20 November 2009

Ensure that Projects Finish on Time by Avoiding Scope Creep

In my discussions with executives, the most common complaint they have about internal project teams is that they hardly ever deliver the agreed end-results on time. While there are a number of reasons why this typically happens, one of the most common reasons is scope creep. Scope creep can be defined as the tendency for project team to carry out more work than originally agreed and/or is required for making the project a success. There are two different types of scope creep (external and internal). The reasons for the two types are different, as are the steps required to ensure that it does not happen, or that the consequences are limited. These two types will therefore be described separately.

External scope creep is caused by sponsors or other stakeholders asking the project team to carry out more work than was originally agreed. The natural tendency of most project managers and project teams is to blindly say "yes" without thinking about the consequences. In fact, sometimes extra work is welcomed by the team, as it gives the team an excuse for not finishing on time. The primary responsibility for guarding against external scope creep lies with the project manager.

The project manager needs to guard against scope creep by ensuring that all requests for additional work are known to him. When he is made aware of a request for additional work he should carefully assess whether the requested work fits within the scope of the project and whether it can be done within the agreed resource and time limitations. If this is not the case, then he and the team should discuss the issue with the sponsor and agree the solution. The solution can be a) not performing the extra activities, b) performing the extra activities but dropping another activity, or c) performing the extra activity and extending the available time or increasing available resources. The project manager should use the project charter as the basis for discussions on this topic. While this will not “magically” ensure that the project is completed on time, it will, at the very least, enable a structured discussion on priorities.

Internal scope creep is when the project team decides to do more work than agreed and/or is required for meeting the project goals. A clear example of such a situation is a project I am currently helping. In this project the team consists of people from different technical departments within a large network company. The team has been given the responsibility for developing a telecoms vision for the next ten years. The team has been given considerable freedom in defining its specific deliverables and project approach, but has also been given a very tight deadline. The naturally tendency of such a team is for everybody to raise the issues that are critical for their department, and make suggestions for activities that they personally find interesting. Because the team is democratic in its approach, it is very difficult to prioritize or censor, resulting in a very broad list of activities to be carried out.

My help so far to this team has focused on helping them to understand the exact need driving the request from their management team. Using this, we have been able to focus the goals of the project on helping to resolve the core issues that the management is facing. Using this as a starting point, we have then carefully developed a work plan focusing only on understanding the key drivers for the requirements to be placed on the company's telecom services in the next ten years. In parallel, we are defining a work stream that will help us understand how the telecom service provider environment will evolve. Combining these two activities will enable the team to give the management team the vision it required for making key asset-related decisions.

This step has only given a starting point for controlling scope creep, as the real danger will lie in the day-to-day activities being carried out by the team. We have therefore agreed that in the ongoing review of the activities being carried out by the team members and sub-teams we will use a "scope test". Essentially, this "scope test" consists of a diagram showing the inner-most circle of telecoms related assets, services, requirements, etc, and an outer ring which includes all the direct influencers of the internal ring. If there is doubt about an activity being carried out, it will be placed in the diagram. If it is not located in the two inner-most circles, it will be seen as being out-of-scope and discontinued.

In addition to this "yes/no" decision regarding activities, we have also agreed to have an ongoing dialog on the depth of the analysis being carried out. The team mainly consists of engineers, whose normal work requires 100% accuracy. Given the time frames of this project, this will be impossible. In addition, this level of detail and accuracy is not required for developing the high-level vision required by management. We have therefore agreed to have an ongoing dialog with the team members to prioritize their activities and agree when to stop a given activity. Given my experience in putting together presentations for executive boards, this will be one of my key activities going forward.

In conclusion: scope creep is a very common problem for teams carrying out complex projects. However, the effects can be controlled and minimized by using some fairly simple approaches and tools.

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