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How to Prevent/Minimize Scope Creep

“Interview with Kate Perez

Director, Training and Organizational Effectiveness

Apria Healthcare

How would you define scope creep and why does it occur? Is scope creep always seen in a negative light?

Scope creep occurs when the parameters of what you originally agreed upon expand unexpectedly. Scope creep is not always a bad thing; it depends on how extensive, pervasive, and realistic the changes are.

Scope creep typically happens when the client group is not properly contracted with upfront. When defining a project, it is critical that all options are fully outlined, that the client understands what the options are, and that they are agreed upon by both parties.

Scope creep occurs because changes are made to the original parameters. Sometimes the introduction of additional requirements can have a positive outcome on the overall project—again, it just depends how extensive, pervasive, and realistic the changes are.

Can scope creep be prevented or only minimized? Does scope creep generally impact the project by increasing the amount of work?

I do not think scope creep can ever be eliminated, but it can be minimized. Scope creep usually does increase the amount of work. You define the resources and time it takes to accomplish the project. If a client asks for changes, it is going to require more energy to accomplish the project.

What are some strategies to prevent scope creep?

When initiating a project, involve all stakeholders and define required resources, have open communication throughout the project, and identify the process for managing scope changes (e.g., who has authority to sign off on the changes).

Establishing priorities and deliverable deadlines with all key stakeholders upfront is important. Ongoing communication helps prevent scope creep. For example, when a milestone is missed, the project manager should communicate with all parties involved to ensure priorities and deliverable dates are still viable.

Can scope creep be minimized? If so, how?

Scope creep can be minimized by defining expectations and exploring all possibilities upfront and to prioritize appropriately.

When a decision is made to change the scope of a project, I also think it’s important that all key stakeholders understand who made that decision and why. Most people are rational and understand that time, money, and people need to be balanced, but open communication is key.

What role does a project manager play in scope creep? What are some project management challenges?

The role a project manager plays in scope creep depends on the project. If it is a small project and the project manager is also responsible for delivering the project, he or she has a lot more leverage.

If he or she is managing multiple resources, his or her role is more of a facilitator than a negotiator. Typically, project managers do not have that much leverage; they can only identify what the risks and implications are and communicate those. The challenge project managers face is getting the right people together to engage in a discussion about the issues and work toward a solution.

How should scope changes be managed? Should approvals of scope changes be made in writing?

This depends on the project. If it is a complex, large-scale project with multiple stakeholders and millions of dollars involved, that definitely requires a written record. It is important to record the history of the project, as resources may roll off, new stakeholders and/or resources may need to review the change, who authorized the change, and why. If it is a small project, you do not have to have the same degree of formality.

Should key players understand that change is inevitable before working on a project? Are there key topics or ideas that should be explored before beginning a project?

I absolutely think key players should understand change is inevitable. I am fascinated by human response to change. That is what I call change management: focusing on the human side of change. It is a process to help the organization embrace change. People naturally resist change, and change is inevitable. In a project, you know things are going to change. If you know this up front and understand it, you can avoid a whole lot of heartache down the road. All key players need to acknowledge this and determine how to handle those changes when they arrive.

I think it is important to explore all project possibilities and options upfront. A common example is with system implementations. The key stakeholders should define their business requirements AND fully understand the available functionality of the software to prioritize “must haves” and “nice-to-haves” before going into negotiations. Other topics to identify upfront are the rules of engagement: how often to have meetings, at what point to engage resources when there are changes, who needs to sign off on changes, etc.

What are some areas that cause scope creep (budget, requirements, duration of project, etc.)? What is the best way to handle changing requirements?

Budget, requirements, project duration— all these can cause scope creep to occur. In the context that we most commonly use it, it is generally bad. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be. If you have additional budget or timespan for the project, then scope creep might be perfectly fine. As an example, if you realize midstream you need to add topics to a training course that will improve the learning outcome and resources and time are available, then incorporating that into the project should be a non-issue. Usually, deadlines or certain resource or budget constraints make scope creep so challenging.

Handling changing requirements really depends on each situation and the size and complexity of the project. The most important issue is communication and refocusing on the goal/what needs to be accomplished and understanding how it impacts all priorities on the list. You essentially recontract every time changing requirements occur.

What is the definition of a successful project? Can scope creep prevent a project from being completed or cause it to be over budget or late?

A successful project is one that achieves the desired outcome with “minimal noise.” I define minimal noise as the effective use of resources (time, people, and money). Scope creep can cause a project to be late, over budget, or not completed at all. I have seen scope creep kill many initiatives before they could be implemented. Sometimes projects start off small, but because they were not properly scoped upfront they become complex, overworked, and are not well-received by the organization. Projects can die before implementation or after they go live; this is the dangerous side of scope creep.

From your past experiences, what role did scope creep play and how did you work through it to bring projects to successful completion?

Scope creep usually refers to clients wanting more, causing the project to expand in scope. However, in my line of work (learning and organizational development) I often see the opposite: the client wants less.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say we start contracting with a client group to provide a multiple day workshop to learn a complex skill. This is not uncommon, because it takes time and practice to learn a new skill. Originally, the client agrees to our proposal…then the realization dawns. They cannot afford to have the learners away from work for multiple days. Negotiations ensue: the multiday workshop gets pared down to one day, the one-day workshop becomes a half-day, and eventually the client asks if we can just insert a microchip into everyone’s head rather than pulling them into a classroom. Yes, there are scope changes, but that does not necessarily increase the size of the project.

My role in an example like this is to educate the client group on the benefits of the learning intervention. I help them understand adult learning theory and the necessity of skill practice versus lecture so they can make a better-informed decision. I have a process that I go through; it does not always work, but it certainly helps. There is usually some middle ground between what I recommend and what the client will commit to. It always starts and ends with educating the client group.

There is always a level of trust and credibility. The client group has to trust that I am an expert; my job is to educate them on what the best practices are so we can agree on the right project scope that will lead to a successful outcome.