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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Small Project Plan

Do I Really Need a Project Plan for a Small Project?

So they assigned you a small project to straighten up the supply room. Only two of you are going to work on it. It shouldn’t take more than two weeks. Everybody’s talking about how you need to get this one out of the way so the company can start the really important projects. These factors create the temptation to quickly begin work without a project plan because it’s just a small project.  You’ll “plan as we go,” and get this little project out of the way. Besides, the sponsor and everybody else who even knows about this will be very happy if you start quickly. They say, “Hell, you know how to straighten up the supply room so just get started!” But starting fast without a plan is always the wrong thing to do.

Is the Project Plan for a Small Project the Same As the Plan for a Big Project?

The plan for a small project is very different from the plan for a large project.  The project plan for the effort described above will fit on one side Small project planof a piece of paper. It will contain just these elements:

  • the project scope defined by an acceptance criteria
  • the resources required to deliver that scope
  • the major risks
  • the project constraints
  • the sponsor’s and stakeholders’ sign offs

Let’s talk about these elements one at a time. Why do you need the project scope? It would be foolish to begin work without having the sponsor’s agreement on the deliverable you have to produce.  So you go to the boss and say, “I need to get the scope of this project pinned down.”

The boss gives a sigh of exasperation and looks up at the ceiling before saying to you, “Clean up the office supply room. I’m wasting way too much time dealing with people’s complaints about it.”

Your ears perk up at the mention of complaints about the supply room. So you ask, “Do you want me to just clean it up or do you want to reduce the number of complaints you’re getting?”
The boss says, “You’re right. I don’t want you to just give the supply room a fast cleanup. I want to reduce the number of complaints.”
You ask, “How many complaints do you get now and what would be an acceptable number?”
The boss consults the computer on his desk and says, “I got 25 complaints last week. I don’t expect perfection but if you could cut that down to 3 I’d be real happy with this project.”
“Great,” you say. “So the scope is 3 or fewer complaints a week about the supply room.”
The boss nods agreement and you enter that in your tablet. Then you ask, “What are they complaining about?”
The boss leans back to think and says, “A lot of different things. But 15 of the 25 complaints are about us being out of stock on the items they need.”
You reply, “So if we want to get down to 3 complaints, we have to solve this problem of “stock-outs” and some of the other problems. That may take a lot longer. Can you be satisfied with cutting the complaints to 5 or less a week?”
The boss says, “Yes, I’ll take that. Just deal with the stock-out problem.”
You say, “Okay, I’ll be back with a short, one page project plan for you to sign off. Then we’ll start work.”
Asking a few questions to define the scope and having a conversation to learn what the boss/sponsor wants is always worth the effort. Think about what would have happened if you had done a fast job straightening up the supply room but the number of complaints didn’t change?  The boss might’ve been very unhappy with you. That’s why you should always do a project plan that specifies the scope.

What Is the Rest of the Small Project Plan?

The rest of your small project plan is specifying the high-level deliverables. On this project, they might include setting a reorder point for every item and keeping track of the withdrawals from the supply room.

Then you do a rough estimate of the amount of work that you and your assistant have to do. That might be 20 hours.

Next you identify the constraints on the project. They might be a budget of $5,000 and a duration (completion date) of 2 weeks from the start date. You and your assistant combined can work on the project 10 hours a week.

Then you identify the risks the project faces. They might include lack of cooperation from people in signing out what they take out of the supply room.

Finally, you ask the boss and possibly some of the affected department heads to sign off on your small project plan. Then you start work.

Learn how to create a small project plan in our online project management basics courses. You work privately with a expert project manager via live online video conferences, phone calls and e-mails. You control the course schedule and pace and have as many phone calls and live video conferences with your instructor as you wish. Take a look at the course in your specialty.

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Fast Track Project Planning

Fast Track Project Planning is a technique project managers can use when the sponsor pressures them to start work quickly.  Sponsors often voice these complaints about planning:

  • “I don’t want you to waste a lot of time on meetings and paperwork. Let’s start work!
  • “We can plan this project as we go.  So start work now!”
  • “We need to be flexible and able to change the plan at a moment’s notice. So start working on it!”

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

Project Planning Main Page

Obviously, you need a way to respond to these demands because many hyperactive sponsors won’t listen to arguments about the value of thorough planning.  There are two possible responses.

