What is Scope Creep?

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

What is scope creep? It is a parasite which, if the project manager and sponsor let it flourish, busts budgets and overruns schedules. It doesn’t attack the project once, it attacks dozens or hundreds of times. In each of these attacks, a good idea is added to the project that increases the amount of work to be done as well as the deliverables that must be produced.  However, the approved schedule and budget are not increased to accommodate these additions. Every individual scope creep attack seems innocent but it is not.   Scope Control

What is Scope Creep?: A Good Idea to Add to the Project

Let’s look at a common situation. A project stakeholder says, “Hey there, project manager. I think it would be a good idea if we added foreign language training to the class we’re going to give our customer service reps. I was thinking Laotian and Vietnamese; a lot of customers speak those languages.”

Now the project manager can go one of two ways. First, she might say, “Well that is a good idea. But it’s not in the budget and the customer service reps don’t need those language skills to hit our project’s scope. I’ll write up an analysis of the additional cost of that language training and how much it will delay our completion date. I’ll be happy to go over it with you before we go talk to the project sponsor. But to be honest, I’m going to recommend that the sponsor not approve that addition. The schedule and budget are very tight so there’s just no room.”

That approach often works and the stakeholder says, “Okay forget about it”

What is Scope Creep When There’s No Crystal-Clear Scope?

The project manager is stuck if there is not a good scope definition. She says, “No we can’t make any changes to the project at this point. It’s just too late. It’s a good idea but I’m sorry.”

The stakeholder says, “Oh I’m sure you can squeeze it in. You’ve got all these people working on the project.”

The project manager replies, “I’m sorry but I can’t. The schedule is just too tight.”

The stakeholder scoffs at the project manager and says, “All right, I’ll just go see your boss. He obviously has a better perspective on things than you do.”

If the project sponsor reacts in the customary way, he will tell the project manager, “Oh come on, you’ve got plenty of slack in the schedule. Go ahead and add it. We need to keep the stakeholders happy.”

How Does Scope Creep Begin?

The project manager adds the foreign language training to the project but, most importantly, doesn’t receive any approval for finishing later than planned or spending more budget than originally approved. Without some support from the project sponsor, it’s unlikely that the project manager will continue to battle with the stakeholders over the “good ideas” they want to add to the project. Eventually, it’s just easier to add them even though the project manager knows they will make the project finish late and over budget. On some projects there are scope changes every week, or even several times a week.

what is scope creepBut the project stakeholders are not the only source of scope creep. The project team may add their own “good ideas” to their tasks without the project manager knowing about it. If a more elegant technical solution occurs to the system developers doing a task, they may just add the new features. This source of scope creep can be even more costly than the additional tasks stakeholders want to add. If the project manager has not done a good job of clearly defining the deliverables the team members have to produce, the door to team members’ scope creep is wide open. Once team members and stakeholders understand that they can add to the scope of the project or their task, the volume of scope creep increases. Some project managers think if they approve just the first couple of requests scope creep will go away. Feeding a shark doesn’t make it go away either.

Reporting Scope Creep Variances to Schedule and Budget

The project manager’s next, and possibly last, opportunity to stop scope creep is in the status reports. The project manager gets up and says, “I am forecasting a three-week delay on the project completion date and a $22,000 overrun on the budget as a result of scope changes that have been approved over the last couple of weeks.”
This strategy of reporting schedule and budget variances brings the scope creep into the light of day. It may possibly get the attention of senior management and other stakeholders. On the other hand, it may make the project sponsor very angry because he knows he approved those changes. In that situation, it’s not unusual for the project sponsor to demand that any mention of approved changes be removed from the status reports. That’s a serious ethical issue for the organization. Reporting the schedule and budget impacts of scope creep publicly and quantifying the impact of these approved scope changes may be the only way to tamp down scope creep.
One of the ways that people try to end scope creep is by saying things like, “There will be no changes to this project plan or schedule.” Dramatic statements like that never work. The additions to the project scope will start immediately after those words are spoken (and often by the executive or sponsor who said them). What that person meant was that no one besides them could make any changes to the project scope.

Trying to prohibit all changes to the project is fruitless and actually has very adverse consequences. Changes will be made to every project. The challenge is to avoid scope creep which adds things to the project without any additional budget or duration.

You learn all of those skills in our project management basics courses. Take a look at the basics course in your specialty.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on Amazon.com