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Managing Scope Creep in Project Management

Project managers have been plagued by scope creep since the dawn of project management. Managing scope creep in project management is a challenging job that needs clearly defined, documented and controlled specifications.

Scope creep – also known as feature creep, focus creep, creeping functionality and kitchen-sink syndrome – can sneak up, morph and destroy a project.

Project Scope Defined

What does "project scope" mean? Simply put, it is a project’s parameters. The project scope should be identified in a detailed description identifying and describing all major deliverables and any project boundaries.

It needs to include sufficient information for the project team to produce the desired product on time and within budget. In general, the project scope is determined early in the project management processes, documented and agreed upon by all project stakeholders.

How Does Scope Creep Happen?

Even when there’s a clearly defined project scope, you still have to beware of scope creep. This phenomenon generally tends to occur when new features are added to product designs that have already been approved, without providing equivalent increases in budget, time and/or resources. Project Smart, based in the United Kingdom, finds the main causes of scope creep are:

  • Poor Requirements Analysis: Customers don’t always know what they want and can only provide a vague idea. The "I’ll know it when I see it" syndrome.
  • Not Involving the Users Early Enough: Thinking you know what the users want or need is a serious mistake. It is important to involve them in both the requirements analysis and design phases.
  • Underestimating the Complexity of the Project: Many projects run into problems because they are new in an industry and have never been done before. Nobody knows what to expect, there are no lessons learned and no one to ask.
  • Lack of Change Control: You can expect there to be a degree of scope creep in most projects, therefore it is important to design a process to manage these changes. A simple process of document, consider, approve and resource can be implemented.
  • Gold Plating: This term is given to the practice of exceeding the scope of a project in the belief that value is being added. These changes inevitably consume time and budget and are not guaranteed to increase customer satisfaction.

More Reasons for Scope Creep

It’s no secret that managing scope creep in project management can be a daunting challenge. Since project scope is often fluid in nature, it tends to morph as the project progresses. However, it can easily become disastrous if it’s allowed to get out of control. For example, Wikipedia lists the following causes of scope creep:

  • Disingenuous customer with a determined "value for free" policy

  • Poor communication between parties

  • Lack of proper initial identification of what is required to bring about the project objectives

  • Poor change control

  • Weakproject manageror executive sponsor

  • Agile software development based on subjective quantifications

Startling Project Statistics

Although scope creep is not the only nemesis a project can have, it does tend to have the farthest reach. Without a properly defined project and/or allowing numerous changes along the way, a project can easily go over budget, miss the deadline and wreak havoc on project success. Not surprisingly, less than a third of projects are completed on time and within budget. The Standish Group’s CHAOS Summary 2009 found that:

  • 32% of all projects were successful, meaning delivered on time, on budget, with required features and functions

  • 44% were challenged; these projects were late, over budget, and/or with less than the required features and functions

  • 24% failed which was denoted by those projects that were canceled prior to completion or delivered and never used

"These numbers represent a downtick in the success rates from the previous study, as well as a significant increase in the number of failures," says Jim Crear, Standish Group CIO. "They are low point in the last five study periods. This year's results represent the highest failure rate in over a decade."

How to Control Scope Creep

Managing scope creep in project management is achievable. A recent article on Tech Republic, a CBS Interactive website, provides the following guidelines to set yourself up to successfully control the scope of your project:

  1. Be sure you thoroughly understand the project vision. Meet with the project drivers and deliver an overview of the project as a whole for their review and comments.

  2. Understand your priorities and the priorities of the project drivers. Make an ordered list that you can refer to throughout the project duration. Items should include budget, deadline, feature delivery, customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction. You’ll use this list to justify your scheduling decisions once the project has commenced.

  3. Define your deliverables and have them approved by the project drivers. Deliverables should be general descriptions of functionality to be outlined during the project.

  4. Break the approved deliverables into actual work requirements. The requirements should be as detailed as necessary and can be completed using a simple spreadsheet. The larger your project, the more detail you should include. If your project spans more than a month or two, don’t forget to include time for software upgrades during development and always include time for ample documentation.

  5. Break the project down into major and minor milestones and complete a generous project schedule to be approved by the project drivers. Minor milestones should not span more than a month. Whatever your method for determining task duration, leave room for error. When working with an unknown staff, I generally schedule 140% to 160% of the duration as expected to be delivered. If your schedule is tight, reevaluate your deliverables. Coming in under budget and ahead of schedule leaves room for additional enhancements.

  6. Once a schedule has been created, assign resources and determine your critical path using a project evaluation and review technique (PERT) chart or work breakdown structure. Your critical path will change over the course of your project, so it’s important to evaluate it before development begins. Follow this map to determine which deliverables must be completed on time. In very large projects, try not to define phase specifics too early, but even a general plan will give you the backbone you need for successful delivery.

  7. Expect that there will be scope creep. Implement change order forms early and educate the project drivers on your processes. A change order form will allow you to perform a cost-benefit analysis before scheduling changes requested by the project drivers.

If you can perform all of these steps immediately, you’ll be better positioned for project success. However, any steps you’re able to implement will bring you that much closer to avoiding and controlling scope creep. That way, you are in a better position to control your project, instead of your project controlling you.

From learning effective methods for managing scope creep in project management to preparing for industry-recognized certification, find out how you can benefit from Villanova University’s 100% online project management certificate programs!