time to complete the prep work before installation and to reoccupy the room before September 1st.  We decided that the cost of proceeding was justified by the projected benefits so we decided to begin project planning.

Project Planning

The project planning phase was relatively easy.  In terms of assigning responsibility, the only resources were the installer, my wife, me, and some support from our son.  We sorted out who was available and suited for the tasks of removing the baseboard and wallpaper, refinishing the baseboards, painting the walls and ceiling, removing the toilets, and pulling up the existing carpet and vinyl.  Sequencing the deliverables followed a clearly logical order.  It made sense to pull the baseboards first so we could begin refinishing them and to make it easier to remove the wallpaper and to paint.  We wanted to complete the painting before the new flooring was installed so we didn’t have to worry about drips and spills.  The only catch here was we decided to delay painting the small area behind the toilets until the last minute so we could keep them in service and not have to remove them twice.  Scheduling the deliverables and resources was based on the availability of the installer and planning for minimal household disruption. We delayed some tasks and fit others into the time available while keeping dependencies in mind.

With our project plan roughed out, it was time to consider potential risk to the project.  While most of the tasks were well understood, it was highly probable that the walls under the wallpaper were never textured and that painting a smooth wall might show even the slightest blemish.  To texture walls, we learned that the wall must be primed, textured, primed again, and finally painted.  We decided that when we primed the wall, we would have a pretty good idea if we could just repair the blemishes or proceed with texturing (contingent action).  We also set aside funds in case we needed to buy texturing compound and a texturing roller.  Another risk was that the new, low-flow toilets might not flush well if our sewer line had become restricted over the years. We certainly did not want sewage backup on our new floors.  We contacted our local drain cleaning service and the lines were checked and found to be clear (preventive action).  While these two risks added work to our original plan, they also do not really fit the definition of scope creep as the scope baseline was not yet set and full consideration was given to both the time and cost required (again, this is more likely categorized as progressive elaboration).  Of course, the plan was adjusted to reflect the additional time and cost and we considered if we wanted to move forward with the updated plan.  My wife and I agreed to move forward.  Now we set the initial scope baseline, signed the contract to purchase the new flooring, and locked in the installation date. With a little “progressive elaboration,” our plan was firmly in place.

Project Implementation

Because of the effort put into definition and planning, implementation of this project went quite smoothly.  After a quick check to ensure we had all the materials and tools needed, we set forth to remove and refinish baseboard, strip the wallpaper, and prime and paint the walls.  While priming the untextured walls, we discovered they were in good enough shape that a little spackling and sanding eliminated the contingency of texturing.  When one coat of paint did not cover satisfactorily, we gave it another coat.  We may have strayed into scope creep territory when we discussed whether we wanted to reinstall our existing, 25-year old washer and dryer or buy new, but the price tag and the advice of our repairman brought us back into scope.  We had not planned to clean the dryer vent duct but found the doing so was definitely worth the effort and minimal cost to improve the drying efficiency and prevent a possible fire.  Lessons learned included capturing how much primer and paint was needed the next time we plan a similar project and to include funds for a massage when the hard work is complete.

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