When Projects Change or Grow: Managing Scope Creep

Scope creep is the bane of any project manager’s life and to an extent unavoidable. While best controlled by properly defining a project, sometimes there are good reasons for extending or changing a project. The world moves on, new data is discovered, external demands from customers change, technology advances, or other changes occur. A bad reason for changing a project is, “we didn’t think it through properly in the first place.” You can avoid or manage a large portion of scope creep using the following ideas:

1. Involve stakeholders deeply in project planning

Typically we ask questions, draft requirements, and then review with stakeholders. Even though risks are well known; users provide an ill-thought-out wish list and then keep adding to it and changing their minds. It helps to have the stakeholder group participate in producing the work breakdown structure—not in fine detail—but in framing the major deliverables. This provides an appreciation of what is to be done and serves as a useful reality check around what can be done.

2. Use the Five Whys

One simple technique you can use to check reality and get behind requirements is Toyota’s Five Whys. By asking why five times in succession you increase understanding. For example:

What’s the issue?
Need to delay our new financial system go-live data.
We can’t get new server capacity installed in time.
There are restrictions on the number of machines per rack.
Heat generated is high.
Using machine of older design.
Because it provides high stability.

This example reveals that our challenge is to maintain historic stability, but increase capacity quickly. It moves the focus away from a project to find more space for server farms towards (perhaps) identifying machines that deliver the same uptime with less heat. If four or five whys are not enough, questioning to the void is asking why until you’ve exhausted the available information or ideas.

3. Actively manage risk and opportunity

Too often risk management focuses on obvious risks such as building catches fire without exploring specific project challenges. We should aim for a continuous appreciation of how changes around us may impact or enhance a project. For managing scope, our greatest concern is the business environment and the events inside and outside the organization that could affect requirements. This is easily achieved by running brief, weekly issue sessions with stakeholders, using this simple framework:

  • What issues have an impact on this project?/How?
  • What is the impact and/or potential impact?
  • List the specific risks and opportunities, likely causes, and potential actions.
  • Choose which risks and opportunities to ignore for now, watch closely, or act on.

4. Keep assumptions visible

Any project is built on many assumptions. Project assumptions could be about markets, pay rates, available technology, regulatory restrictions, margins for products and services and even the nature of the business. Project scope may need modification with any change in assumptions. An early warning system manages disruption. In extremes, a major shift in assumptions could mean terminating the project quickly to minimize resources wasted.

Managing scope is above all about paying attention to small things. These hands-on techniques are not a substitute for the Project Management Body of Knowledge or other large bodies of theory and knowledge. The clues that things are changing keep all around us, if we choose to listen to and see them.


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