Fast Track Project Planning Situation #1: “Fast-food Drive-Thru”

First, you can adopt a “Fast-food Drive-thru” project planning approach. Here’s how it goes: the PM is working at the drive-thru window of a burger joint. The sponsor pulls up to the window and says, “I’m hungry.” Instantly, the PM and team slap burgers, chicken and fish on the grill and toss fries and chicken nuggets into the frying vat. They certainly do start work fast! However, we will waste a lot of that food because it isn’t what the sponsor wants. The same is true on a project we start this way. There is a lot of wasted time and resources. It will also take longer to deliver the project’s scope because the PM doesn’t find out what that is until the work almost done.  PMs use this fast food approach all the time because it allows them to satisfy the sponsor’s demand to start work quickly. That creates a happy sponsor…in the beginning.

The main benefit of the Fast-food Drive-thru project planning is that the project manager and team can start work quickly. They sometimes can begin within just hours of the executive having the idea for the project. The project manager may think this technique makes them responsive to the needs of senior management. Nevertheless, the time to judge the level of sponsor satisfaction is at the end of the project, not the beginning.

Some executives also feel that project planning is a waste of time and that starting work quickly is admirable. In truth, projects started this way waste money and usually finish late. They also produce deliverables of questionable quality. Executives who favor this “start fast” approach also usually have abysmal records of accomplishment in terms of the success of the projects they sponsor.

Fast Track Project Planning Situation #2: (Design/Build)

This Fast Track Project Planning approach is a better way to deal with impatient sponsor demands or to handle projects that you must launch in the midst of a crisis. You develop a partial project plan and then begin work on the first of the major deliverables. You plan the remaining major deliverables as you work on the first. The key to this technique is having hard-edged definitions of the acceptance criteria for the all of the major deliverables. Working from the top down, you tightly define the project scope and 4 – 7 major deliverables. You have to know with great precision the path that you’re going to take from where you are now to the end result the sponsor wants.  Having crystal-clear, quantified acceptance criteria is the key to avoiding work that you must scrap. This technique lets you compress the time for the project planning process and start work more quickly because you aren’t waiting to complete the detailed planning on the major deliverables that you’ll will work on later.  This approach is very different from not doing planning at all. The sponsor has to commit significant time to doing the high level planning.

This technique is widely used in the construction industry and it substantially reduces the duration of projects. It also carries some risks for the project manager and sponsor. As you detail the plan for the first of the major deliverables, you are depending on the accuracy of the deliverable descriptions for the remaining major deliverables and the project as a whole. If those change or are inaccurate, we will waste a lot of the work on the first major deliverable.

The sponsor and stakeholders need to understand the risk inherent in this FastTrack planning. You will start work on the first major deliverable earlier than with a classic planning approach. However, the risk of major cost and duration overruns is very real if the definitions of the later major deliverables are not reliable. Executives are always interested in starting work fast but they need to sign off on the risks inherent in this FastTrack approach. They also need to understand that it is their job to define those major deliverables.

Fast Track Project Planning: Details 

When you start describing this approach to the project sponsor and stakeholders, you need to make a couple of points clear. The project duration reduction is not free. It comes at the cost of less precise data in the beginning and a higher risk of cost and duration overruns. Because you aren’t developing a detailed plan for the entire project, your duration and budget data will be less precise when you start work. You shouldn’t use this Fast Track approach if you need great precision on either of those metrics.

The Fast Track Project Planning approach also requires an accurate definition of the deliverables. Stakeholders who are accustomed to a shoddy project planning process and many change orders will be surprised at the commitments they must make about what they want. It is much more expensive to change in midstream with the FastTrack approach than with a traditional project planning approach where you have completed plan for the whole project before you start work.

The way to reduce the risk inherent in the Fast Track Project Planning approach is to complete the detailed planning on the remaining deliverables immediately after you start work on the first major deliverable. Stakeholders often want to walk away from the project planning effort after they plan that first major deliverable and work has started. You need to be very clear that this is not the time to delay the planning or delegate it to subordinates. The further work progresses on the first major deliverable the more expensive changes become. That’s because you have more work you may have to scrap if there are major changes in the remainder of the project.

In summary, Fast Track Project Planning approach is a valuable technique for project managers to master because it often meets the needs of the organization and executives for rapid project planning.